Burnout and Vocation

Burnout and Vocation

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.

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.

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.”

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

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