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Julie Exline, Ph.D.
Julie J. Exline Ph.D.

Overwork: A Trigger for Spiritual Struggle?

Working too hard? It might become a source of struggle in your spiritual life.

Mental health professionals often use the language of “triggering events” or, more simply, “triggers.” It can be useful to identify the types of situations that typically make people angry or anxious, for example, or those that make us crave alcohol or unhealthy food. Once we can pinpoint certain situations that make us vulnerable to problematic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, we can develop coping strategies for those situations.

What types of situations might trigger struggles in people’s religious or spiritual lives? Certain events might initially come to mind, usually in the traumatic category: The unexpected loss of a loved one. Cancer. A natural disaster. Other triggers might center on religion or spirituality in direct, obvious ways: disagreements with spiritual teachings, frustrations with religious organizations, or not being sure what you believe about God or an afterlife. And yes, these types of events can spark spiritual struggles. But sometimes the things that lead to spiritual struggles are more mundane, and they are not necessarily religious or spiritual on the surface.

In this entry I’d like to tap into the idea of overwork as a trigger for spiritual struggle. It’s a theme that resonates for me personally. As I look over my blog entries from the first half of this year, there it is, like a mirror. Themes of overwork are staring me in the face in every single entry.

And it’s not just me. As I look around, I see many others grinding along in similar ways. Many of us seem to be carrying heavy burdens of overwork. And it's dragging us down.

It seems clear that overwork creates stress and negative emotions for people. But how could overwork lead to struggles in the spiritual or religious domain of life? I’d like to briefly speculate about a few connections here, tying them in with entries from the last few months.

struggles with morality and virtue.

Research suggests that self-control is a limited resource. When this resource becomes depleted, we will find it hard to exert the effort needed for further self-control. In the spiritual or religious domain, we may find that once we deplete ourselves through overwork, it becomes harder to behave virtuously: We have less energy and focus to help us resist temptations, be kind to others, or engage in spiritual practices. It’s easy to lapse into a glazed-eyed autopilot mode, mindlessly reacting to the constantly shifting scene of demands and situational cues surrounding us. In a fatigued and unfocused state of mind, we are likely to say and do things that go against our principles. We lose our tempers. We blow off important commitments. We fail to notice the needs of others. And later on, we’re likely to feel guilt, shame, or regret about our moral lapses and the balls that we’ve dropped. (For more on depletion and self-control, see Baumeister & Tierney’s bestseller, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.)

struggles with morality and virtue.

Lack of self-reflective time--> loss of perspective and meaning. Both psychotherapy and spiritual direction involve looking inward, reflecting on our thoughts, feelings, and behavior patterns. “What kinds of thoughts bring me down?” “What is my ‘gut’ feeling about this situation?” But looking inward is difficult when everything is just a blur because of hectic schedules and overwork. It is also hard to reflect when we lose perspective by going into the mode of tunnel vision, obsessively focused on a single goal to the exclusion of other concerns. When there is no time to reflect, no chance to see one’s current life within a larger context, it can become difficult to see our days as meaningful. Many people experience this lack of “deep meaning” as a spiritual struggle. (For a great discussion of the “tyranny of the urgent” and how to look past it to set long-term goals, see Stephen Covey’s classic, First Things First.)

Perceived unfairness--> anger. When we have been working too hard for too long, some part of our soul will eventually say, “This just isn't right." "This is not the way that things should be.” It might be spoken as a whisper, a whine, or a full-out scream, but in some way or another, that message is likely to rise up. In response to this sense of unfairness, our feelings can range from low-grade irritation and self-pity to full-blown rage at other people, organizations, or even God or the universe. And the greater the sense of perceived unfairness, the more intense these feelings become. (“After all of the work that I’ve put in, this is the thanks that I get?” “Why doesn’t someone help me?” “I deserve better than this!”) (For help with unresolved anger, check out these resources by Everett Worthington and other forgiveness researchers.)

I'm glad that there are some resources and strategies available to help us with these problems related to overwork. There are practical steps that we can take. We can set our goals carefully. We can create a sense of margin in our days by not booking ourselves solid with back-to-back commitments. We can seek out tactics to tame the e-mail beast. We can also be intentional about protecting time to seek some solitude and to rest and rejuvenate ourselves--not only on big vacations but also as part of our weekly and daily rhythms.

But still . . . despite our best-laid plans and most carefully implemented strategies, I’m not confident that any of us will be totally able to avoid this problem of overwork. It’s a real tension that exists in our world. In this time of wobbly and uncertain economies, workplaces are understaffed, and they often lack important resources. Technology brings convenience but also ever-escalating expectations of productivity and 24/7 availability. And certain seasons of life bring their own special challenges, such as those surrounding parenting, serious illness, and caregiving. During times that include intense demands in these areas, the idea of a restful, quiet day might seem like a mirage.

I wish that I had some more simple solutions here for this serious and widespread problem of overwork. For now, though, what is helping me is to simply come out and say it: Yes, struggles around religion and spirituality do sometimes stem from traumatic events or deep theological questions; but sometimes all that it takes is overwork.

About the Author
Julie Exline, Ph.D.

Julie Exline, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. She is a licensed psychologist and a certified spiritual director.

Julie Exline
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