What is Activism Burnout?
Burnout refers to a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by excessive or prolonged stress. Research shows that people who work in activism are particularly prone to burnout, and activism burnout brings with it specific symptoms and effects. If you're an activist, it goes without saying that you care passionately about your cause. But this also means there is always more work that could be done, and it can feel like you're fighting attacks on every front. This can bring with it stress, anxiety, depression - all hallmarks of burnout. Enthusiasm, commitment and dedication can swiftly become apathy, disillusionment and cynicism. In this article you'll find out more about what causes activism burnout, why it's a problem, the symptoms of activism burnout and how to heal from it and avoid it.
Activism and social justice burnout can have huge implications for both the individual and organisations. Activism burnout hurts the individuals but also the social justice movements themselves. A burgeoning sense of hopelessness encourages individuals to leave the movement, which results in high turnovers of staff members or volunteers. This is why activism burnout needs to be addressed at both an institutional and individual level. Organisations should take the time to recognise small achievements, pay attention to interpersonal relationships within the organisation and provide space for members to openly talk about any burnout they may be experiencing. Individuals can address burnout by 1) improving health 2) finding ways to relax in difficult situations and 3) recognising our limits.
Am I Experiencing Activism Burnout?
You may be experiencing burnout if:
you find it hard to concentrate
you have become cynical or critical at work
you have become irritable or impatient with other people you work with
you feel hopeless about the cause you are working towards
you feel you aren't making a difference and/or have lost a sense of purpose
"Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." - Audre Lorde, Writer and Civil Rights Activist
Why are Activists Prone to Burnout?
There are numerous reasons why activists are prone to burnout, which are largely due to the qualities of people attracted to roles in the activist area and the nature of the role.
Activism tends to bring with it all the stresses of a 9-5 job - long hours, office politics and dramas, as well as the precarious act of trying to find and maintain a work/life balance. But it also brings with it a moral obligation to make the world a better place. People who are drawn to activism tend to care deeply. This leads to wanting to do justice to the cause. There may be tendencies towards perfectionism, and overworking to try and meet the seemingly endless goals. There is also a huge amount of emotional labour that goes into being an activist. Working in the social justice fields necessitates deep insight into difficult and traumatic issues, for instance racism, sexism, child abuse or climate justice. There tends to be public apathy and lack of resources, which means it feels like we're going against the tide. Change is slow, and the nature of activism - trying to go against the status quo and cultivate change for the better - means that defeat is almost an inevitable part of the job.
A culture of martyrdom is prevalent in activism spheres. There is always more work to be done, which can leave activists feeling overworked and underappreciated, a toxic combination leading to burnout. There may be a misconception that activists taking time to take care for their own mental and physical wellbeing is equivalent to self indulgence, or a lack of commitment or selflessness to the cause. This is not the case. You don't have to set yourself on fire to keep others warm. In fact, the more you are able to take care of yourself, the more you will be able to contribute to your movement in the long run.
In a qualitative study conducted by Chen and Gorski roughly half the activists who reported experiencing burnout didn’t take time off or go on hiatus—they left their movements for good. So how can we address the problem of activism burnout?
How to Avoid Social Justice and Activist Burnout
1. Acknowledge when you need a break
Try to identify signs that you're approaching burnout before you reach that stage. Perhaps burnout for you manifests as a lack of patience or irritability with your fellow activists. Perhaps its a feeling of dread as you approach Monday morning that wasn't there before. Perhaps you're beginning to feel hopeless that change can ever be made. Try to make time at the start of each day to check in with how you're feeling. If you're beginning to feel overwhelmed, make a list of the things you can and can't control. Then map out potential causes of action you can take to address what is in your control. This helps us to maintain a sense of perspective and feel more in control.
2. Incorporate self-care into your activism
Try to identify activities that replenish you and give you a sense of fulfilment. It's likely you expend a lot of emotional energy into your activism, both through working hard and investing in the cause. What could help you get that energy back? Maybe it's meeting up with a friend who isn't in your activism circles, or binge watching an old favourite show. Try to create boundaries around your activism - don't check your emails on days off, and say 'no' to extra projects if you already have a lot on your plate.
If you've been on the go for so long, and working towards a deadline, it may be difficult to switch off immediately. Find a way to release that adrenaline and slow down. This is known as completing our "stress cycle". Think about a moment where you've suddenly felt anxious - you find out whether that piece of legislation you've been lobbying for has been successful, or you've been giving a presentation to key figures in your field. Your cortisol and adrenaline spike. Your body enters "fight", "flight" or "freeze" mode. But if you don't do something to relieve this stress, your body thinks it's continually in a state of stress and danger, and your adrenaline level doesn't come down. This leads to us being in a constant state of anxiety. Dr Emily and Amelia Nagoski outline seven ways you can complete the stress cycle: physical activity, social connection, breath work, laughter, affection, crying or creative expression. If you're still finding it difficult to switch off, take “active rest” by doing something else, for example completing another productive task (like walking the dog or putting the laundry away).
3. Try breathing exercises, mindfulness & meditation
Cultivating your mind-body connection can help to manage anxiety. Taking a moment to rest our minds and limit sensory input helps with optimal functioning. Try the ROAR technique:
Remember where you are when you start to feel your mind wander. Remember why you are taking this moment for yourself. Acknowledge that you are right here, right now.
Observe yourself for a moment without judgement. What do you feel in your body? Is there a particular part of you that feels tense? Is your chest feeling tight? Is your jaw clenched?
Appreciate this moment you are taking for yourself and the self-awareness you are cultivating by checking in with yourself. Appreciate yourself and who you are. Appreciate the work, effort and care you are putting into your cause.
Resume what you were doing before, after taking this moment for yourself. Feel your feet and where they are on the ground, feel the textures on your skin. Resume your day with greater clarity.
4 Celebrate your small gains
Remember your work (and your worth) isn’t defined by the result. You do deserve to be a part of this moment, and you are an asset! Take time to recognise your achievements. You could also follow some positive news sources to encourage you to remember why you became involved in the movement in the first place, and that change is happening. Some of my favourite positive news sources are:
Each step towards meeting your end goal is still one step closer than we were before. Take the long view and remember that change doesn't happen overnight. Treat your activist commitments as lifelong goals, so a sustainable approach of conserving your own resources and priorities is okay.
5. Support each other
Ideally organisations should create a space where members can have an open and honest conversation about burnout. Other ways of staving off staff burnout includes having mentors or a buddy system for experienced and newer members to pair up. If this isn't a possibility, you could co-create a space for you and your peers to talk candidly about what’s stressing you out. Often all it needs is one person to break the culture of silence.
6. Remember you are not alone
You are not in this alone. If you're feeling like you're not good enough, reach out to someone you can confide in. Humans are not built to do things alone, but together. Generations of activists came before you, and generations will come after you.
When you’re fighting for such a big cause, your goals can seem so far away and it’s easy to burnout. Remember you are not in this alone. Each step you take, no matter how small it may seem, is helping to pave the way for a better future. Thank you for the part you play in helping to make the world a better place.