In this article, four activists (including myself) look at the topic of burnout — what causes it, how to avoid it and how to handle it in day to day life.
A lot of us experience burnout, but what actually is it? According to Psychology Today, “Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.” Burnout can leave you feeling exhausted, lethargic, and sometimes physically ill. It is your body’s way of telling you that’s you’re doing too much and you need to slow down. Anyone can experience burnout, but it might be more common for those who are students or those with a stressful job or living environment — and it is quite common with activists.
Activists often take the weight of the world on their shoulders as they realise that things need to change, and they are a key part of making that change. This responsibility is exhausting, and can lead them to believing that they have to work constantly. Plus, activists often aren’t paid for the work they do, which means a lot of them have to hold a job alongside their hours of activism. This can be pretty exhausting to say the least. So I have talked to three activists — who I have previously interviewed if you want to learn more about them — Shona Louise, Tori Tsui, and Grace Kress, on their take on burnout.
For me handling burnout begins with being able to recognise it in the first place, and trying to avoid it happening rather than letting it get to the point where it’s overwhelming me. Like many people, my activism is mostly online right now and occasionally I’ll have a tweet take-off. In these instances I find it really important to remember that I cannot reply to everyone, and it’s okay to mute the thread if I need to. I used to get stuck in the trap of replying to every single tweet and it would just exhaust me, so these days handling burnout for me is more about taking steps to avoid it.
Having boundaries is really important, especially online, so don’t feel bad for needing to take a step back. Let someone else take the wheel every now and then.
Burnout has been normalised as the blue print of activism and the capitalistic system. It is precisely why we have to actively resist and dismantle these expectations in order to transform our societies radically. Rest is an active form of resistance in a world which treats people as disposable.
In a society that is profoundly sick, it is ever more important that we focus on healing ourselves, caring for those around us and working towards futures of freedom and joy. In a Capitalist society there needs to be a working class in order for wealth to be generated. Capitalism is founded on exploitation. In order to generate wealth there has to be poverty and that’s why low paid jobs exist and why they are typically the most essential roles within society; care work, cleaning, the production and sale of food etc. We are taught societal myths from an early age, such as, ‘work hard and you will go far’. But our reality is very much a different picture.
The culture of over-working and basing our value on our productivity comes directly from the economic system of Capitalism. It is all too easy to base our self-worth within the confines of the social framework, forgetting that this framework exists in order to sell us stuff and perpetuate the status quo. Liking yourself is revolutionary.
Even deeper than this, to really explore burn-out we have to address our history. Slavery is very obvious and direct example which illustrated how labour has been exploited in order for wealth to be generated. Working conditions were poor and people were worked non-stop in order to make white wealthy people even richer. Similarly, the system of Imperialism continues to exploit international labour and plunders resources of the global south through domination and war.
So when so much of our lives are consumed by work – day jobs, night jobs, raising children, house work, campaigning etc… how do we ensure we don’t burn out?
I really believe that creative expression is the foundation of our freedom. It helps us reflect, rest and rejuvenate. It helps us connect, develop community and explore collaborative processes. It helps us to understand our place in the world, imagine the futures we want to create and even dive deep into the unknown with a sense of exploration and joy rather than fear. Creativity can give us more life. This is a part of why I created Shelby x Studios. I wanted to create a space to connect with other people who also want to create a world with community care at its core.
I also think that to avoid burn out we need to acknowledge that it exists. Here are some of my regular thoughts on how to avoid it:
- Join a revolutionary movement and participate in collective action
- Set boundaries on how much energy you can afford to give
- Remember that you can’t offer anything if you are not in a place to
- Remind yourself that whatever you can offer is enough
- Sometimes just surviving another day is enough
- Practice affirmations to remind you of the positive things and ground yourself
- Rest, sleep, stretch, meditate, eat, drink plenty of water
- Disconnect from technology and get in nature as regularly as you can
- If your body, mind or spirit is telling you something, listen
- Check in with yourself regularly and build collective care practices
I actually emailed these brilliant activists months ago asking if they’d be happy to contribute to an article on burnout. And then I got burnt-out myself and didn’t getting around to writing up the post. I’ve been a university student for the last four years, and alongside that I’ve also had jobs, worked for magazines, been involved with activism, and of course started this blog. Although all these opportunities have been amazing, it has also meant I experience a lot of burnout. And for me this is very physical. When I get burnt-out I am tired all the time, I get ill with colds/ earache/ or headaches, and it is hard for me to go on with what I feel like I need to do.
I think something that has helped me is in realising that rest and doing things you enjoy are just as important as doing the things you feel you *have* to do. If you don’t take the time out for yourself, then you won’t be able to sustain the work you want to do. I love taking baths with herbs and salts, reading, napping, going on walks, or baking, as all of this gives my brain a break and rejuvenates me before I start my next project. I get frustrated at myself sometimes, especially as I don’t seem to be able to do as much as I did before the pandemic, but I think that’s natural and you just need to keep reminding yourself that you are enough, and that relaxation is essential.
So there we are, I hope those tips help you guys with your own burnout. Thank you so much Shona Louise, Tori Tsui, and Grace Kress for your help! Don’t forget to check out their work for more of their brilliant ideas and activism.
What do you guys deal with burnout? Leave a comment below!
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