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We 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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