Even heroes get tired
I heard a really interesting piece recently on one of the medical podcasts I keep in touch with. It was an opinion piece written by a senior doctor, written in the right of the final #clapforcarers last week - expressing what may surprise many people - a powerful wish that we would STOP calling our frontline NHS workers heroes. It was a very well written and thought-provoking piece - if you want to hear it, it was included at the very end of the last episode of the BBC Radio 4 program ‘Inside Health: The Virus’.
One of the arguments made in this piece really struck a chord with me. Whilst our frontline workers - and I include not just NHS in that but those working in all kinds of fields - schools, supermarkets, driving buses, delivering food, running organisations, leading churches … - have clearly demonstrated some heroic behaviour, calling them superheroes risks twisting the way we think about these amazing people - and they think about themselves - which could have unintentional consequences.
Because they are doing amazing work - and work which has been relentless over the last 13 or so weeks, managing constantly shifting expectations and circumstances, unpredictable needs, changes in how they work, new roles, hours or shift patterns, and all the time holding the emotional needs and wellbeing of so many people they are supporting. But these brilliant people are actually as human as the rest of us, stretching and pushing themselves to do superhuman, extraordinary work. And being human means they do have limits.
In fact, we all do. I have heard a lot from people in the frontline in the last few weeks week about how aware they are of how close they are to their limit. Over half of NHS workers admit to struggling with feelings of depression, despair, or hopelessness during the pandemic. 8 out of 10 say they are struggling with sleep. But it isn’t just them - research is increasingly showing lockdown and the COVID season taking its toll on the mental health of many people - with one study reporting 80% saying they were starting to struggle with anxiety and stress. Over three months in, many of us are exhausted - and yet facing what is actually one of the most challenging stages of the season. Particularly for frontline workers who continue to work under totally unusual circumstances but now also have to figure out what it looks like to restore some kind of normal to the spaces and places they work, this may be the toughest season. And although some are finding life returning to normal, many continue to hold much greater levels of stress than usual - homeschooling, homeworking, shielding, supporting others - and these additional challenges bring additional stress and strain - which may be exacerbated by the feeling that others are not in the same boat - when life is tough there’s nothing worse than feeling alone in what you face.
So, in this season we need to recognise the challenges and pressures we still face - and that returning to normal is not all plain sailing. We are not superhuman, but many of us have been facing superhuman demands. It is not a sign of weakness or failure to have found that hard or to be feeling at the edge of yourself right now. In recent weeks I have heard amazing people sob down the phone, asking how they can continue to do this, how they can keep going, how they can keep supporting others, keep trying to keep things normal for their kids, or parents, or patients, or friends? - people who are pillars of strength for so many all too aware that they are starting to struggle themselves.
So, what does this mean? Let’s continue to celebrate the heroic work being done by so many. Let’s not forget it now we’re not clapping weekly - but let’s remember there always were others doing amazing things that weren’t clapped for it - teachers, community leaders, normal Mums and Dads, brothers and sisters, neighbours … normal people in extraordinary circumstances pulling together and pushing the limits to try to get one another through.
If you are not finding things tough yourself right now …
That's great - and I am SO glad. But do think about how you could support someone who IS - this is not over for everyone. This might be a practical thing - is there someone you could drop a meal round to, or are there other practical things you can do? Think creatively here - obviously frontline workers have been working incredibly hard but there may be others quietly getting on with things for whom it would make an AMAZING difference to be ‘seen’ in what they have been doing.
Obviously, put your own safety first especially if you are in a vulnerable category, but there are ways that we can all get involved. Could you send a card or encouragement to someone so they know they are not forgotten? Leave flowers on a doorstep? Make a phone call just to chat and connect? Or (if you are able to) meet someone on a day off for a distanced walk?
Don’t forget the other practical things you might be able to do for someone whose work has them pushed to the limit. Got your own garden looking amazing? Know someone who hasn’t had time to even set foot in theirs? Got a lawnmower you could walk over the road to bless them? Ask first, but remember that sometimes being relieved of these background worries and responsibilities can be an amazing blessing.
And of course, we mustn’t overlook the amazing power of praying! And if you are praying for someone - tell them! People who don’t have a faith themselves will still love to hear that you are thinking of them and reaching out to them - and those that do will be so encouraged to know you have them covered in prayer. It's hard, when you are exhausted, to feel God with you and hear from God yourself - so other people doing it for and with you are SO valuable.
If you are struggling …
First of all know that feeling exhausted, or having times of feeling low, despairing - even desperate - this does not mean you are weak or failing, or anything other than HUMAN. So you do not need to feel bad about what you are feeling - but you do need to take it seriously. Too often we live life on the edge of burnout and assume it couldn’t happen to us - but unusual times involve unusual pressures, and there is a very real risk in this season that some of those of us supporting others may ourselves go under. Take it seriously, take time out to think about how you are going to sustain yourself through this - and take some steps to put things into place for yourself. Here are three I would suggest:
(1) Think about the RHYTHM of your life. Obviously, things are very demanding right now but when do you REST? You may be under additional pressures at home, caring for vulnerable relatives, or trying to support kids or teens with homeschooling. But no matter how many people there are depending on you, you need to make time and space for yourself as well. In fact the more people you are caring for the more this matters - because they need you to still be on your feet in a few weeks or months!
The challenge of rest and relaxation in this time is finding not just the practical space in your diary but the headspace. In exodus 34:21, God reminds the people (via Moses!) of the importance of sabbath resting - setting one day out of 7 apart and making it different. But this time he adds an extra detail: even during times of harvest or plowing - that is the busiest times - you need to rest! And the word used here literally means STOP! Desist, cease - STOP! But we all know whilst stopping physically might be possible, stopping your mind buzzing around is a lot harder. So in this time, we might need to be more creative than usual with HOW we rest - finding things to distract and refresh our minds that are also physically relaxing. I know personally I cycle a lot to get headspace and relaxation - and usually I listen to podcasts when I bike. However, during lockdown I have noticed that changing - as my ability to concentrate on them was destroyed by the persistence of my thought pattern, running over all the things in my mind so I realised not only was it a waste of time having on a podcast I then had to listen to again another time having not listened to it at all on the ride, but also it wasn’t working! I wasn’t switching off at all in my head! I wasn’t stopping!! So - I had to experiment and now am finding some new and unexpected delights in listening to classical music as I ride - which I have never ever done before!
(2) Think about where you SHARE. Your role in work or at home may well require you to be supporting others, or just the ability to hold your own emotions in check so you can be calm and professional in the moments you face in your work. You may become a focus for other people’s anxiety or frustration or just witness that pain and confusion second hand. Remember that you need SOMEWHERE where you can express and process your own emotions - and all the more so if you do carry a lot for other people.
This could just be about making space and time for you to do this - a good walk, journaling, or finding a way to physically release pent up frustration through exercise or a change of scenery. But for many in this time, it may require something more intentional. Ask a friend to meet with you regularly to chat or pray, or even explore whether some professional space like counseling might help.
In particular, if you are a front-line worker many counselors and therapists are offering free support - so why not take them up on it? The Association of Christian Counsellors are coordinating many therapists offering this service - to find out more and refer yourself check out their website (https://www.acc-uk.org/news/hidden-holding-pages/covid-19-crisis-counselling-support-service.html)
(3) Pursue GOOD STUFF! This is the most fun bit of advice - but it can be surprisingly hard to put into action! You see, good wellbeing isn’t about just somehow avoiding bad stuff or burnout - it is about feeling good things as well. Joy, laughter, fun - these aren’t just to lighten your load, they keep you going in tough times! When Nehemiah tells the people that the joy of the Lord is their strength, the word he uses actually has a much wider meaning, of a place of protection or safety - a fortress. In troubled times when we can experience positive emotions, they do more than just momentarily lift our mood - that becomes part of our protection and defence against the storm we’re in.
So how do YOU have fun? What makes you laugh? Again, we might need to be more creative than usual in this time. Whether it's a good walk with a friend, a get together drink in someone’s garden, or just a laugh out loud funny box set on NetFlix - find the things that get you grinning and make time for them. That last bit might be the biggest challenge if you are very busy - but this may be the most important time in your week, keeping you going for all the other things you need to be up to doing.
A final very important thought on this one: one of the challenges of burnout is that things we used to find fun no longer trigger those feel-good emotions - literally the fun has gone out of life. This is an important warning - and a sign you need to get some help and support. Don’t ignore it. So if you are finding that all the things you used to enjoy feel like too much effort, or are no longer fun - recognise this as a sign your mind is struggling and reach out to your GP or to a therapist. But keep trying - keep pushing into that fun space. You never know when a smile or laugh might break through and it really can lift an entire day.
In fact, in this season, whatever our personal position, let’s remember that need for persistence as we not just hope for but proactively pursue good things - for all of us, not just for ourselves. This is a time when differences can feel stark, and difficult, and it requires deliberate steps from all of us to think about how it feels to be in different circumstances from our own.
Romans 14 is a section of a letter Paul wrote to the church, in another time when people were coming from many different circumstances. And he talks about how to manage these differences, thinking of each other and always putting first those finding things tough - even if there are things that are not a big deal at all for you personally. He concludes, in v19 that our priority should be to “pursue what makes for peace and for building up one another.” (NET). Here Paul uses an interesting word for ‘pursue’ as he talks about this pathway to peace of mind and rest - it is one which comes from hunting terminology and literally means to hunt down, chase, capture. Our pursuit of these things - and of things which support and get one another through shouldn’t be half-hearted - it should be defiant, deliberate, and determined in this unique situation.
Just don’t forget to pursue it for yourself as well ;)