The Causes and Cure for Leadership Burnout

Leadership is tough. Good leaders understand this and manage their lives and leadership demands to avoid burnout. Sometimes, however, even the best leaders get burned out. If you’re now facing it, examine the cause list below to see what factors may be contributing to it. Then, take one proactive step this week from the cures list to take better care of yourself.

Hand holding a match burning at both ends

4 Causes of Leadership Burnout:

1. Allostatic load.

This term describes the wear and tear on our body from chronic stress. Our bodies have limits. Yet, when we are under stress for long periods of time, our bodies suffer. Prolonged stress causes sustained high levels of the stress hormone cortisol which, along with an overabundance of other neurotransmitters and hormones, can cause heart problems, weight gain, impaired immunity, decreased memory due to brain cell atrophy, and diminished brain functioning. 

2. Power stress.

Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, authors of Resonant Leadership, coined this phrase to describe a kind of stress unique to leaders. “Power stress is part of the experience that results from the exercise of influence and sense of responsibility felt in leadership positions.” McKee and Boyatzis explain that when the demands of leadership get so high and leaders fail to manage it, they risk becoming trapped in what they call the Sacrifice Syndrome. Sometimes we leaders feel so overly responsible for the success of our organizations or churches that we get caught in a vicious cycle of unhealthy sacrifice for others that leads to burnout.

3. Continuous partial attention. 

Linda Stone, author and consultant, developed this phrase to describe the mental trap we easily fall into when we constantly scan our surroundings to look for the best opportunities to spend our time on. It happens when we ‘skim,’ and pay attention, only partially. When this happens to a leader, he will fail to focus on the most important tasks at hand and get further behind on mission critical issues. Then, he must rush to get the important things done which contributes to chronic stress.

4. Multi-tasking. 

“Many leaders have convinced themselves that multitasking leads to greater productivity. However, researchers have shown that when we try to process two mental tasks at once, our mental capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an eight-year-old. And it can reduce our mental capacities as if we missed a night’s sleep or smoked pot (Rock, 2009, pp. 34– 36). Multitasking can also diminish long-term memory (Foerde et al., 2006). Even college students who multitasked with their laptops while in a class scored lower on tests than did students who didn’t multitask. And students who could see others multitasking also scored lower. So multitasking decreases others’ productivity as well as our own (Sana et al., 2013).” (from People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership by Charles Stone).

In fact, research shows that multitasking can add up to a 40% loss of productivity in a day. This decrease in productivity is called task switch cost. 

So, what can we do to combat these factors that lead to burnout? Consider these steps.

4 Cures of Leadership Burnout:

1. Exercise.

For years research has shown that exercise benefits our body. But recent research has discovered that it benefits our brains as well. When we exercise it causes our brains to release a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which has been called the Miracle-Gro for the brain. It encourages new neuronal growth and protects brain cells from stress. The better we take care of our brains, the better leaders we will be. 

2. Statio.

Statio describes a Christian monastic practice that we might call a mini-transition between events of the day. It’s a moment between moments when we pause from once task before going to the next. It allows us to break our hurry, obtain closure from the prior task, and prepare our hearts and minds for what comes next. Leaders who practice this can turn down their body’s fight-flight system (the sympathetic nervous system) and engage the rest and digest system (the parasympathetic system) which makes us calmer. Read this post by Daniel Schroeder to learn more about statio.

3. Sleep.

“When we don’t get enough sleep, we rob our brains of important neural functions because the brain is actually very active during sleep. Although the brain never really shuts down, it’s only truly at rest during non-REM sleep, which accounts for only 20 percent of our normal sleep cycle. During the other 80 percent, sleep helps the brain encode, strengthen, stabilize, and consolidate our memories from the day. Our brain replays what we have learned during the day (Medina, 2009, p. 164) to make our memories stick. Sleep also plays an important role in learning.” (from Brain-Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry by Charles Stone (Kindle Locations 1671-1675))

4. Get off the grid.

In our 24-7 connected world, our smart phones can actually keep us on high alert and in stress mode. I find that if I choose a 24-hour period (my Sabbath) when I don’t check email, I’m much more at peace. Getting off the grid helps disengage my mind and slow my internal pace. I’d also encourage you to turn off the automatic notifications function on your smart phone and on your computer.

What has helped you avoid burnout as a leader?

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How Going to Church Benefits Brain and Body

As a committed follower of Jesus, I’ve gone to church literally my whole life. My parents took me when I was a kid. I wanted to go as an adult. And in another sense, I’d better go now. After all, I am a pastor. Most believers understand that church attendance does (or should) help us grow spiritually. But did you know that God wired our bodies and brains to benefit from both attending church and developing a healthy spiritual life? Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg notes that since the year 2000 over 400 papers have been published each year on this topic. Consider these ways science shows us that church attendance benefits both brain and body.

brain working out

How Going to Church Benefits Brain and Body

First, two caveats.

  • I’m assuming your church is a Bible-based, grace-filled place. If your church atmosphere is legalistic, harsh, and overall condemning, it can actually harm your body and brain.
  • These studies don’t necessarily show a causal relationship (attending church causes such benefits). Rather, most of the studies show a correlation. That is, attending church and these benefits are closely related. Nevertheless, science continues to discover more body and brain benefits from walking with Christ and being with His people

1. It decreases stress. The stress hormone cortisol is released by the adrenal glands that lie on top of our kidneys. Good stress (eustress) keeps us keep motivated and alert. So cortisol is not all bad. But prolonged stress that keeps unhealthy high cortisol levels in our body damages both it and our brains. Heart problems, a dampened immune system, and diminished memory result from prolonged stress. However, church attendance can decrease the stress response thus decreasing the amount of cortisol in your body.

2. It increases the trust hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin is one of the ‘feel-good’ brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters). If the church you attend is filled with kind and caring people, your brain will release this chemical helping you bond with others. Biblical community is really good for you.

3. It may thicken your brain. One brain study discovered that those who place a high value on spirituality (though not necessarily tied to church attendance) showed thickening in some brain areas. Many other studies now show that reflective and contemplative spiritual practices grow several parts of your brain.

4. It can help lessen depression. A group of Canadian researchers discovered that those who attended church more regularly experienced less depression. They surmised that social support made the difference resulting in people being more resilient. (see number 2 above)

5. It may help you live longer. One study showed that attending church increased the lifespan for whites by an average of 7 years and potentially 14 years for African Americans. The more people go to church, the less likely they are to die sooner than those who don’t go to church.

6. Finally, church attenders commit suicide less often, deal with pain better, have less cardiovascular problems, and recover quicker from surgery.

A final word.

We follow Christ, not because of the pragmatic benefits, like taking aspirin for a headache. We follow Him because he created us with a soul thirst that can only be quenched in Him. However, when we do turn to Jesus and His Body, He gives us some nice brain and body benefits as well.

So the next time you are in church, thank God for these brain and body benefits.

What other practical benefits have you experienced from attending church?

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Ashley Madison and how Porn Damages Your Brain

Several weeks ago I brought a message to our church, How Porn Changes your Brain (for the worse). It was part of a larger series on sex. With my prior interest in the brain and my recent research on the brain and porn, I’m amazed at how deadly porn can be not only to marriages and our walk with Christ, but to the brain as well. And with the Ashley Madison database now public and with a clear correlation between porn use and infidelity, I felt it would be worth reposting.

 Consider what science is now revealing about how porn damages your brain. 


Until recently the research on how porn impacts the body and brain have been correlative. That is, from a scientific perspective, studies did not show that porn use directly caused these problems (although common sense told us otherwise). The correlative evidence, however, is quite damning in itself. The problem has been that researchers have had trouble finding college students (the most often chosen group for guinea pigs in research) who have not used porn. And, even if they did, it’s questionable the ethics of introducing someone to porn.

However, new research is now showing clear causal relationships of porn use to damage to the brain. In fact, the variable (use or non-use of porn) is now becoming more available as a large number (over 75,000) of former porn addicts have formed an on-line community called NoFab. Through surveys, they are posting how their lives have changed for the better after getting off porn. Also, a recent German study has shown a clear causal connection between even moderate porn use and damage to the brain.

Here is what research now indicates that porn does to our brains and bodies.

1. It becomes addictive. Overstimulation of the brain system that releases the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine (which internet porn spurs in massive amounts) results in the buildup of the molecular switch protein called deltaFosB, an ingredient common in most addictions.

2. It impairs memory and concentration.

3. It numbs you to other pleasures of life and real sex in marriage (called desensitization).

You develop a tolerance and need for greater and greater stimulation because real sex has become dull.

4. Sensitization.

Because your reward system has been hammered, you have an amped up attraction to porn that can tempt you to view it through even simple cues like seeing your computer monitor. Your brain goes into autopilot and your reward circuit says, “Do it now!”

5. It diminishes impulse control and willpower.

The fight between clear thinking and temptation is heightened and you have less willpower to say, “No!”

6. It increases sensitivity to stress.

Even minor stresses can lead to cravings and relapse because they activate powerful sensitized pathways.

7. It literally shrinks your brain. 

Studies actually show that even moderate amounts of porn can shrink grey matter in areas associated with cognitive function related to our ability to focus. Porn users report pervasive brain fog.

8. It causes depression and low energy.

This is because it interferes with normal dopamine production and signaling.

9. You become more susceptible to risky behavior.

Since porn addicts need a bigger and bigger hit they gravitate to more degrading kinds of porn and risky behavior to get that hit with diminished fears of experiencing negative consequences (i.e., getting caught).

10. Erectile dysfunction.

Porn users become less sensitive to real sex with their spouses and need more and more stimulation to get aroused. Ex-porn addicts report that porn created significant sexual problems, specifically ED. 

That’s the bad news.

The good news, however, is that because the brain is plastic, porn users can break free from porn and change their brains back to a healthy view of sex and sexuality. With Christ’s power, men (and women) can find freedom from the devastating effects of porn on the brains, their bodies, and their marriages.

In a prior post I recommended a great site that offers help. Here’s the link again. If you struggle with porn, please check out that web site.

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5 Ways to Improve Decision Making

A leader must make lots of decisions. The better decisions we make, the better our leadership, the better our churches and ministries, and the better those around us perform. So what can we do to improve decision making? Consider these five ways.

How to choose, how to choose elevator

5 Ways to Improve Decision making

1. Avoid decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue refers to the phenomenon that occurs when the quality of our decisions degrades after a long string of successive decisions. When important decision face you, make them when you are the most refreshed, usually in the morning (although night owls may make better decisions at night). Learn more about decision fatigue here.

2. Get enough sleep.

The U.S. CDC stated in 2013 that 35% of adults aged 25-65 reported that they unintentionally fell asleep during the previous month. And the same percentage reported that they get less than 7 hours of sleep each night, although sleep experts recommend that we get 7-9 hours each night. When we don’t get adequate sleep, here’s what happens. (For a more detailed look at leaders and their sleep, read this post).

  • Our attention, alertness, and mental response speed decrease.
  • Creativity gets dampened.
  • Our brain’s CEO (the pre-frontal cortex) that is responsible for executive functions like planning, emotional control, decision making, and abstract think gets compromised.

If sometimes you just can’t get enough sleep, a short 10-20 minute nap can boost your alertness and the quality of your decisions.

3. Practice metacognition.

Metacognition is a fancy word for ‘thinking about your thinking.’ Often we get caught up in a thinking auto-pilot mode. And since our brain has five time more negative circuits than positive ones, thinking usually turns negative. It’s called the negativity bias. So, practice pausing during the day to ask yourself, “What am I thinking about right now?” This discipline can help you avoid wasted mental energy on unprofitable thoughts. The Apostle Paul counsels us to do this in Philippians 4.8.

4. Recognize how emotions affect our decisions.

For years we assumed that great decisions were based on logic alone. That is, a good leader, after mentally processing the merits of a decision, would arrive at the best one primarily through a logical thought process. However, scientists are now learning that emotion plays a much larger part in decision making than previous thought. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio found impaired decision making in people who had brain injuries to their emotional centers. So, factoring in how you feel about a decision might help you make a better one.

5. Recognize how long-term stress diminishes good decision making.

God created our bodies with an ability to respond to danger. It’s called the stress response, largely influenced by the stress hormone, cortisol. However, long term stress actually shrinks brain cells in our memory centers. And it strengthens brains cells in our fight-flight centers which in turn dampens our brain’s CEO that guides the decision making process. So, if you’ve been stressed a long time, it might behoove you to delay any significant decisions until your stress diminishes.

What has helped you make better decisions?

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What Effective Pastors Must Prioritize

I’ve been a pastor almost 35 years and I’ve made lots of mistakes. But as I’ve grown wiser, I’ve learned that if I prioritize a few key choices, my life and leadership dramatically improve and my ministry becomes more effective. Here are three key choices I encourage every pastor to prioritize.


Priorities for every pastor

1. Place sermon prep time at the top of your list.

Whether you preach or teach regularly, unless you calendar when you prep your messages, you will likely shortchange adequate prep time. I’ve been doing it for decades now, but I still need 15 plus hours each week to craft a message. I calendar my study time in the mornings when my mind is freshest. In this post I delve more deeply into sermon prep time. 

2. Craft messages that included three essential components.

  • Build them around a strong Biblical basis. Make sure your messages are rooted in God’s Word.
  • Always include clear application. This is where you connect the then and there to the here and now. People will remember your teaching better when they can apply to their lives what you say. It’s called self-referential learning. Stuff sticks in our brains when it’s self-referential.
  • Keep in mind techniques to help your listener pay attention. Only what gets paid attention to gets learned. And if the church people don’t pay attention to your messages, they won’t make much of a difference in their lives. In this post I suggest 5 brain-savvy ways to help people pay attention to your sermons. 

3. Keep yourself healthy.

Ministry leaders who prevail prioritize their health. And the arenas of health include your body, your relationships, your mind, your emotions, and your soul. To keep healthy in these areas requires we make these choices.

  • Eat healthy.
  • Exercise at least 3 times a week.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Keep short relational accounts with others. Deal with conflict sooner than later.
  • Challenge and stretch your mind by learning new things, even outside your ministry role.
  • Process your emotional pain.
  • Spend time with God every day, excluding sermon prep time.

As I’ve prioritized these three areas, ministry has become much more fulfilling.

What other areas do you believe pastors should prioritize so they stay sharp and effective?

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