Leanne Shingles was interviewed by Laura Gilmartin after completing the Darebin Spiritual Healing Trail February 2017 Activist Wellbeing Workshop.
Leanne Shingles has worked as a paid official in the union movement for 20 years, and has worked as a community activist on environmental and health campaigns. Leanne was part of setting up two organisations in response to different social issues. She currently works as a social media officer in the union movement.
Is there a particular thing that happened that made you feel that it was going to be necessary for you to take care of your physical and mental health?
I have often come very close to breaking point. I was working at the Victorian Government in the 80s and 90s, and Jeff Kennett brought a really conservative approach to the state. Working for him made me physically sick and made my neck and back give out. When the government turned on its own people and wanted me to be a part of that I decided I would only apply for jobs that allowed me to be an agent for change.
So in that sense, activism was part of overcoming health challenges?
It made me feel I had a purpose and a focus, and a positive place to put that energy. But activism also damaged my health. I have two settings: nothing and full throttle. So I have a tendency to think ‘Well, if I can do 8 hours I can do 12 hours!’
How do you reign that in and take proper care of yourself?
Working overtime is less exhausting when you’re winning a campaign but you can’t always be winning. I like to get up and go for a walk, get up and remove myself from the situation at work. Outside of work I listen to a lot of music. I find it difficult to work with music on, so it’s a good escape for me. Also, making deliberate decisions about switching off technology. I don’t do it too often but when I do, the benefits are amazing. The other thing that informs my ability to not be stressed all the time is that I have had chronic pain for the last 16 years and it was finally resolved around six or seven months ago. And I’m very vocal about how thankful I am about that now.
Do you think practicing gratitude has the capacity to help activists sustain themselves in a similar way?
Being thankful will not help activists to win the fight, but it will help them sustain the fight. It is definitely very important to acknowledge and thank people for their work.
What other things can employers do to ensure their staff are mentally well at work? Do you believe they have a responsibility in this area?
They absolutely have one and in my experience that does happen, but of course I haven’t experienced the whole movement. In the campaigns I have worked on everyone has been treated very well. My boss is very conscious of the responsibility she has to take care of people. She checks in, and encourages us to take a structured approach so we don’t have to work all of the time. She will ask ‘Do you need to be doing that?’ or ‘Could someone else be doing that?’ And I think that’s a good practice for everyone leading people in our movements – volunteers as well as paid staff. It’s a recognition that people are not units of labour, they’re people with feelings and a stake in what you’re doing together. And there’s a strategic benefit as well, people are not going to help you if you ignore their needs.
Do you have any advice you would give to someone who is perhaps ignoring their own needs while they work?
Listening to your body is a really important skill and one you develop over time. If you are getting headaches ask yourself, are you drinking enough water? Are you getting fresh air? Make sure there’s some time everyday to do something you love that’s not about activism, that has zero to do with work. Listen to a podcast that’s not related. Don’t listen to a politics podcast if you already campaign in politics! Step your brain out of that space and give it a break from what can be a really intense environment. And always keep friends outside of the movement. Because they’re the people who love you for you.
How has activism contributed to your wellbeing? What does your organisation do or not do to ensure you stay free from burnout? Please provide feedback in the comments section below.