The Burnout Culture of Activism

The Burnout Culture of Activism

Interested in a free one hour workshop on activist burnout?  Join Burnout on a Burning Planet, on Friday 8 October 2021 at 12:30pm Sydney | 2:30pm NZ

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Maybe it starts with those few extra meetings each week.  It’s an important cause, and there are deadlines we need to make, actions that need to happen.  Soon we’re sleeping less, waking up stressed in the middle of the night, or struggling to drift off.  Insomnia is the new norm.

Our social lives become pretty quiet, or perhaps just enmeshed with our activism.  Who has time to catch up with friends? Aren’t most of our friend’s activists too? Don’t we see them through the movement?

The exhaustion is setting in.  Then the moodiness, the small irritations that are building.  Our relationships, both in the movement and out, begin to suffer.  Work feels harder.  We’re losing the joy of it, the spark that made us part of the movement in the first place.

Before long, we’re spent. We’ve got nothing left.

Burnout takes many different forms in activism.  It shows up as anxiety, guilt, exhaustion, cynicism, despair and so on.  The World Health Organisation refers to it as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, characterised by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced efficacy.

But with changemakers it doesn’t just come from our workplace.  Many activists have day jobs that pay the bills, but spend increasing amounts of time outside of work campaigning, lobbying and protesting for change.  Those who know that a more beautiful world is possible often have a deep understanding of current injustice and oppression, this knowledge a weight pushing us to work and fight harder.

Harder, though, is not necessarily effective, and burnout culture doesn’t need a place in activism if we address the root causes.


Activists are often the epitome of ‘hustle’ and ‘grind’ culture – work spilling in to every hour and area of our lives.   There are bills being passed, or campaigns being launched, corporations are pushing ahead with plans at lightning speed.  As such, we feel the need to constantly be engaged and working – if not us, who? If not now, when?

Rest, however, can be a form of resistance (h/t to Tricia Hersey from the Nap Ministry), shifting our participation in the systems of toxic capitalism.   If we look to nature we see it exists within cycles.  The seasons, the tides, it is all in a constant ebb and flow.  There is a time for growth and a time for slowing down.  Activism too can follow an ecological cycle, allowing time for dreaming, planning, acting, reflecting, as well as rest & nourishment.  We cannot expect ourselves to be machines without a break, we’re human and part of nature, our lives and work must reflect this.

Building cycles of regeneration and self-care into our work is what allows a movement to sustain itself.


The Burnout Culture of Activism

Photo by Abbie Bernet on Unsplash

To quote the fabulous Audre Lorde, self-care is not self indulgence.  It is a vital part of the role of changemaker.  You must put on your own oxygen mask before attending to the needs of others.  But let’s be clear here: self-care is not bubble baths or face masks or any of the other ways capitalism has hijacked the movement.  Self-care is practicing deep rest, it’s saying no & setting boundaries, it’s taking time for stillness & pleasure, it’s understanding that our care for the world must also encompass an active care for ourselves.

Emma Goldman (feminist, anarchist, activist) is often quoted as saying ‘if I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution’. I’m not sure she actually said this, but the sentiment remains true.  What is the point of a revolution if we are not also living lives that excite us? That make us feel alive?  That allow space for awe and wonder? Making time for our hobbies, doing the things that make us laugh & smile are the bedrock of sustaining activism.  Dancing, music, cooking, hiking, whatever it may be, is not wasted time, it is actually what sustains us in the long run.


As changemakers, we know the world can be a more beautiful place, and in trying to make it so we often wear the weight of the world’s injustice on our shoulders.  We cloak ourselves in its burdens and troubles with the hope that no one else will need to wear them.

If we want to be effective changemakers however, change needs to be approached from a different place.  Fixing, fighting, pushing uses the same energies of force that the system feeds off.  If we’re working for a specific outcome, and our sense of worth or happiness is dependent on it, we’re prey to falling disillusioned, cynical with our abilities to make change.

Activism is service.  Our job is not to fix the world, it is to love it.  Love is not passive, it does not roll over to injustice. Love rises, it stands up, it is active & vocal, but while it aims to heal the systems that ail us and to prevent injustice, it also marvels at the beauty of the world. It acts from a place of service, a more sustained approach to activism unattached to specific outcomes.  Rooting our actions in a foundation of love-based service allows us to stay hopeful, to reduce cynicism and to care for our fellow beings.

Each of us is remaking the world through our actions, the slow and beautiful work of restitching our society with fabrics of compassion & connection.  We are our most effective when we take the time to care for ourselves, to know that our work is just a piece in a much larger puzzle.  A beautiful translation of the Mishnah, a central text of Judaism, is often attributed as saying:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.

Do justly now

Love mercy now

Walk humbly now

You are not obligated to complete the world, but neither are you free to abandon it.

Interested in a free one hour workshop on activist burnout?  Join Sanctuary, on 12 July 2020 – 9am UK | 10am Amsterdam | 4pm Perth | 6pm Sydney.
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A Deeper Way is Calling

A Deeper Way is Calling

I haven’t written very much the last few years, not for someone who would call themselves a writer. I haven’t written because the words that would come out felt forced and contrite. They felt like words that I was supposed to say, stories and advice that belonged to someone else, not what was actually true. And so, with some exception, I held my voice back.