Avoiding activist burnout: how can campaigners take care of themselves?
Being a campaigner is a vocation. It’s not just a job. For many of us, it feels like a calling.
This makes campaigners intense.
We’re always on.
We care so much. (We care too much?)
And to be an effective campaigner, it feels like we have to always be on. News about our campaigns breaks over the weekend, first thing in the morning or late at night.
We wake up to the Today programme, scan news articles and Twitter on the bus into work, and look at tomorrow’s front pages as we’re getting ready for bed.
We give up our spare time to hold public meetings and to meet with our campaign supporters. We miss tea with the kids or bath time to do a last minute interview on our campaign with the BBC.
For those of us who campaign on particularly harrowing causes, we expose ourselves to terrible stories on a daily basis.
We’re desperate to change things.
To win our campaigns.
We carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. We feel responsible.
And so we go above and beyond, getting into the office at the crack of dawn and staying late.
Until, one day, some of us crash and burnout.
That’s the risk, anyway.
This is obviously not unique to campaigners. There are other professions and vocations that are far more demanding and 24/7.
But I’m writing this for a campaign audience.
And I want to explore how campaigners can take better care of themselves — given the risks that this presents to our health and ultimately the risks it presents to achieving the change that we care about.
What about me?
I’ve recently left Which?, where I led the charity’s campaigns.
It was a full on job.
My department was often juggling 10 or more campaigns at any one time.
We were driven to achieve change and to secure more than 30 campaign wins a year (whether that was changes to business practice, consumer behaviour or government and regulatory policy).
Sometimes I didn’t set a good example to my team.
I was definitely always on.
And while I could point to the positive impact that this had for our campaigns, it definitely came with negative impacts for me — and probably for team members.
In my final year at Which?, I started to see a shift at work. There was a much greater recognition that — as an organisation — we needed to better support staff, particularly when thinking about their mental health.
And talking to colleagues across the charity world — and in businesses and the public sector — this looks like a widespread and positive trend.
Now living the life of a campaign consultant, I have the opportunity to reset. To find a bit more balance.
So as I reflect back on the steps I took to avoid burnout at Which? — and the things I’d do differently in the future, here are 10 tips for things that campaigners can do to take care of themselves.
Tip 1: Set some boundaries
One thing that I have been pretty good at has been setting time boundaries around work.
I’m a parent and I’ve never wanted to miss out on being there for my son in his early years.
As a result, I decided to get into the office as early as I could in the morning, so that I could leave as close to 5pm as possible — and get home for some quality time with him before bed.
When it came to weekend working, I was willing to do it when necessary, but Sundays are an important time for me. And I was unwilling to do any work that meant that I missed church.
Your boundaries are likely to be different. But establishing them, communicating them to your colleagues and sticking to them as much as possible can be key to maintaining a good work / life balance.
Tip 2: Control your mobile use
I’m still struggling with this one.
I may have set boundaries at work in terms of when I was in the office — but this didn’t stop me from being on my mobile from the moment I woke up to the time that I fell asleep.
Constantly replying to emails.
Checking Twitter for breaking news.
Looking at my mobile while I was dropping my son off at the school gate. Answering calls while I was giving him a bath. Ultimately it was quite addictive and it is incredibly hard to break the habit.
I’m currently trying to restrict my mobile use between 6pm and 8am. I’ll answer calls and texts if people are contacting me. But email is for my laptop. If I need to work in the evenings, I’ll try to dedicate some time to doing that, rather than constantly tapping away on my phone while watching the TV.
And I’ve set up the time limit controls on my phone to stop me from breaking this.
Tip 3: Think about what you consume
For some people this will be about eating and drinking right.
For me, this has been much more about restricting my obsessive consumption of news.
Needing to be always up to date with the latest development in politics. Being the first person to know what’s going on with your campaign.
For example: Did I really need to listen to the Today programme — or could I trust my press office to tell me if anything important was covered?
I decided that I didn’t. That it wasn’t putting me in a positive frame of mind to start the day — and that I’d listen to Shaun Keaveny on BBC 6Music instead.
Tip 4: What gives you joy?
Make sure that you’re making time for the things outside of work that you enjoy, that give you energy, that inspire you and that motivate you.
For me, that’s music.
I need to play music. But more importantly I need to go to gigs.
When my son was 1, my in-laws babysat for us — and for the first time in 12 months, we went to see some live music (Janelle Monae at Shepherds Bush Empire, as it happens …).
I left the gig and said to my wife: “Now I know why I’m depressed.”
“It’s not because I’m a new Dad.” (Although it was / is hard!)
“It’s not because of work.”
“It’s because I’ve stopped going to gigs.”
And so from that moment, I decided to set myself a New Year’s resolution. I’d aim to go to at least 6 gigs a year.
And I roll that resolution on every year, because going to see live music is vital for my mental health.
So what is it that gives you joy? What is vital for your mental health? Work it out and make sure you make the time for it.
(It’s worth looking at this email from Beto O’Rourke at the end of his Texas campaign to get a flavour of what gives him joy!)
Tip 5: Recognise what you can control
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, campaigners can carry the weight of the world on their shoulders and think that they need to take full responsibility for achieving change.
But as Michelle Obama once said, change is hard and change is slow.
And campaigners need to recognise what they can control about a campaign process — and what sits outside of their sphere of influence.
Finding ways to be realistic about this — probably by discussing the challenges that you face with fellow campaigners — can stop you from putting yourself under more and more and more pressure.
Change is a complex process. You cannot control it all. And you cannot do it by yourself.
That’s why you need to ….
Tip 6: Get help
Yes, as Thor says to Loki in the amazing “Thor: Ragnarok” — “get help”.
We all need our support networks.
They may be people in work. They may be people outside of work.
Hopefully, you have support networks in both. And you need to make the most of them.
Ideally, you should also be able to get help and support from your boss!
Crucially, you need the opportunity to be honest with people. To talk about what you’re struggling with — as well as what’s going well — and to get their feedback and support.
Often these conversations are vital to put things in perspective. To realise that you need to take a step back. That you need to give yourself a break. That you’re doing a good job.
The joy of being a consultant is that I can spend much more time networking and meeting with people for a coffee.
I’m constantly surprised by how generous people are with their time. How willing they are to connect me to other people. And how much good advice they give me.
I wish I’d made more time for these kind of connections when I was at Which?.
Tip 7: Outcomes over activity
Campaigners can be a competitive bunch.
After all, we like to win.
And within organisations that can often lead to campaigners trying to outdo one another with lots and lots of activities.
Look at how many meetings I’ve held over the last week.
Look at this massive briefing document I’ve written.
Look at all of the consultations that we’ve responded to this year.
Being fixated on constantly doing stuff — rather than the outcomes that you’re achieving for your campaign — is a quick way to run yourself into the ground.
So finding ways to stop this (for example by having the right metrics / KPIs or maybe by agreeing to a moratorium on new meetings) and to get off the activity bandwagon can help teams to focus on the right things — and ultimately stop people from burning out.
Tip 8: Step back
We all need time to step back from our campaigns. Reflect on what’s working. What isn’t. And where to go next.
We all know it is easier said than done to find the time.
But it is critical. Not only for our campaigns — to make sure that what we’re doing is working and that we’re on the right track to make a change.
But also for campaigners. To allow us to explore whether we’re working well together as a team. Whether we have the right resources — or enough resources.
And whether the strategy that we’ve set ourselves really is realistic — particularly if it is pushing people to burnout.
Tip 9: Campaign like nobody’s watching
Many campaigners spend far too much of time worrying about other people’s view of their campaign.
What does the Chief Exec think? Are other teams across the organisation happy with it? What do my peers think?
As a result, we second guess ourselves. And we become much more conservative than we should.
We take comments made by others as criticism. And any setbacks that the campaign faced were all our fault.
And yet — you have much more bandwidth to campaign in the way that you want than you think.
To do this, you need to learn to value your own opinions. To think to yourself: “Do I think this is the right approach? Am I happy with the choices that we’ve made?”
And the more that you do this, the less that you should stress about your work.
If someone disagrees or over-rules you about a campaign approach, you don’t need to take it personally. It isn’t necessarily because you are wrong. You don’t need to apologise for it. They just have a different opinion to you.
And that should give you a freedom at work and when you’re campaigning — which hopefully will make you a better campaigner.
And will stop you from doing yourself down — and running yourself so hard.
Tip 10: Celebrate success, learn from losses
Campaigning comes with its ups and downs.
You win some, you lose some.
And taking time after important milestones in your campaign to celebrate your successes or to commiserate after your losses is so important.
The temptation for campaigners is to be like Jeb Bartlett in the West Wing and say “What’s next?”
Resist that temptation.
Take time to enjoy the win. Or to regroup after a loss.
That way you’ll have much more energy and motivation to push on to your next challenge — and to avoid burning out by rushing into another hard campaign.
Final point — other resources
Activist burnout seems to have been written about a fair amount over the years.
It is also great that many organisations are now taking mental health much more seriously and that means that there are resources out there that you can access if you’re a campaigner worried about burnout.
I’m not an expert on this stuff — and I’ve made my fair share of mistakes over the years — but you may find it useful to look at:
This BOND blog on 5 practical self care tips for campaigners: https://www.bond.org.uk/news/2016/08/five-practical-self-care-ideas-for-campaigners
This Everyday Feminism blog with 4 ways to manage activist burnout: https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/05/dealing-with-activist-burnout/