How to avoid burnout

The London Roots Collective shares its tips on how to be an effective, radical and sustainable activist

July 4, 2013
5 min read

burnoutWe all know the warning signs. There’s a crucial opportunity, some amazing ideas and only a handful of people to do a lot of work. You carry on regardless, you’re committed people, you’ll make it happen, no matter how exhausted you get. The highs immediately after finishing a project or having a win are regularly followed by a quick, sharp comedown combined with the feeling that you need to hibernate for . . . ever?

Burnout can also involve the more subtle equation of ongoing workload and destructive attitudes and behaviours, regardless of whether everything’s kicking off. It is important to ask how can we work sustainably, both individually and collectively.

Support each other

Take time to hear how others in your group are doing. While people might react by claiming they ‘don’t have time to discuss feelings, with so many things to do’ it’s important to know how your co-conspirators are doing. What’s going on in the rest of their lives that may affect their behaviour in the group? How are they feeling about the direction of a campaign? If the size of the task you’ve set yourselves seems insurmountable, or your group’s had a setback, it can help to share these feelings, hear that others are feeling the same way and find ways to support each other. Doing things socially with others in your group can also be a good way to avoid isolation.

Be realistic

Don’t take on everything. Take the time to plan, try to do it as far in advance as possible and consider whether ideas are truly realistic with the timescale and organisers you have. Is it actually going to be possible to overthrow global capitalism by the end of the year? If you know organisers’ availability and individual time limits, from the start to the finish of a project, you can decide whether to scale it back or try to get more people involved if necessary.

Identify group members’ skills, knowledge and ways of working

Getting a sense of the skills, strengths, weaknesses and gaps in your group can help you be aware of your limitations. If only one person knows how to do a specific task it can soon become a burden. Build skill sharing into roles and action points, so a job can be rotated. Learning new skills can be an empowering way for people to get involved.

Know your own limits

Trust your instincts and know your capacity. When an action point is left hanging in protracted silence, the person who takes it on is often the individual who finds that situation most uncomfortable, rather than the person with any capacity to get the task done. It’s okay for your response to be ‘no’ instead of assuming you’ll just cope on five hours sleep instead of six. If some members of a group are happy saying ‘no’ in meetings this makes it easier for everyone to be realistic about their own time. Within your group ensure people know their choices will be respected and supported and that they won’t be judged by others even if they don’t have much capacity. If no one can take on a crucial action point maybe it’s time to re-evaluate the scale of the project and/or make a concerted effort to recruit more organisers.

Do and learn, do and learn, etc

Making the same mistakes is demoralising and de-motivating – feelings that are closely associated with burnout. The best way to make sure this doesn’t happen is to learn from your mistakes. Put time into debriefing after events and actions. Discuss what worked well and what didn’t and identify things to change for next time. Then make sure you use this information in future plans; important insights are too often left languishing on carefully folded pieces of flipchart paper. This process can be really useful for groups to stay energised and inspired.

Do what you love

Don’t underestimate the importance of taking personal motivations into account when thinking about your group’s strategy. No matter how much someone ‘believes in the cause’, it’s much more likely that they’ll stick around if the things they get to do are the things they are passionate about. If your time is continually occupied with tasks you don’t enjoy, why wouldn’t you end up bitter, bored and indifferent? At times we all have to do things we don’t like doing, but make sure those aren’t the only things someone does. Doing what you love also applies to taking time for yourself and remembering it’s important to have a life outside activism!

London Roots Collective is a new workshops, training and facilitation collective working with grassroots community and activist groups. One of the workshops it offers is on working sustainably and avoiding burnout. Illustration by Cressida Knapp


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant


256