‘We can't slow down’: Combatting activist burnout

Research suggests that fighting for a cause can put you at risk of burnout — and organizations in Ontario have started taking action
By Clara Pasieka - Published on Feb 10, 2020
People gather at a climate-change protest in Toronto on September 27, 2019. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

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“We can't slow down, or we’ll let them win.” Climate Justice Toronto organizer Mia Sanders says they’ve heard some version of that sentiment from colleagues many times — just before they’ve burned out.

Work-related burnout is a commonly acknowledged phenomenon. What Sanders is seeing, though, is a specialized form: activist burnout.

Amara Possian, a professor in the government-relations graduate program at Seneca College in Toronto, describes it as a state characterized by overwhelming physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that is often experienced after a sustained or intense involvement in activist work. When someone is working at “an urgent fast pace that is totally unsustainable,” she says, “they are more likely to burn out.”

Research suggests that activists are “especially susceptible” to vocational burnout — and organizations have started taking action.

“Activists often have lived experience — often negative — that relates to what they are fighting for or against, so it feels like the problem, at a systematic level, is massive,” says Climate Justice Peel’s Linda Bui, who also co-founded the region’s Girls Empowerment Movement. Activists, she adds, are also often working, or more likely volunteering, through organizations without formalized benefits, leave provisions, or an HR department.

“There is such urgency, and, at the same time, we have to take care of ourselves because we are in it for the long haul,” says Possian, who is also an organizer with the climate group Our Time and a campaign manager for 350 Canada.

Possian, 30, has firsthand experience of activist burnout. For her, it set in after the 2015 federal election. “I had worked hard before. But what was different that time was the physical toll it took on me,” she says. “I had lost the ability to absorb nutrients. I had developed a really serious iron deficiency and was almost anemic. It was emotionally tough. The stress had taken a massive toll on my body that, frankly, took two or three years to recover.”

But Possian says she’s noticed a big shift since she became engaged in activism 10 years ago and that groups are now having conversations about the role different types of care can play in preventing burnout — and the personal and organizational toll it can take.

Sanders points to four kinds of care: self-soothing, self-care, community care, and structural care. And they say that, for organizations, focusing on the last two is an important part of reducing burnout.

Self-soothing, they say, could mean something like taking a bubble bath: such an activity, though, provides only temporary relief. By contrast, self-care involves “more sustained or ritualistic practices of nourishing your body — things like meditating, going to therapy.”

Community care, Possian says, “looks like child care or different kinds of housing arrangements, co-housing — any time a group of people come together to reduce harms, share skills, take care of each other.” Some local Our Time groups, she notes, now offer workshops that cover how to integrate community care into organizing. 

Bui says that centring community care is about “recognizing that we need to put each others’ well-being first” — and often means that organizations need to clean up their own houses. Activist circles are not free from systemic gender and race inequalities, she says, so “centring community care has also meant we are pushing back against hierarchies that have often existed in many activist organizations that can create a toxic environment to work within.” Creating safer spaces, she says, allows groups to keep the momentum going over the long term.

Structural care is perhaps the trickiest to address, Sanders says, because it involves ensuring access to “life-giving” services, such as public transportation and universal health care, that are often provided by the state — the very things activists may be fighting for in the first place. 

Some groups are hosting sessions specifically on activist burnout, often on university and college campuses (according to the Samara Centre for Democracy, Gen Zers and millennials are more likely than any other demographics to engage in protests or other political actions outside mainstream voting).

One such group is the Burnout Project, which organizes and runs workshops intended to give activists the tools to recognize, prevent, and combat what it calls an “epidemic.” Co-founder Leah Bae’s mission, like Possian’s, was triggered by her own experience. “When I was going through it at the time, I was so deeply confused and low without any language or awareness to describe what I was going through,” she says. Venues such as workshops, she says, allow people to share personal challenges and vulnerabilities and come together as a community.

Bae says that she tells activist leaders that “one of the most powerful things you can do is be open about your own experience with burnout, an experience others may share that can be very lonely.” It’s especially important for leaders to encourage such discussions, she says, because “often people who need it the most can’t find the time to come” to sessions about care or mental health.

So what should people do when they’re dedicated to a larger cause but need to tend to their own well-being?

Possian says she now tells those she organizes: “If you are starting to feel the signs of burnout, and you are looking for permission to take a break, this is the permission. Take a break.”

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