Burnout and Vocation

Burnout and Vocation January 13, 2022


Dealing with the COVID epidemic has been taking a toll on nurses and other health care professionals.  The overtime shifts, the staffing shortages, the triage of patients, the grief at losing so many, exasperation with the healthcare establishment, and firings due to the vaccine mandate are leaving frontline medical workers frustrated, exhausted, and emotionally drained.

It has gotten so bad that two-thirds of America’s nurses say that the COVID epidemic has made them consider leaving their profession.

So reports The Wall Street Journal in an article on burnout among nurses that turns into a reflection on vocation. Rachel Feintzeig has written the feature story When You’re Burned Out at Your Job, But It’s Also Your Calling , with the deck “Overworked nurses are considering less intense and remote jobs due to Covid-19, but stepping away is hard when you’ve dedicated your life to caring for others.”

The term “calling,” along with the Latinate form “vocation,” of course, has become commonplace even in secular circles.  But it derives from the Christian doctrine of vocation, a preoccupation of my recent writing (see  the links below) and of this blog.
Though the Wall Street Journal doesn’t discuss “calling” in terms of the One who calls us to love and serve our neighbors in all of our stations in life into which He has brought us, it raises some important issues that are worth thinking through theologically.
The problem of burning out in one’s calling is not, of course, limited to nurses.  Nor is vocation limited to our economic callings, what we do to make a living.  We also have callings in our families (as spouses, parents, and children), in the church (as pastors, other church workers, and laypeople), and in the state (as citizens, officials, voters, etc.).  We can burnout in our work and we can burn out in those vocations, as well.

In the course of her discussion of the plight of nurses, Feintzeig says,

In recent months, as I’ve written about burnout, I’ve heard from overwhelmed teachers and social workers who say they too struggle with toxic bosses and unsustainable workloads, but wrestle with the guilt of abandoning people they pledged to help.

The question they face: How to leave a job that feels like a calling?

“When you do really feel called to your profession it becomes intertwined with your identity,” says Delaney Barsamian, a 31-year-old in the Bay Area who left her emergency-room nursing role last year for a remote job helping patients make end-of-life plans. “It was almost like a breakup. I was in love with emergency medicine.”

Of course, all callings have as their purpose, in different ways, to help people.  And the constellation of our multiple callings, given to us uniquely and personally, constitutes our identity.  So frustrations with our callings and leaving our callings can be traumatic.  The article gives a useful term for why that can happen:

“Nurses are so angry,” she says. “I’m seeing and hearing this incredible sense of malaise and hopelessness.”

The feeling that pushes many to leave is one of not being able to do the job they signed up for, not being able to care for patients the way they believe they should. The technical term is “moral distress.”

“You’re put in a situation where what you’re asked to do defies your sense of values and ethics,” Dr. Brown says. “It’s like a creeping eating into your moral consciousness.”

“Moral distress”!  Not being able to do the tasks you were called to do!  Or being put in the position of doing something wrong.  Nurses experience “moral distress” when they encounter obstacles to their work, which creates a moral frustration, not being able to do what is right.

This applies also to other callings, such as teachers not being allowed to teach, police officers not being allowed to enforce the law, soldiers not allowed to pursue victory–to mention other vocations whose morale is currently low–and also to business owners who feel thwarted in trying to provide their goods and services,  farmers whose crops can’t get to market, factory workers who get laid off, and on and on.

Or, in the other meaning of “moral distress,” of being asked to do something that defies your values and ethics, when teachers are forced to teach something they don’t believe in, police officers put into positions that require them to violate the rights of citizens, soldiers ordered to violate their consciences, business owners who feel competitive pressure to pursue unethical practices, and so on.

Another vocation that has become especially burnout prone is the pastoral office.  Pastors can feel “moral distress” when they find their ministry is thwarted by squabbling parishioners, an interfering church hierarchy, or indifference on the part of those they are trying to minister to.  Or when they find it necessary to preach or practice what they don’t believe in.  Or when they start to do things that violate the moral law they are supposed to uphold.

And, in the family vocations, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters might feel “moral distress” when their relationships are not what they should be.  In marriages, this kind of burnout can lead to divorce, with ramifications for their children, as parenthood too becomes a casualty.

So what are the solutions to vocational burnout?  I can’t give pat answers–I’d like to hear your suggestions in the comments–but here are some thoughts.

Sometimes the Christian doctrine of vocation, which focuses on love and service to the neighbors whom the calling brings into your life, contrasts with the secular doctrine of vocation, which focuses on self fulfillment.

The self is voracious and constantly changing, so the quest for self-fulfillment tends to be futile, leading eventually to disappointment and the need to try something new, only to have that eventually fail also to be sufficiently satisfying.  Sometimes vocational burnout is a failure of self-fulfillment, in which case a Christian can refocus on love for the neighbor  (your spouse, your children, your customers, your patients, your country, your parishioners, God).  This can reset the vocation back to its true purpose, so that you again have the purpose that motivates your life and your work.

We can expect trials and tribulations in our vocations, the “bearing of the Cross” that forces us to rely more and more on God, who inhabits and works through our callings.  Could your burnout really be a Cross instead, one that by driving you to desperate prayer and a more intense reliance on Christ your cross-bearer, can actually increase your faith?

Burnout does not always lead to changing vocations.  The nurses interviewed in the Wall Street Journal story who left their particular jobs are still in the health care field, just in a different location or area of practice.  Similarly, a burnt out pastor might just need to take a call to another congregation in order to reinvigorate his ministry.

A caution, though, is in order.  Economic vocations can easily change, and sometimes people in one line of work, which they find frustrating, can be called to another line of work.  Some vocations, though, such as the family callings and the calling of the Gospel, are permanent.

If you are married to someone, as Luther once said, that is your vocation.  You have no calling to get married to someone else, as long as your spouse is alive, except, at most, under the direst circumstances.  If you are frustrated with your church, you might join a different congregation or church body, but don’t try a different religion.

Seeking help and counsel from others can also relieve vocational burnout.  (See, for example, Doxology, a ministry to pastors, which specializes in problems of burnout.)

Any other ideas?  Have any of you experienced this kind of burnout, but found a way to recover the joy of your vocation?



By the way, if you are interested in vocation, you might want to check out my “trilogy” on the subject:

God at Work:  Your Christian Vocation in All of Life,

with Mary Moerbe, Family Vocation:  God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood

Working for Our Neighbor:  A Lutheran Primer on Vocation, Economics, and Ordinary Life


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

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