It’s a while since we last talked about stress, but it hasn’t gone away.  So far in this series, we’ve looked at recognising our response to stress, and using some simple management tools to analyse our selves so we can identify our optimum working conditions.

This week I’d like to examine what is one of the principal causes of stress from mission workers – overwork!  There are others and we’ll be looking at these in future blogs, but this is one of the most immediate and one of the most critical.  I lost five years of my working life due to stress-related illness brought on primarily by overwork, and I’d like to think I’ve learned some of the lessons!

Overwork is commonplace in Christian missions.  It seems that there are never enough workers to meet the needs, and we all end up doubling up, taking on more responsibility, and working long hours.  Most of us also have to work on Sundays, so we seldom get a full weekend break.  These factors all add to our stress levels, and when compounded by the effects of colleagues being on Home Assignment or off sick due to stress, add up to a working environment which is often critically short-staffed and places the surviving workers under often health-endangering levels of stress.

The solution to this situation is for management to either engage more staff or take on fewer responsibilities.  Focussing on the core ministry of the organisation may help eliminate superfluous activities, and reducing dependence on ex-pat workers could ease staff shortages.  While these are organisational issues which it may be above our pay grade to resolve, we can however manage ourselves and our own situations better, and one solution can be to say no.  This is a skill few Christians have.

The reason for this is partly the protestant work ethic.  We seem driven to pay off the debt we have incurred by accepting the ‘free’ gift of salvation.  We believe in ‘laying down our lives’ and expect to suffer from overwork without complaining about it.  We’re just following in the footsteps of our predecessors (a predecessor, interestingly enough, is someone who has pre-deceased you!).  While it is true that Christians are called to make sacrifices, as Kelly O’Donnell writes in Global Member Care, we should try ‘to balance the realistic demands of suffering and sacrifice with the realistic needs for support and nurture in our lives.’ Failure to take care of our legitimate needs does not allow us to maintain ourselves in peak mental and physical condition, and paradoxically means we are less able to carry our workload.  Surely our prime responsibility should be to keep ourselves in a condition to be able to carry out our other responsibilities!

The other principal reason behind so many people taking on too much work, is that they suffer from low self-esteem, though most would deny it until confronted with the evidence.   Many people find it hard to say no because they want people to like or value them, and when they deliver results, they are affirmed.  How often does your manager affirm you for what you have achieved rather than who you have become?  So we work harder, in order to achieve better results and reap more plaudits so that we can feel good about ourselves.  Yet when we have worked so hard that our deteriorating health forces us to stop, we can’t carry on earning plaudits and so cycle down into depression.

If any of the above rings bells with you, stop work for a while (yes, you can!) and consider the following questions:

  • Do I regularly work more than 50 hours a week?
  • Do I regularly work weekends without a day off in lieu?
  • Am I carrying the responsibilities of more than one person on a regular basis?
  • Am I trying to prove something through my work?  What?  To whom?
  • Do I feel guilty when I’m not working?
  • Am I unable to finish work ‘early’ occasionally just because I want to?

If the answer to any of those questions was ‘yes’, have a think about how you can say ‘no’ in future!