How do we keep going in a world where so many things around us tell us to give up – on our personal dreams, on making a difference, on the vision of a better society? We can find ourselves ground down by exhaustion, constantly fire-fighting crises, surrounded by people proud of their narrow self-interest, bruised by conflict in our movements and communities, facing violent repression, despairing at the endless race to the right while the planet burns. Is there any point in doing anything?
We lose the capacity to act beyond the most trivial levels. We turn away from difficult subjects, resign ourselves to not being able to change anything in our own lives, find it impossible to stay involved in activism. We spend our lives working without a spark of interest, consuming whatever we can afford, doing what we have to to keep ourselves and our families afloat – and nothing else. We become trapped by lives other people have set out for us, in a society we feel unable to change. This is known as burning out.
Burnout and loss of agency
At its simplest, burnout is how our emotional systems respond to spending too long in fight-or-flight mode. Stress in itself (what triggers fight-or-flight) is not unhealthy: people who don’t have enough often go looking for it, in extreme sports or elsewhere. But like any other animal, we can handle stress because it isn’t all the time. Hunting animals such as cats spend much of their lives resting or asleep, so they can spring into action when needed. Too much stress, for too long, overloads this bodily system and we ‘burn out’.
Stress has many causes: precarity, never knowing if you’ll have enough money at the end of the month or if you will lose your housing; supporting others battling the system; the endless drumbeat of repression on our movements and communities; constantly responding to bad news about the climate, or transphobia, or racism. When we can’t fight – take meaningful action, if possible together with others – or flee the situation, but have to stay frozen in the headlights, we can move quickly towards burnout.
Burnout is a collective as well as an individual problem, so solving it requires collective action
Burnout is not the same as trauma (caused by personal or secondary exposure to violence, abuse and shocks of different kinds), or depression, though they can go together. We may need counselling, support from friends or comrades or time alone to tease out if we are suffering from burnout specifically.
Causes of burnout
Neoliberal capitalism, contemporary patriarchy, the racialised global order – all these expose us to the causes of burnout in particular ways. We may be exposed to constant low-level fear or aggression. Our own survival or our family’s may depend on endless juggling, trying to stop one thing from falling apart before turning to another. We can’t trust in the kindness of strangers, the structures of the welfare state, a decent workplace, a safe family or community, even our own movements. Threats keep coming from different directions, and all too often we cannot confront them effectively, let alone collectively.
Neoliberalism also tells us this is our own personal problem. We should be making ourselves into confident, ‘disruptive’, well-dressed, sexy, sporty, entrepreneurial, popular, wealthy individuals, and if we aren’t (while so many people on our screens apparently are) it’s our own failing, never mind if our children are struggling in the same way. This is how the world is – and if we haven’t experienced it any other way, where can we find the confidence to resist?
If you live in a powerful country that doesn’t pay much attention to the rest of the world, where largescale collective action is rare, it is particularly easy to imagine that the way things are right now is normal and unchangeable. And then the sense of being frozen is intensified.
CREDIT: LAURENCE WARE
Empowerment through activism
How can we tackle burnout, individually and collectively? The starting point is to notice when it is happening and see if there is any way to find rest, get out of the fight-or-flight zone. Often, we need to talk to others, ask if they can help. These conversations also help make sure that we aren’t simply retreating, but trying to find our way back to a place we can effectively act from.
This is one reason why activism is so often empowering: it is a step away from freezing up, towards the healthy emotional response of acting to overcome a threat. Even simply saying something rather than keeping silent may be transformative, in the right circumstances. As organisers know, a small win on something that matters in our own lives is a powerful first step. Labour and community struggles often start with the very basics, small things that make our lives stressful or unbearable, and work outwards from there. In the process, they can free up enormous energy.
Burnout and wider mental health struggles
Mental health is political, as activists have stressed at least since the 1970s, with movements of mental health patients and survivors, anti-psychiatry and ‘mad pride’. It goes beyond the very real need to battle for more resources for services, to questions about the power of professionals as against patients and the gendered and family politics of mental health. Today’s weaponisation of psychiatric language against trans youth (‘rapid-onset gender dysphoria’ as a way not only of calling them crazy but also legitimising conversion therapy) and the long legacy of psychiatric incarceration as a means of social control are just the most visible aspects of the power dynamics of mental health.
Burnout is about how far we are able to be an active subject, individually or collectively, in our own lives. Patriarchy means that women, non-binary people and LGBTQIA+ people are controlled in different ways from early childhood onwards, in their families and wider society. The same is often true for neurodiverse and disabled people. Class, race and ethnicity often (not always) work from the outside in, where working-class and ethnic minority people can be treated very differently in schools, mental health settings, by courts and so on. These same patterns are familiar in the sociology of health and mental health.
Any successful movement knows how to support many different kinds of people to take action in challenging circumstances over long periods. It is not time wasted from the important stuff: that is neoliberalism speaking
The struggles of people with mental health issues are often multiple and overlapping: the battle to get support, but also for the specific support they need; reliance on family and carers, but also intimate conflicts around being patronised or spoken for; the battle for a diagnosis to unlock resources, but also critical reflection on what those diagnoses mean. Between creating organisations led by people with mental health issues rather than professionals or charities speaking for them, navigating political conflicts over the implications of research and how people’s daily lives are often a practical struggle – genuine collective voice is a huge achievement, which activists in other movements easily underestimate.
Mutual aid and community resilience
Burnout is a collective as well as an individual problem, so solving it requires collective action. But burnout also makes collective action harder to sustain, while neoliberalism erodes any sense of relationship. This is one reason why relatively low-level forms of support often seem attractive. Mutual aid of many kinds – the ‘solidarity economy’ – grew across the global north during the pandemic, with solidarity kitchens such as Cooperation Birmingham’s delivering food to people in isolation. However, it has a much longer history in deprived communities, particularly those with strong collective traditions. For example, Greece after the 2008 crash saw a flourishing of free medical clinics and pharmacies supporting those without insurance or documents. Childcare, kindergartens and radical education are other familiar examples.
As we support one another, we see immediate results from our own action as well as giving others a bit more breathing space. Both can help to tackle burnout, in the longer term helping to create more resilient communities (geographical, ethnic, LGBTQIA+, neurodiverse etc). A crucial distinction is between charity models looking to wealthy individuals, corporate donors or local powerbrokers, and self-organisation in whatever form: are we trying to support people’s individual and collective capacity to act?
Genuine self-organisation also means popular education and good analysis. Does the organising process try to identify the causes of precarity, threat and despair and help participants to see their own action as political? Are we joining the dots between my neighbour’s struggle to get the care she needs and the battle over the wider shape of society? Are we working with other activist groups and networks, or trying hard to present ourselves as acceptably neutral to the papers or the council?
Regenerative cultures and activism
There is no single right way to organise. Depending on who and where we are, many different things can get in the way of overcoming burnout. Are we struggling to survive from day to day in material ways? Do we have the skills needed to engage in organisations? Do we have a way of being with ourselves that enables activism?
Historically, being an activist normally happens in a context: in workplaces for labour organising; in community activism; as a job (in movement organisations); in our ‘free time’ outside work. The often-successful organising of gig economy workers in recent years shows that it is possible in even the hardest places – but it does take time and thought.
Our cultural context – and how other people around us see our attempts at taking action – also makes a difference. Are we part of a movement that is deeply embedded in the culture we grew up in? Are our family and local culture broadly tolerant of activists? Is agency something we really only see in people our own age and younger? Or does it only exist in very marginalised subcultures?
Since the 1970s, for example, working-class community organising in Ireland – often driven by women – has paid careful attention to creating the conditions and relationships in which people can thrive and develop powerful collective agency despite multi-generational oppression and poverty. Over time, starting from scratch, communities have built up the capacity to support one another as an integral part of their organising. This experience is not unique, but it takes time.
If we start out isolated or overwhelmed as we try to work all of this out from scratch, it can help to look for inspiration and resources. We might find our way to something like the trainings run by the Ulex Project in the Pyrenees and elsewhere, residential workshops in regenerative activism for individuals and groups. These integrate the personal, the interpersonal and the collective in what I have personally found a transformative space (full disclosure: I now collaborate on Ulex trainings).
The idea of regenerative (movement) cultures suggests a conscious attempt to create ways of organising that are not only sustainable over time but actively renew and refresh us in the face of a world that does the exact opposite. How can we connect our personal struggle with burnout to manageable forms of collective action? How do we build movements that are not simply driven by adrenaline and a sense of urgency or despair, but have the capacity to win over time against deeply-entrenched opposition? How can we genuinely value one another, make alliances despite our differences, and enjoy collective agency? How can we see and support one another’s needs in the process, and be comfortable with articulating our own?
However we do this – mutual aid or political education, friendship and comradeship, making time for deep conversations, socials and festivals, integrating children and families, radical music or art – it takes time. Any successful movement knows how to support many different kinds of people to take action in challenging circumstances over long periods. It is not time wasted from the important stuff: that is neoliberalism speaking.
By contrast, unsuccessful organisations treat people as disposable, shame them for their inability to keep upping the ante and abandon them in difficulty. Supporting people to have rich and fulfilling lives, as well as transforming the world, means overcoming burnout – and helping people to return to the fray.