Burnout sadly still permeates in spaces where people work on social change, and yet it is something that is not talked about much. Maybe burnout feels like something to be hidden and denied because it can be portrayed as weakness, or the proof that an organisation or group might not be able to deliver what they promised they would.
Of course, the conversation around wellbeing is not new, and it is one that has become more visible in the past years. Many of us have been in a meeting about it, or at least read an article or received an email with tips on “how to be more resilient” or cope with stress better. Some of us might have actually even received accessible, inclusive and helpful support from our community or workplace.
I don’t mean to paint a gloomy picture, but I believe organisations and movements still have a long way to go when it comes to fostering sustainability and centring the wellbeing, and pleasure, of activists and social change-makers. Having acknowledged that, this piece is to support activists and social change-makers in preventing burnout, rather than organisations in making the systemic changes needed. There is still much to be done to move from an individualised response to a systemic one that addresses how societal and organisational issues contribute to burnout, and the kind of support and changes needed to make meaningful support available to all. And while that happens, we also still need support at an individual level. So I hope that you can look at these tips as part of a broader approach to addressing burnout rather than the answer to it.
Burnout also plays out differently depending on how formal or informal an initiative or organisation is, whether they are hierarchical or not, whether there is crisis and frontline work involved, and other important organizational aspects.
When you read this, please bear in mind that what I am sharing carries my experience as a white, gender questioning person with complex mental health struggles, who grew up pretty middle class – and this piece is not a complete picture of all that may be possible or needed.
The tips I am sharing could be helpful for anyone though – no matter the context in which you fight for social change, especially if you want to center your wellbeing over productivity. All these tips are an invitation: take what resonates and leave the rest.
1. REST, REST, REST
If you are feeling even just a little tired or stressed, I encourage you to start with creating more space for rest.
During my time as a campaigner for various NGOs, it was incredibly easy to convince myself that rest could wait (another day, week, month, the end of that burning project). I treated it as something secondary, as if there were things more important than meeting a very basic need.
My relationship with rest was also influenced by the idea that you should be taking care of yourself mainly so that you will be able to take care of others, or to continue fighting.
That sentiment does have value -showing up for yourself is showing up for others too – but it still doesn’t sit fully right with me. It’s based on the premise that we are resting so that we can be productive again, so that we can do. But rest is not earned. We all have an inherent right to rest, because it is a basic need to be met, because it is one of the foundational ways we care for our wellbeing.
The ability to easily create time for rest is a privilege though. It is not so easy to create space for it if there is no appropriate financial security, paid sick leave, support and care for your family, or when there are too many responsibilities and commitments on one person’s shoulders. No matter the barriers you are working with, there is always space for starting small though.
Let your body know that you are listening, that you care for the messages that it is sending to you, even if it is something tiny. That could look like taking a short break, or taking a small action to respond to a need that you heard on the day. Remember that rest is not necessarily about slowing down. You can rest your mind and your body by being active, by releasing through movement, by switching off your phone and having quality time with a loved one. Don’t limit what rest looks like to getting a good night sleep, napping, or taking a day off (although these are all very important!). Make rest look like what feels best and most accessible to you in the moment.
2. GET TO KNOW WHAT BURNOUT FEELS LIKE FOR YOU
Recognising the warning signs indicating that you might be on your way to burning out can be difficult, but it is so important.
Even though there are many definitions of burnout out there, what burnout looks and feels like is completely personal to each of us. As a starting point, get familiar with some of the burnout definitions,and pay attention to the symptoms you experience when you are feeling stressed and tired. Keep track of how your feelings change over time, and identify if you’re experiencing a pattern of stress, overwhelm or exhaustion.
3. LISTEN TO YOUR NEEDS ON A DAILY BASIS
Our well-being needs are complex and sometimes conflicting. Meeting them is not always straightforward, and it can get messy. An important lesson for me after burning out was realising that there is not one size fits all. There is no quick fix. There is only what works for you.
One way to gain awareness on what works best for you is getting into the habit of checking in with yourself daily. Take time to gather information before making decisions or jumping to solutions. Feel what your body is communicating, and why, and allow yourself to hear your thoughts better.
There are many ways you can do this: doing a quick body-scan, free writing/journaling, going for a reflective walk, using self-reflective tools like tarot, or simply asking yourself the question “How I am feeling? what do I really need today?” and pick 1-3 things to do to respond to that need.
And if at any point you feel like doing this is a struggle, just remember to be compassionate with yourself and simply stay curious!
4. GET CLEAR ON WHAT ORGANISATIONAL OR SYSTEMIC CHANGES MIGHT BE SUPPORTIVE
Burnout is a systemic issue, and requires organisations and movements to look at their systems, approaches and culture to really be tackled effectively.
Many responses to burnout focus on individual responsibility rather than addressing systemic and organisational factors that are affecting burnout and wellbeing. One example is the prevalence of wellbeing programmes or packages made available to employees alongside the absence of activity exploring changes in workload, identifying toxic internal politics, or tackling discrimination and oppression within an organisation or group.
Considering that there are many aspects that might be affecting you at an organisational or systemic level, it can be helpful to get clear on what factors are impacting you the most, so that you can start by focusing on those.
You might want to get a better understanding of what feels possible when it comes to changing those factors in the short-term. This will give you a clearer picture of your needs and potential coping mechanisms during this time. If you feel like there isn’t much room for improvement, this is still useful information to consider. It can tell you whether the environment you are working with is conducive to your wellbeing enough or not, and allow you to start thinking about steps you can take
5. DEFINE YOUR CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE
Burnout happens across society, but there are some characteristics specific to burnout in activism and organising. One of them is the culture of martyrdom. This intense sense of responsibility can be hard to brush aside. People working in social change tend to strongly self-identity with their role or have a strong emotional attachment to the results of their efforts. There is often an overwhelming feeling of all the responsibility resting on one person’s shoulders to change or improve things. It can make it hard to build and hold boundaries that allow for your own nurturing. This sense of urgency, an overwhelming need to react to the issues that are happening, make it even easier to push and postpone needs, deep rest, down the bottom of the list. But you are not the only one responsible for all of the world’s issues, and you definitely can’t solve them on your own.
One way to remind yourself of this is by defining your circle of influence in a situation, or in an environment like your community or workplace.
To do this, you can look for the things that are outside of your control, and those that you can influence or change. Your circle of influence is where you want to focus most of your energy, and it is the place where you can still do something, no matter what others are doing or how others interact with it.
Once you have done this, you might also want to evaluate what kind of involvement feels accessible and sustainable to you. Just because there are many actions within your circle of influence, it doesn’t mean you have to do them all, or all at once. Think carefully about your capacity, and also about what you love doing rather than what you think you are supposed to be doing. You can set a limit of intake with responsibilities and say no to what feels outside of your capacity.
6. CONTRIBUTE IN WAYS THAT ARE A GOOD FIT FOR YOU
Burnout can be more of a risk when we are contributing in ways that are challenging fits for us. Creating change can sometimes feel one note, and look like it’s made for an extroverted active person. But we all have different strengths and magic within ourselves, so there is no reason to limit your options. When you look at your circle of influence, you can consider what activities are most accessible and meaningful to you (or what tweaks and support would be needed to make it more so).
7. FOCUS ON THE NEXT STEP
If you have multitudes of passions and causes you care about, you might feel overwhelmed and confused on where to focus your energy. One way to approach it is by just focusing on the next step. Look back at your circle of influence, your current capacity and your strengths. Pick just one thing you could do and commit just to that. Get onto the next action only once that has been completed!
8. CREATING A CARE PLAN
Another helpful tool to prevent burnout is to plan in advance! When you have more capacity and headspace, you can make a care plan for moments when you’re experiencing burnout, so that you won’t have to come up with solutions as you are low energy. You can also ask others to help you create this or keep you accountable to creating it.
When creating a care plan you might want to make sure that you have a mix of activities to support yourself. Remember that these strategies might need to change over time, and that’s okay! Self-care needs to adapt to different phases of your life, so don’t be discouraged if they don’t seem to work at times. Keep updating and revising your plan whenever you feel like it.
9. ALLOW YOURSELF TO RECEIVE SUPPORT AND CARE
Finally, remember that you are not on your own. There is always a community of people passionate about changing the same things you care about. It can be easy to feel disheartened, but we are all in this together! So, if you are feeling overwhelmed, don’t hesitate to reach out to a trusted friend or professional – you don’t have to do this alone.
We can disrupt patterns of burnout that persist in social change spaces if we care for ourselves and each other intentionally, deeply, and intuitively.
About the author
Ambra (she/they) is a certified life coach and tarot reader supporting change-makers to disrupt burnout and thrive with generative boundaries and meaningful communities of care.