Activist burnout is real

I was chatting to someone the other day about how draining activism can be. It’s necessary. It can be rewarding. It can be fulfilling. It can be rage inducing. It can be incredibly frustrating. It’s necessary. And there are times when it’s draining. So draining that you wonder what keeps you going. So draining that it’s difficult to switch off your mind from it, but it also feels like your mind isn’t fully in the game. Activism is necessary, but activist burnout is real.

Looking after yourself, emotionally and physically is key to ensuring that you’re able to give your best to the issue you care about. The issue that has made you want to do more than sound off to friends or on social media (although social media can and does play a role in activism, but more on that in a future essay). At the moment, my main focus is the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution and the introduction of free, safe, legal and accessible abortion for everyone who needs it, regardless of their reason. I also care deeply about ensuring that LGBTQ+ people, particularly those living in rural areas, have the spaces and supports they need.

Self-care is mentioned a lot in activist circles. If you’re familiar with my blog, you’ll know I have a complicated relationship with the notion of self-care. Self-care means different things to different people, so much so that it often sounds like nothing more than background noise. But self-care is mentioned a lot in activist circles because without it long-term activism would be impossible.

Burnout as a concept isn’t new. Its origins stem from a 1974 paper written by psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger. In his paper Freudenberger focused on the experiences of volunteers at a free clinic for people addicted to drugs. He concluded that burnout was to be in a “state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s profession.” Over the years there has been much research into occupational burnout, the most notable of which led to the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). The research of Christina Maslach and her team is considered the gold standard for measuring burnout and its effects on people. One of the major components of burnout is emotional exhaustion.

Post Brexit and the election of 45, many people are coming to activism for the first time. For me it was the marriage equality referendum in 2015. It’s a referendum I am still recovering from, but it emphasised how much on-the-ground work is important. Passive support can only get us so far. We need to do things. We need people to actively engage.

Engaging can be hard. Throwing yourself eagerly into something, only to realise that it’s going to be a tough slog can be disheartening. So, I can understand why you might not want to do it. The other side of that is that there are not enough people doing the things that need to be done. There are not enough people, so those who are doing those things find themselves doing more things than they may have the capacity for. Because to not do the thing, means the thing might not get done. It might, but you don’t know for sure. Not doing the thing, whatever it is on any given day, leaves you feeling guilty and anxious about not doing the thing.

That last one is where I am at the moment. I don’t have the energy to give activism the level of attention it deserves. I’m 18 months deep into the campaign to repeal the Eighth and it’s beginning to wear me out. 18 months is nothing compared to some people and the movement is full of people around me who are as invested as I am.

The thing about taking a break is that I don’t know how long of a break I’ll need and that’s scary. A couple of days are one thing, but if it’s any longer than that the guilt ramps up and I spend a significant amount of time focussed on the things I could and “should” be doing. Which kind of defeats the point of taking a break, doesn’t it? It’s exhausting and the worry about finding it exhausting makes it even more so. Getting the balance right isn’t easy.

Activist burnout is real and it’s OK to take a step back when you need to look after yourself. It’s OK to do what you need to do, without feeling guilty about all the things you “should” be doing. Sometimes recharging your batteries, so you are able to step back into the fray, is the best thing you can do. Putting yourself first is not selfish. Activist burnout is real, but it shouldn’t be seen as a badge of honour.


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