Who will take over once we burn out? The dangers of activist burnout

Author: Mo Pauwels (Sociaal Werk HOGENT)

“Who will take over when we are all burned out? When we are mentally and physically drained because of the never-ending amount of work we get as activists?”, it’s a question a lot of activists worry about, and don’t always know the answer to. Activist burnout is not a new concept, activists from all over the world are very aware of this issue, but no one really has time to deal with it. When you have to make the choice between self-care and fighting for human rights, a lot of activists prioritize the fight.

When there is so much demand, so much more to do, what right do you have to pay for your own needs? You just go on stretching, working more hours at night, doing without. You keep pulling it off—off your own back.

This kind of organising is amazing. It is enormously powerful, flexible, responsive, grounded in real issues, and deeply connected to community.

For many, it is also the beginning of a cycle that will eventually threaten their ability to work safely and sustainably. (Barry & Đorđević, 2007, pp. 11-12)

I completed both of my internships at activist organizations. The first one I did was at CATAPA vzw, an organisation from Ghent that focuses on the ecological and social impacts of mining, mainly in South America, and is filled with climate activists. For my second internship, I went to Sofia, Bulgaria to learn from the LGBT+ activists at Bilitis Foundation. Whilst both of these were activist organisations, they focussed on very different topics. One thing they both had in common though: at least half of the people who worked at each of these organisations struggled with burnout. During my time at Bilitis, I had the opportunity to attend the yearly ILGA-Europe conference where I met LGBT+activists from all over Europe and Central Asia. Conferences like these are crucial for social justice movements like the LGBT+ rights movement, but I couldn’t help but notice how exhausted everyone was when I talked to them about their work. I got the feeling that a lot of people are at least aware of the problem, but no one really has the time or the energy to try to do something about it. This is what motivated me to write this article about the issue of activist burnout. I want to learn more about what causes it, whom it affects most, and what can be done about it. Over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten close to some activists and have had a lot of conversations about this topic.This is something that’s very close to my heart and something that is not talked about enough yet in my opinion.

All of this led me to the problem of sustainability. This is not a sustainable way of working and has a big impact on the activists, the specific organisations they work for, and the movement as a whole. Furthermore, it also affects the target group and society as a whole. Activists play a crucial role when it comes to politicizing the daily struggles of specific members of society and they empower people to fight for their rights. This is something that the social work field cannot live without. When an activist burns out, it starts a whole chain of events that limits the movement and the fight for human and equal rights.

Research method

I started the research on this topic by simply talking to the different activists I was surrounded by. I had conversations about what activism means to them, what drives them to be an activist, if they struggled with burnout, and how this affects them and their work. None of these conversations were formal or professional, they mostly happened during our short lunch break, or when we just completed a task and needed a five-minute break, but they allowed me to form a connection with the activists and really get to know them, their feelings and opinions. After these conversations, I decided to start doing some research.

This paper is based on a literary study. Most, if not all, of my sources are academic articles or books from the United States of America. I started this research by first reading up about what activism and burnout are, what they mean and where they come from. After this, I started looking for sources that could tell me more about the causes of activist burnout and what the consequences might be. I used the HOGENT databases to search for and find the sources I have used.

Social work and activism

Not all activists are social workers, and not all social workers are activists, but there’s a big overlap between the two. The Global Definition of the Social Work Profession reads as follows:

Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.  Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge's, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance well being. The above definition may be amplified at national and/or regional levels. (International Federation of Social Workers, 2014).

Most activists also follow this definition. They promote social change and encourage and empower people to get together and fight for this change, thus promoting social cohesion. They fight for the liberation of people by calling out the structural and institutional issues that restrict equality and promote discrimination. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibilities and respect for diversity are just as important for activistsas they are for social workers. However, we cannot pretend that all activist movements follow these values and principles exactly, just like not all social work organizations do.

Furthermore, they need each other. In Social Work is a Human Rights Profession (Mapp, McPherson, Androff, & Gabel, 2019) it is stated that, according to the global definition, social work is human rights work. Making sure people get access to their basic human rights is an important part of social work, and “activism means that professionals join with their clients and communities in the struggles that affect all our lives.” (Mapp, McPherson, Androff, &Gabel, 2019). By trying to change unjust systems, social workers are involved with advocacy and activism. Advocating for solutions to common issues and these unjust systems to policymakers is also a way for social workers to be activists on a more structural level.

Activists and their grassroots organisations play a crucial part in politicizing the daily struggles of specific groups in society (and sometimes even society as a whole), they also empower people to fight for their rights. They engage and motivate people and institutions to fight against societal problems and human rights violations. Activists can call out problems and challenge institutions, but don’t always have the power or access to change these, this is where social workers can step in to make that change happen.

The aim of the activist is to provide hope for constructive change so that optimism can replace despair and concrete solutions can alleviate daily struggles... Activism at the community, state, and national levels is the key to successful functioning and the promise of equality for all. And we, as social workers, can make a difference through a vision, a dedication, and a commitment. (Allen-Maeres & Burman, 1995)

Activism and burnout

Before we start to explore the causes and consequences of activist burnout, it’s important to understand what activism means, but also what burnout means.

Activism is not easy to define, especially since many different types of activism exist. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as follows: Activism is “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue”. However, this is a pretty vague definition and doesn’t help us understand the concept of activism much better. In my opinion, the definition of activism depends on the type of activism one is talking about. Activism focuses on different themes and topics, some, but not all, of these topics include LGBT+ rights, climate justice, racial justice, political activism, social justice and human rights, labour rights, etc. Since there are activists and movements all over the world, it’s also not that easy to discuss the history of activism. I think I have more important things to say and only a limited amount of space to say them, which is why I will not discuss the long and complex history of activism in this article.

Burnout is not a new term and has been used in different contexts over time. The following definition comes from the book Career Burnout: Causes and Cures (1998):

Burnout is defined, and subjectively experienced, as a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in situations that are emotionally demanding. The emotional demands are often caused by a combination of very high expectations and chronic situational stresses. Burnout is accompanied by an array of symptoms including physical depletion, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, disillusionment and the development of negative self-concept and negative attitudes towards work, people and life itself. In its extreme form, burnout represents a breaking point beyond which the ability to cope with the environment is severely hampered. (Malakh-Pines & Aroson, 1998, cited in Wettlaufer, 2015)

So how does burnout manifest in activists? Maslach and Gomez (2006) describe it as “the initial “fire” and enthusiasm, dedication, and commitment to the cause has “burned out”, leaving behind the smoldering embers of exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness”. Activist burnout is something that is increasingly talked about, but not a lot of quantitative research has been done and it’s not easy to find recent statistics on the topic. In 2003, Klandermans found that around 50% - 60% of activists suffer from burnout and quit their activism (in Gorski & Chen, 2015a). I wasn’t able to find any more recent statistics, but it would not surprise me if these numbers are still the same, if not higher.

Causes of activist burnout

There is no one cause of activist burnout, whether an activist gets burnt out, depends on both personal factors as well as institutional or structural ones (Wettlaufer, 2015). Some people are more susceptible to burnout than others, how the organization they work for deals with this, if they have a safety net in place, can make a big difference. The problem is bigger than that, however.

…burnout is being increasingly recognized—or perhaps resigned—as a symptom of modern life itself, regardless of one’s occupation. We live in an era of globalized capitalism that takes as a given the value of “forward” progress, constant production, and an ever-increasing efficiency of life itself, often at the expense of social responsibility, environmental ethics, or even personal wellbeing. (Wettlaufer, 2015)

This idea that we need to keep growing and keep going forward, while profit and efficiency are seen as more important than personal well-being, has a negative effect on all aspects of life and is also a problematic mindset within activist movements. People get used to a certain amount of stress, and this amount keeps growing the longer we live in this capitalistic system, as a consequence people don’t notice the burnout creeping up on them. Being a “workaholic” is seen as something positive, even if the movement tries to actively fight against these assumptions. “While burnout is considered a bad thing, living and fighting on the brink of it is seen as something to take pride in, or aspire to, rather than resent or avoid (although these sentiments may also coexist)” (Wettlaufer, 2015). As mentioned in the introduction, self-care isn’t something most activists prioritize, which makes them that much more susceptible to burnout. There is a certain “culture of martyrdom” amongst activists where being overworked is something to be proud of and proves how much you care about the cause (Gorski,2015).

“…Scholars who study activist burnout . . . speculate that activists are especially susceptible to burnout due to their deeply-felt commitments to social justice causes and the emotional investments they put into their activism.” (Gorski& Chen, 2015a).  Being aware of these injustices and problems takes a toll on people, especially when the overall population chooses to not acknowledge them, and it’s a big burden to carry (Gorski & Chen, 2015a).

The work for activists never ends. “Across the world, across all sectors of activism, activists are looking for more time. They are all constantly trying to balance too much work with too few resources and never enough rest.” (Barry& Đorđević, 2007, p. 23). On top of all that, the fight is personal for most activists. From the conversations I’ve had with multiple activists, as well as from my own personal perspective and experience, activism isn’t like any other normal job. Most people who fight for queer rights are queer themselves, people who fight for racial justice and equality are often not white, people fighting for women’s rights are women, etc. The fight doesn’t end at 6 pm when you leave the office, you’re not just fighting for other people’s rights, but also for your own. This takes a big toll on your mental health, especially if things are not progressing the way you want them to. People who are part of a marginalized group, face a bigger risk of additional stress, discrimination, anxiety and emotional exhaustion (Gorski & Chen, 2015a;Wattlaufer, 2015).

As Barry and Đorđević (2007) write, there are never enough funds for all the workt hey do. You can’t ask for more money, because you run the risk that donors and funders will stop supporting the movement. By now they have gotten used to the “low price” of activism, and challenging this notion isn’t something activists have the time or energy for. Getting donors and keeping them is another problem. More often than not, a movement or organisation will only get funds for projects, and most of the time this is short-term funding. Activists get trapped in “an endless funding cycle” where they have to keep looking for new donors. On top of that, you don’t just get these funds for free, there are strings attached. You need to prove that the funds are necessary and have an impact, you have to write reports about the project you did and how it positively influenced social change, and there are donor visits to the organization that take up a lot of time and effort. All the work you put into this, is time and effort you could’ve put into actual work.

Wettlaufer (2015) discusses more risk factors, these include but are not limited to the following. Activism can take over your life, and different areas of someone’s life start to overlap: they form relationships and friendships with other activists, read up on the problems and injustices they’re focused on, their roommates are activists, they stay in friendly contact with other (young) activists, etc. Activists are often seen by their non-activist peers and family as “the resident radical”, which can create tensions. They deal with these big, complex, all-consuming issues that can make it feel like a “burden to save the world”. Not to mention that activism is often unpaid or underpaid, and it’s hard to keep sustaining oneself when you need money to survive.  

Another problem comes with visibility and safety. Some activists need to keep a low profile for their own safety:

Queer activism is so marginalised in so many countries, that many groups have to stay completely under the radar. Because of this, they are often unsupported, unregistered, possibly ’unprofessional’ and—in the eyes of many—not ‘strategic’. These are all the things that funders usually don’t like to or can’t fund. (Barry & Đorđević, 2007)

There are many more causes of activist burnout, depending on the context, the target group, the way the movement is organized, the culture within the movement, etc. All of these factors, together with personal susceptibility, make for an environment where the problem of burnout can grow and grow, and since no one is really paying attention to it, it creeps up on you.

Consequences of burnout

On an individual level, Gorski and Chen (2015b) write that the symptoms or consequences of burnout are: “(1) the deterioration of physical health; (2) the deterioration of psychological and emotional health; and (3) hopelessness”.  

Most activists deal with burnout by partially or completely withdrawing from activism and trying to find a way to sustain themselves better (Gorski & Chen,2015a). This greatly influences the organization and the movement and makes them less effective.  

When an activist burns out, it sets a chain of events in motion and influences more people than you might expect. As mentioned before, activism is a crucial part of society and change and greatly influences social workers. Not only the actual activist will be affected, someone who is forced to stop fighting wil lhave an influence on the organisation they work for, the movement as a whole, but also society in general.

When an activist burns out, she typically derails her career and damages her self-esteem and relationships. She also deprives her organization and movement of her valuable experience and wisdom. The worst problem, however, maybe that when an activist burns out she deprives younger activists of a mentor, thus making them more likely to burn out..." (Hilary Rettig, 2006, cited in Cox, 2011)

Let’s break this down using an example. A 30-year-old queer activist burns out after 12 years and decides to leave their organisation to focus on their mental health.  The organisation they work for now needs to figure out how to keep going without them and how to take over all of the work they did. A new activist will take their place, but since there aren’t any systems or structures in place to transfer all of the previous activists’ knowledge and experience, all of this will be lost, and the new activist has to start from square one and learn everything themselves. All of this takes time and effort, and that’s time and effort they can’t put into their target group and the movement, which harms the movement because they start lagging behind. This then has an influence on the target group, in this case, the queer community. Since the movement is struggling, their work might not be that effective and they might not be able to put as much pressure on policymakers, government officials, other organisations or institutions, etc. to effect social change, this has an impact on society as a whole. The work activists do, gets harder to do, and we get stuck in this vicious cycle of an activist burning out, another one taking their place, just for them to burn out as well.

Social workers are mixed in on all levels since they are active on all levels of society. Activist burnout concerns them, because they’re either activists themselves, or the consequences affect them and their work.

This way of working is not sustainable and hinders the social change we desperately need.

Instead of figuring out ways to take care of ourselves and each other, social justice groups lose brilliant and committed activists to burnout, disillusionment and poor health. As a result, movements are plagued by fragmentation, lack of reflection and discussion, and 'wheel reinventing' that keeps them from moving their agendas forward. (Plyer, 2006, in Cox, 2011).

Critical reflection and challenge

Activists are taken for granted. Activism is more than attending a rally or posting something on social media. The work they do is crucial, but most of it goes unseen and unappreciated. Social workers and the social work field cannot be seen separately from activism, one could even go as far as to say that social work should be more activist.

Activist burnout is a topic that is slowly starting to be more talked about, but no one really does anything about it. It is our job as social workers to support activists, to help form a culture where burnout is something that is talked about and self-care is prioritized. Social workers need activists, and activists need social workers, it is important that this partnership is maintained and taken care of. Otherwise, we cannot do our job as social workers, which is a human rights profession.

In this article, I’ve discussed why social work and activism are connected, or should be connected. Before I discussed some of the causes of activist burnout, I gave an introduction to what activism is and how burnout manifests itself in activists. Afterwards, I discussed what the consequences of activist burnout are, and how they make movements less effective and sustainable, which influences social change and human rights. Understanding activist burnout is an important step towards a more sustainable form of activism.

The causes of activist burnout are numerous and complicated, some are connected to the capitalistic system we live in and are harder to influence, while others are related to the culture within movements. It’s here that we can make a difference.  

So, what can we, as social workers, do about it? How can we reform the culture within activism so it’s more sustainable and activists get more time and space to focus more on self-care, which will decrease the number of activists who burn out? How can we support activists better?



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