Busy, exhausted, burnt out

That’s not a description of me by the way, although I am looking forward to a few days rest over the Christmas season. No, it seems to be a description of an increasing number of people in our modern always-on societies. It’s very prevalent in Sweden. Everyone knows someone in Stockholm who is ‘utmattad‘ (exhausted or burnt out).

While not all workers are afforded such luxuries, figures suggest less than 1% of Swedes work 50 hours a week or more, and citizens are guaranteed at least five weeks’ holiday. There’s a strong culture of flexible working, alongside some of the most generous parental leave and subsidised childcare policies in the world. So it’s not a place you’d imagine finding an exhausted employee struggling to complete workplace tasks or unable to switch off at home.

But the number of people diagnosed with chronic stress-related illnesses – including exhaustion, a condition also referred to as ‘clinical burnout’ – has risen rapidly in recent years. This category of sickness was the most common reason for Swedes to be off work in 2018, according to the Swedish Social Insurance Agency, accounting for more than 20% of sickness benefit cases across all age groups.

Rates have shifted dramatically among young workers, with cases up by 144% for 25-29 year-olds since 2013.


But it’s a common problem and one which Christian leaders are familiar with, especially at Christmas. We know the Gospel Fights Against Our Busyness but many would struggle to say I’m really not busy. So we try to figure out How to Be Busy But in Balance.

My initial reaction was to question the mental toughness of this young and burnt out crowd. I wonder whether their upbringing in a child-centred world will have left them unprepared for the challenges and demands of adult and working life. There is probably something in it. I definitely have doubts about the mental resilience of the more comfortable classes. Yet I don’t think that’s the explanation or at least not all of it.

The article I quoted above goes on to suggest that young Swedes feel under enormous pressure to “being fit, being busy and looking perfect.” Professor Marie Åsberg, a psychiatrist at Karolinska Institute, Sweden’s largest academic medical research centre says,

The brain, Åsberg explains, cannot differentiate between employment and other work-like tasks, such as planning a lot of activities in your spare time, having a competitive hobby, or staying up late to ensure your social media profile is up-to-date.

“I guess the brain doesn’t care if you get paid for it, or not,” she says, adding that most people who “hit the wall” are “very ambitious” and “don’t sleep enough”. “They want to succeed and show the world how good they are, so they overtax their own strengths and endurance.”

Essentially then, work is work. But then so is being with friends. All of life is a constant non-stop effort to prove themselves. Which, oddly enough, can be the same problem church leaders face.

Carey Nieuwhof in a helpful article on the exhaustion leaders face identifies five key reasons.

  1. Your Ratio of Output to Input is Skewed
  2. You’re Never Really Off
  3. And You’re Never Really On
  4. There’s No Finish Line
  5. Rest Looks Like Weakness

This is a sharp diagnosis not just of leaders but how life has been framed for the millennial generation. They are constantly connected (2) and constantly distracted (3), their life, they feel, is constantly on show (1) and there is no let-up (4) and to stop feels impossible (5). It is an exhausting way to exist.

In these always-on days, a day of rest is a radical thing. William Black frames rest in a capitalist society but I think it has broader implications in a capitalist-social media society.

The Sabbath has no place in such a society and indeed upends its most basic tenets. In a Sabbatarian economy, the right to rest – the right to do nothing of value to capital – is as holy as the right to work. We can give freely to the poor and open our homes to refugees without being worried that there will be nothing left for us. We can erase all debts from our records, because it is necessary for the community to be whole.


Nieuwhof’s two suggestions are also helpful here:

  1. Monitor your ratio of output to input. Learn, grow, think.
  2. Be radically proactive about self-care. Rest, run, sleep, read.

The right not just to do nothing of value to capital but to do nothing that anyone else will see or like. To not just work for anyone else but not to live to impress or display to anyone else. It is the Gospel that sets us free – I don’t need to impress anyone because my impressiveness or not has nothing to do with my value and worth nor my salvation. God is my Father and He loves me. Christ is my brother and he rescued me. The Spirit is my guide and strengthens me. What else do I need and who do I need to impress? So I can work hard but I can rest well. I am not a slave but free and I’m freed to rest, freed to say no, free to be weak, imperfect and tired. Thank God.

Yet there remains a task of discipleship and training to help those who are weary and heavy-laden (whether we think they should be or not) to lay their burdens down and find the rest, value and acceptance in Christ.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.