When researching the reasons why social movements collapse in on themselves, it certainly doesn’t feel good when you see yourself plainly in the literature review. That strange feeling is multiplied tenfold when it relates to not only your life as an activist but your life as a student and as a human.
Reading Cher Weixia Chen and Paul C. Gorski’s article “Burnout in Social Justice and Human Rights Activists: Symptoms, Causes, and Implications” felt like staring into a mirror. Even if the focus is on activists doing the lofty work of human justice, many of the symptoms and solutions have been relevant to my life in general as well as my work in organizing.
For your sake, as well as a reminder for my own, I’m going to give you a shard of that mirror and provide some more than necessary advice about burnout and how we can not only avoid it but overcome it.
In social justice/human rights circles, it is understood as the shift of highly committed individuals into extreme mental stress and exhaustion that reduces the desire to continue work in that movement. Even if we are not combating climate change or advocating for reproductive rights in the foreground, I bet that description resonates with many of you.
Yet, burnout occupies a relatively nebulous space in most of our minds, often manifested only in its most severe symptoms. You might break down crying after a test. You might feel like you’re constantly sick after weeks of constant work, skipping meals and shrinking sleep. You might even be questioning the utility of continuing to go to school in the first place. These and many more fall into the categories identified by burnout scholars Wilmar B. Schaufeli and Bram P. Buunk:
Sounds pretty familiar right? But how do we go from our day-to-day work to something like these very hindersome symptoms? Much as it does for activists, burnout comes down largely to emotional labour and workload. Unlike these activist burnout scenarios, this usually isn’t on the same caliber as something like refugee advocacy work. Yet, it is still important all the same.
College students are put under the expectation that we will be working nearly every hour of our days. Our school work follows us out of the classrooms and into our dorms. That time crunch gets a lot tighter when you, like so many of our peers, also must work tiresome hours to also pay for this education weighing on your shoulders. It gets even tighter when you attempt to have a social life and maintain ties to family and friends back home.
Balancing so many responsibilities for many students takes precedence over things like personal boundaries, mental and physical health or personal comfort. Akin to the culture of selflessness identified by Kathleen Rodgers is a culture of strength among students, fostered in many of us long before college was even on our horizons.
Whether you were a gifted and talented kid or packed into one of the remedial tracks, you were likely inoculated into a kind of culture of strength: that the best students are those that spend every waking moment working on their studies, don’t need to seek help and do not need to engage in something like self-care. To go against any of these would be a defiance of your ability to be a star student.
I’ve seen that culture carried on by many of my friends. If you go to Red Room tutoring, don’t force yourself to cut into sleep and eating to complete your work and carve out free time to do the things you enjoy, you become seemingly a lesser student. There is very little intervention into that culture from any key players. So allow me to be the potential first in your academic career to burst that bubble: you become a worse student when you don’t respect yourself and your boundaries.
Throwing off the yoke of this culture is by no means easy, but it is absolutely necessary. In Weixia and Gorski’s findings, one of the strongest indications of a way burnout could be avoided is – surprise, surprise – fostering self-care and providing attention towards the prevalence of burnout in their communities. This of course looks a little different in a movement, but the sentiment is still likely the same. Speaking from my own experiences, what this looks like to me can be broken down into a few tips: