In this guide, we explain how to deal with an activist burnout and how to prevent it.
What is a burnout?
Burnout is the end result of chronic stress. It is a syndrome characterized by feelings of irritation, lack of motivation, and emotional disturbances.
There are 5 stages of Burnout:
Stage 1 - Honeymoon - Initial commitment and excitement to engage in tasks. For example, when you first start your journey in a new activism group.
Stage 2 - Onset of stress - common symptoms of stress start being felt, such as fatigue, lower productivity and sleep disturbances
Stage 3 - Chronic Stress - lack of motivation + more intense symptoms felt on a very frequent basis. At this stage, bad habits such as smoking, drinking etc may begin
Stage 4 - Burnout - difficulty even to cope with the minimum of daily tasks. Everything seems dull and ugly, and the person starts feeling either numb or else always overwhelmed.
Stage 5 - Habitual burnout - symptoms of burnout become incorporated into normal life and person experiences chronic fatigue, depression and apathy.
What causes burnout
Very demanding tasks
Lack of appropriate support
Lack of self awareness
No chance to take a break from everyday routine
No satisfaction from tasks / work
Other personal stressors ex. Family problems
Lack of control over things
Lack of fairness
Why are activists at high risk of burnout
Activists carry out tasks that are often difficult to plan and organize. Most activities are voluntary and the majority of activists do not get paid with a salary for their work, so an "immediate reward" is not received.
Once again, activists often form part of minority groups which are targeted by the general population and people who disagree with the groups agendas. This makes planning and attending more difficult and challenging, contributing to further stress.
Unfortunately many people are not aware of the highly stressful environment activists work in, thus the empathy is usually lacking. Activists tend to have low levels of support, sometimes even from friends or family who criticize what they do or deem it as a waste of time.
A lot of activists experience doubts regularly, asking whether the energy they are investing will ever yield realistic change. This is seen clearly in for example climate change activists. Although such activists do very good work and work very hard, unfortunately, very little is being done in the world to actually combat climate change. This may result in poor satisfaction levels in such activists, and this further puts them at risk of burnout.
Activists are also constantly under pressure to make a real change. For example, if a new unfavorable change is made in the locality, such as the introduction of a new shopping mall in a previously green area, activists will be pressured to combat this in a short time. They must organize effective protests and suggest different proposals and make an impact. This can be very stressful and especially if the plan goes ahead anyway, it is very frustrating for activists.
Most people are not actively aware that they are experiencing burnout. This is because the process of burnout happens slowly and so it is difficult to be self aware about it. Most persons start feeling that something is wrong once their life becomes severely impacted. For example, they start fighting with their family or friends often, they start failing in school, they start sleeping a lot or always feeling tired, or when everything starts to irritate them. Ideally, burnout should be recognized or prevented BEFORE reaching such a state.
To recognize burnout, we need to first of all know what it means and what are its symptoms, thats what this handbook is about! Secondly, it is important not to dismiss the symptoms of stress from the beginning they are felt. We need to acknowledge stress not deny or ignore it to continue with our daily routine. Avoidance of stressful feelings will further put the person at risk of burnout.
Steps to help prevent burnout include
Recognizing that you are under considerable amounts of stress
Taking frequent breaks
Finding satisfaction in other daily tasks
Not neglecting hobbies
Exercising at least 30 minutes a day
Self care - staying hydrated, sleeping 7-8 hours a day, going out with friends, maintaining contact with loved ones, having a pet, finding new things to enjoy
Going to professional therapy / counseling if needed
Recognize your limits and accept them - we are not invincible!
Never put activism or work before your personal wellbeing
Ask friends or colleagues (or other activists) for help if the tasks are overwhelming you
Take a break from what is stressing you out. If it comes to it, its ok to take a short break from activism to focus on yourself. After all, you will come back stronger and more determined to make a change! 😃
Tell trusted ones around you what you are feeling. Admitting burnout does NOT make you weak! Venting your feelings and having them validated will certainly help and make you feel like a heavy weight has been lifted off your chest. They may also be experiencing the same thing, making you feel less alone
Seek professional help. Seeking help from a therapist, councilor, psychologist or psychiatrist is never something to be ashamed of, and completely normal! Everyone will need professional help at least once in their lives. These professionals will help identify the triggers of burnout and how to overcome it, and you will come out stronger and more able to handle future hardships. If financial issues stop you, contact local helplines since free services are usually available
Adopt a healthier lifestyle - start going to sleep at a more reasonable hour, drink more water, eat a more healthy diet, and spend more time doing things you love
Put yourself as your main priority
Try some mindfulness activities such as yoga or support groups
If recommended by a professional, you may also take medication to help combat anxiety and depression
In summary, burnout is the final stage of stress in which a person starts finding it hard to cope with everyday life. Burnout can have significant effects on physical health (more risk of cardiovascular events, obesity, diabetes etc) and also psychological effects, possibly leading to depression.
This is why burnout should be prevented at all costs and immediately treated if present. Everyone should be aware if this concept, and I also believe it should be taught in schools.
Activists have a duty to help change the world to better, but they also have a duty to protect themselves and keep themselves mentally and physically healthy.
Balance or Burnout? by Sophy Banks
Stress Management and Burnout Prevention by Pt'chang
Personal Sustainability for Activists by Aidan Ricketts
Sustaining Ourselves as Activists by Helen Cox
How To Stay Sane in ‘Always On’ Digital Campaigning Environment by Jessica Mawson
Group Strategies to Avoid Stress and Burnout by Pt'Chang
Hope and Activist Burnout by Holly Hammond