Why do vicars burn out? (Part 1)

First of all we need to define burnout, whilst it has a rather hazy definition in common parlance, amongst psychiatrists there are three distinct factors:

The three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

The risk factors that contribute to burn out are also well researched and known. They are workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. I will explain each of these in turn and how vicars might be vulnerable to them. Quotes that I use are from here :

Work overload contributes to burnout by depleting the capacity of people to meet the demands of the job. When this kind of overload is a chronic job condition, there is little opportunity to rest, recover, and restore balance. A sustainable and manageable workload, in contrast, provides opportunities to use and refine existing skills as well as to become effective in new areas of activity.

I have already written about the problem of work overload here. 41% of clergy I surveyed said that they always or most of the time felt overwhelmed by the workload.

A clear link has been found between a lack of control and burnout. On the contrary, when employees have the perceived capacity to influence decisions that affect their work, to exercise professional autonomy, and to gain access to the resources necessary to do an effective job, they are more likely to experience job engagement

On the face of it this should be an area where clergy thrive because there is so much autonomy. However, it is being eroded by diocesan pressures to do various missional initiatives and sort out the finances. Then there are legal requirements to comply with measures to do with the buildings, employee regulations, safeguarding procedures and data protection imperatives. Insurance, PATesting, other electrical checks, asbestos surveys, gas checks, requirements to ensure hall bookings are meeting best practice, various policies, quinquennial inspections, safe recruiting requirements, Charity Commission requirements, PCC meetings, AGMs, appraisals… I could go on… I’m not sure that when all these are done there really is much autonomy.

Insufficient recognition and reward (whether financial, institutional, or social) increases people’s vulnerability to burnout, because it devalues both the work and the workers, and is closely associated with feelings of inefficacy.

Recognition and reward is very low for vicars – obviously the financial reward is low, and in the current climate the social reward is also low – vicars are regularly mocked and religion is considered to be at best daft and at worst immoral or evil. In terms of institutional reward there is very little – senior staff try their best but they are very stretched and diocesan staff are often making demands, not giving rewards. Parishes can also be tough – vicars are likely to hear when things are going even slightly wrong and there are precious few souls who are encouragers. I was really struck by this comment on my clergy survey:

It is extremely difficult to manage parishioners’ expectations.  Their sense of a glass half empty rather than half full is a constant preoccupation.  I frequently feel inadequate to their standards and there is little comeback. I now have some exceptional people who are turning back the tide of slander and negativism but some minds are very set in judgement.  In the midst of this I’m loved by some but it is hard to get the balance.

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