Burnout: Experiences & Advice

The concluding questions of our ‘activist health and wellbeing survey’ focused on one of the biggest barriers to sustaining activism: burnout. This is the final post in this series.

Defining burnout

Burnout can be defined in a number of ways, activist-trauma.net uses this definition;

Burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in situations that are emotionally demanding. Burnout makes you a less effective activist, and it can adversely affect those around you and the organizations we work within.

While burning out is part of a process of growth and involvement and is often accepted as a by-product of activism, we can work to support ourselves and others so we are more effective and healthy.

Burnout is the way your body and heart communicate your limits to you, and it is important to listen to and respect that. We can use burnout as an opportunity to re-evaluate, prioritize and to develop more sustainable and healthy working styles—burnout doesn’t have to be a break down; it can be a break through! 

A massive 71% of our respondents had experienced or were experiencing burnout at the time of writing. This post dwells on themes from the responses to the questions ‘what have you noticed are the major contributors to the experience of burnout, either for yourself or others?’ and ‘what advice would you give someone who is burnt-out, or at risk of burning out?’

burnout

Major contributors

  • Working conditions and dysfunctional peer cultures. The under-resourcing of community organising, lack of skilled activists to do the work of building change movements and campaigns and lack of clearly delineated roles and responsibilities can put huge amounts of pressure on people. The long hours also means we might have time and energy for healthy activities and leisure time.

I think there’s a culture of overwork in activist circles, which is totally understandable but really detrimental.

A lack of balance. Basic stuff really: not making time for yourself and relationships, physical and mental exhaustion, poor sleep and eating, using caffeine and nicotine or alcohol to cope.

Culture of martyrdom, where to be the “best” is to be the most burned out.

Taking on too many jobs, and this not being commented on or discouraged, not having opportunities for debriefing or talking about how people are feeling, including cultures of “toughness” in activist circles.

Lack of acknowledgement, feeling invisible amongst other activists because I’m not white, lack of support for each other, everyone else being burnt out too.

  • Heroic activist identities. Measuring ones self-worth on outcomes that are influenced by factors outside of one’s control can backfire, activists are not superhuman!

Continually sacrificing one’s own short term needs for the long term greater good.

The ‘never ending’ nature of broad based activism – there is always another broken bit of the world clamouring for a campaign… I think a lot of people feel guilty about prioritising anything outside of activism, somehow it means you’re not a good enough activist if you’re not engaged ALL the time.

Feeling like you’re on a one woman hero mission to change the world.

You're somebody, but not the only body.

You’re somebody, but not the only body.

Caring too much, trying too hard and taking it all too personally.

Losing touch with reality, trying to be superwoman, never saying no, trying to be everything to everyone. Being a figurehead for a group and hating the pressure of that, which clearly comes from not fostering a healthy collective!

I ended up seeing myself with blood on my hands – responsible even only if in part for the deaths and suffering as a result of climate change. I know there are deep flaws in this thinking – it takes a weird kind of arrogance to believe that you can control and therefore be responsible for so much – but some part of me still carries guilt.

  • Long campaigns, intermittent reinforcement or losing campaigns. Sometimes we don’t have any wins for a long time, or we might never win at all. Check out Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan for a detailed analysis of campaign trajectories.

Unreasonably high expectations from others resulting from having exceeded all their expectations previously, to such an extent they think you can continue to pull it out of your arse on a 24/7 basis. And that if you’re not it’s because you’re just not dedicated enough. Do I sound bitter? I sound bitter. Ah well. You asked.

I think despair is also a factor. Losing a campaign can seriously affect you. I think we need to be able to have the space to talk about feelings of despair in our affinity groups, in a way that doesn’t publicly advocate giving up. I feel despair a lot, but I don’t want to give up.

Bill Moyer's Movement Action Plan can help us understand the trajectory of social movements.

Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan can help us understand the trajectory of social movements.

Activist culture that discourages/deprioritizes self-care, interpersonal drama, frustration over slow progress/lack of progress, the continually draining experience of living under oppression.

Disappointment – not at an ultimate loss of a campaign, but rather at the way in which the campaign was conducted.

  • Social stigmatisation and self-marginalisation. As much as contemporary social and economic conditions emphasis ‘choice’, personal freedom and innovation, being critical of current social relations and governance structures can be very isolating for a number of reasons.

Too many hours and feelings of little reward or even being attacked for volunteer work. Negative experiences – campaigns failing, police or other assault, feeling isolated and not having enough activists, or only having activists in social networks and not having a life outside.

If people don’t see this problem the same way I do, they are invalidating me as a person.

Stress and financial difficulties catching up with you. Also growing older and those around achieving various bourgeois/life milestones and you realise how behind/left out you are!

There is also a culture of “do you know my friend” that makes me really mad because it often excludes new activists/activists who don’t have access to liberal arts 4 year degree sociology language.

Abuse, lack of funding, general societal attitudes (“get a real job,” “bloody lefties” etc).

  • Internal dynamics and conflict. By far one of the most common responses, internal conflict can feel like a betrayal when the ‘real enemy’ is supposedly external.

When there has been difficult movement politics or conflict between groups and individuals that’s become quite toxic I have personally struggled (I think difficulty and conflict from ‘oppositional’ forces is expected, but internal dynamics can also be tough and for me, feel really depleting or challenging to ideas of support and solidarity). It’s been a learning curve for me over the years as I think over what makes a movement or community – what bonds us together as well as differentiating us, and ways of making peace with the flux of diversity-in-action.

Internal fighting “snitch jacketing- being targeted by other “activists” who are threatened by the direction things are going in identity politics , and libertarians–extremely hard to work with when on the far left . 

I think it tends to be the organisation and it’s constraints and rules and demands that cause the burnout rather than the activism itself. Also, because activism is so relational, any interpersonal problems can also lead to burnout.

For me, the tipping point has come when I have been overstretched and then had an experience of conflict or felt really let down by others in a way that doesn’t sit well with values that I thought we shared (e.g. being treated badly by other feminist women, or having a social justice employer follow poor employment process).

  • Lack of strategy, purpose and predictability. Activists are good at myth-making! A lack of transparency around the effort and strategy that goes into a good campaign can leave many people wondering where they went wrong (or right).

Not knowing when to let go, not allowing others to take over, thinking you are indispensable, bad management – organisations running on volunteer labour with no processes for succession planning and the expectation that people will “do more”.

Failing to recognize each other’s contributions; invisibility of effort.

We, as activists, often don’t praise each other enough either. So people do a lot without saying “hey you did a great thing”. It becomes tricky because you shouldn’t have to praise someone for doing basic things like using the right pronouns or not being racist. But there should be more praise for work that activists do.

Unsustainable tactics (etc Occupying), and/or hyper vigilance that comes from feeling overly responsible for future generations.

Strategies for burnout prevention and recovery

In addition to all the great advice included in the last post, ‘sustaining ourselves as activists’, here are some short snippets of wisdom specifically in relation to burnout:

“Having a healthy routine – exercise, breakfast, mindfulness. Getting enough sleep. Saying ‘no’ I’m not going to be on call or do email when I’ve put aside time to rest.”

“When I get sick I actually stay in bed and cancel everything. Reading before I sleep. Checking in with myself before I step in to take on new tasks and projects. Looking at the diary to suss the time ahead and see where I can get some wiggle room, what I can keep out of and when I can get some life admin/house keeping/chill out time. Bike riding! Sensing when something makes me feel nervous and looking at that feeling to figure out how to deal with the source of it.”

“GET OFF THE INTERNET”

“1. Sleeping less does not make me more productive. Drinking less (alcohol) does, though! 🙂

2. Taking time to prepare and eat good food is worth it.

3. Exercise is critical to my well-being and balance. I need at least 30 minutes a day. If I am honest with myself, I can almost always find those 30 minutes though sometimes I have to be a bit creative about it.

4. Timeblock planning time, vacation, and self-care (exercise). Get it in the calendar.

5. Work should have cycles including recovery weeks (just like when you work out intensely).

6. Make sure you take time to do things you love. For me, one night of live music goes a long way….

7. We all need good friends, coaches, and mentors. Make sure you schedule these meaningful conversations.

8. Remember the 80/20 rule (there are many 80/20 rules). The one I’m thinking of is that 80% of our “product” tends to come from 20% of our activities. Make sure you do the high-value, high-leverage activities. Each week (and each day) ask “What is the one thing I can do that, once done, will make everything else easier or even irrelevant.” Make sure you schedule time daily to work on that One Thing.”

“PAUSE! stocktake! what is going on, write it all down, map it out, timeline, due dates, etc delegate, prioritise, schedule in rest time sand breaks, and health needs, social needs, ect”

Take a long mindful walk in the woods or along a beach and pay attention to the miraculous there, talk to an ecotherapist”

Based on the results, we have also collated advice into digestible tips for action on burnout:

Individual Strategies

  •  Coaching and mentoring

Having access to a regular coach or mentor can be a good strategy for activists and campaigners who might need a ‘sounding board’ or strategic advice regarding how to proceed with particular campaigns and actions. Any good coach or mentor will have an idea of how self-care and wellbeing factor in to good strategy.

  •  Support groups and peer counselling

Belonging to a tight-knit group, like an ‘affinity’ group that attends actions together or a group of mates who are on the same page can be really important for maintaining a dedicated space where you can regularly debrief, whinge, cry and laugh.

One survey respondent reckoned having ‘a designated “spotter” who can recognise when activists are burning out’ was useful for prevention. Another told us it was important to have ‘good supportive loving friends to pull me up when I’m overdoing it’.One way we can help ‘spotters’ and supportive friends is to communicate early on to what burnout and stress looks like for us on a personal level. This might be a group exercise or one-to-one conversation worth scheduling before embarking on a big campaign or action if this is something you’d like reflected back to you when early warning signs arise- it can be easy to go into denial if we’re on our own.

A 'spotter' or support group can let you know when it might be time for a break.

A ‘spotter’ or support group can let you know when it might be time for a break.

For more tips on how to go about setting up support groups check out this article.

Organisational Strategies

  • Check-ins and debriefing

Making space for emotional disclosure can be really important to group dynamics and processes. This can be as simple as starting every meeting with a ‘how is everyone doing’, or whatever you feel is a relevant question to ask the group at that particular time. Likewise, debriefing is about dedicating group space to how people feel an action or campaign affected them on a personal level. Debriefing is particularly important for direct-action activists and in their case should be done as soon as possible after completing an action to mitigate the effects of potential trauma. Ideally this is done in small groups where overall trust is high, such as affinity groups.

  •  Facilitation and conflict resolution

Facilitation is the practice of helping groups realise their purpose. When groups are first forming or struggling with group dynamics at any particular time it might be helpful to have a designated facilitator (internal or external) to help groups and the individuals within these work through issues and address barriers that are holding them back from participating in activist and campaigning work more productively and with less stress. Facilitators (and other people trained in conflict resolution or mediation) can be useful for resolving personal or group wide conflict, particularly when this is holding the group back from reaching its full potential.

  •  Anti-oppression training

Cultivating cultures of safety (such as physical, emotional and cultural safety) and democracy are crucial to maintaining diversity in organisations, groups and broader social movements. Why not test for support in your organisation or group for engaging in activities and discussions around anti-oppressive organising? Check out some resources from Organizing for Power.

  •  Strategic planning and campaign strategy

Why place group energies into tactics and strategies that are unlikely to yield success? Having access to experienced advisers and good information, as well as building group consensus around particular activist and campaign strategies keeps organising focused and determined.

  •  Celebrate the wins, grieve the losses

Sometimes campaigns lose and activists who have been involved may feel a big sense of personal failure or a loss of personal agency. This is the time to ask for external assistance (like a facilitator or group therapist) to help people heal the loss and make meaning of the situation. Check out activist educator Daniel Hunter’s work on what to do when campaigns lose.

The alternative, winning, is no less deserving of attention. Celebrating wins can sustain activists and groups through their next set of challenges as well as highlight where campaigns gained ground and why. Check out Holly Hammond’s work on celebration and hope. 

Who are the survey participants?

  • There were 195 participants all up, from all over the globe with a significant bias towards non-indigenous people living in Australasia
  • Participants were overwhelmingly experienced activists and campaigners, as opposed to relatively new activists of less than 5 years. Over 50% of the respondents had been engaged in activism in excess of 10 years.
  • Participants were engaged in a wide range of campaigns and interests, the most popular was social justice and environmental activism and the least engagement was with animal rights activism although still high at 17% of respondents
  • Over 65% of respondents were aged between 26 and 45 years old.
  • There was an interesting range of gender diversity for the 153 participants responding to the open-ended question of gender identity: 67% identified as female, 18% identified as male and 15% identified as gender queer/agender/non-conforming/genderfluid/questioning or transgender.
  • Over 80% of respondents were university educated.

A big thanks to everyone who responded to our survey! 

We have also made a printable zine specifically on burnout: PTT_ActivistBurnout_zine. This zine is designed to be printed or copied booklet style, on double-sided A4 sheets to make an A5 booklet. We’d love to hear your feedback on this zine and where and how you’ve distributed it.

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2 Responses to “Burnout: Experiences & Advice”

  1. Great to see this article. A useful summary of some of the overarching themes relevant to creating a sustainable practice of activism. we have been running suatainable activism training in europe for the last 5 years, and are about to begin a series of training for trainers to help the work grow. looking forwards to integrating some of the learning communicated here into our work – thanks! you can check out what we are developing here: http://www.ecodharma.com/self-society-a-radical-response/effective-sustainable-activism

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