It will come to no surprise to most mission workers that stress is part of life. All human beings, whether we’re studying for exams, needing to hit a deadline at work, trying to feed a growing family on restricted finances or trying to live harmoniously with the rest of the world, experience some exposure to stress. A small amount of stress can be good for us – it’s what makes us get out of bed in the morning or helps us focus rather than drifting through life, but there comes a point at which it can be counter-productive. Too much stress can have a bad effect on our health.
What will come as a surprise to most mission workers is that not only do they have to deal with increased levels of stress due to their vocation, their cross-cultural challenges, the culture in which they live and their distance from their natural support mechanisms, their stress levels are often so high they are actually dangerous.
Nearly 50 years ago two US psychologists developed a simple and effective tool for measuring stress. They called it the Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale, not because it’s a spectacularly good name, but because their surnames were Holmes and Rahe.
They allocated points to stressful life events and discovered a causal link between too much stress and ill health. Today most of us would take this for granted, but Rahe and Holmes were the first to demonstrate it and evaluate the risk. A score of over 300 points on their scale indicates a strong likelihood of serious illness resulting from stress, BUT
Even if the average mission worker has not had many significant life events in the last year, their exposure to background levels of stress due to living in a different culture means that their score could effectively be doubled. And for the first year in the field, it could be trebled.
Although no research has been done to establish this statistic a fact, it is still troubling to think that our health, and even our lives, may be needlessly compromised by a culture of overwork which tolerates toxic levels of stress. It is small wonder that many mission workers suffer from stress-related illness. This can ultimately lead to them leaving the field.
Now that we’ve got you well and truly worried about the stress you’re currently experiencing, why don’t you take the test for yourself? You can download a simple form here. All you have to do is put a figure in the right hand column if you’ve experienced that particular life event during the last year. So if you moved house, put 20 in the appropriate column. If you’ve done it twice, put 40. Then make yourself a nice cup of tea, sit in a comfy chair and add up the totals in the right hand column.
If your total is over 200, you should consider some lifestyle changes. Drop some responsibilities. Take up a hobby. Get regular exercise. Take more leave. If your total is over 300, get some help. Talk to a counsellor or member care professional. Review your ministry and ask God if you’re in the right place or doing the right thing. If your total is even higher than that, take some sick leave. Now.
In my experience, many mission workers think and act as if they’re indispensable, even though they will deny it. Sadly, this means they take on too much responsibility and don’t do enough unwinding to manage effectively the stress they are under. They often fall ill and leave others to pick up the pieces, which of course causes their colleagues additional stress in turn. Until we can all learn to spend less time in the office and more time on the beach/piste/golf course, we are all going to be risking our health unnecessarily.
Faced with a choice between burning out for God, or rusting out through lack of use, Christians should find the middle ground, and last out fruitfully.