By Sophy Banks
Insights and remedies for dealing with the challenge of burnout in movements by Sophy Banks, one of the founders of ‘Heart and Soul’ or Inner Transition work in the Transition Towns movement. After many years as the Inner Transition Coordinator she has moved on from that role – but many of her excellent insights are captured on the Transition Network website, including this reposted article. Below you’ll find a downloadable worksheet with prompts for reflection based on this article.
What is burnout?
“Burnout is the dirty secret of the environmental movement” – quote from a Transition Network Launch training participant.
Why is it that when I ask people in Transition groups about burnout, around half say they have experienced it in the past, or are at risk right now? How is it possible that in a movement that’s all about stopping the planet from burning out, we often make a culture where we burn ourselves out instead? What can stop burnout and why can it be really difficult to get individuals or groups to address this?
These are some of the questions I’ve been exploring for many years, both in Transition and in our wider culture. In this blog I share some of the insights and remedies I’ve come across.
Here’s the Chambers dictionary definition:
- physical or emotional exhaustion caused by overwork or stress.
- the point at which a rocket engine stops working when the fuel is used up.
I like the second one – it has a kind of resonance with some projects I’ve been involved with that Take Off, only to run out of steam at some point, needing a secondary fuel source – new people!
Burnout is a state of severe exhaustion where recovery takes a long time.
It’s helpful to distinguish it from times of stress and tiredness, which may be intense for a short time, but from which recovery is quick. For individuals this often means that the person’s health has been compromised – mentally or physically. Often the immune system, the natural healer of short term issues, is damaged. For those of us used to thinking about ecosystems it has a useful parallel in an ecosystem which has been consistently depleted over a long time. The naturally self-restoring web of life has broken.
Restoration is possible, but will take a long time, and often will require active intervention to tip the system back into a thriving self nourishing state. The flourishing forest has become a desert.
In a group or organisation it’s possible to think of burnout as the state when the energy of the whole group is exhausted – perhaps individuals still have energy, but the thought of one more meeting, or one more activity is unbearable.
What causes this state? There are two characteristics needed, and they apply across all levels of scale, from individual through group, to planetary burnout or health.
A culture that’s out of balance
The first requirement is a culture where a naturally self balancing system is heading out of balance. Essentially we have a choice between balance and burnout.
Here are some of the things that we need to balance:
|Time spent stimulating the sympathetic nervous system |
Action. In emergency: fight or flight
|Time spent stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system
Rest or digest. In emergency: freeze
Time, energy, money, commitment, attention
Appreciation, connection, warmth, money, care
Meetings, projects, building, growing, doing
Downtime, silence, solitude, socials
Pushing to get things to happen
Letting go into the flow, surrender
|Focus on work, using will||Focus on relationships, care and connection|
|Knowing through mind, body, rational thought||Knowing through intuition, feelings, dreams|
|Positivity, optimism||Hurt and painful feelings given expression|
I’ve include the physiological aspect of imbalance at the top because this is the physical reason for the need for balance.
Continued action without enough calm keeps the sympathetic nervous system in constant arousal – and when we add stress such as fear, urgency, anger it ramps up even more.
Over time the hormones produced by this system start to erode our immune system and other bodily functions, leading to the long term health problems mentioned above. John Kabat-Zinn describes the relationship between stress, health and mindfulness practice in his many writings, including Full Catastrophe Living.
Many human cultures have created social technologies to ensure balance in these things. As I started to look at balance and burnout in more detail I asked a practitioner of Chinese medicine what their definition of health is? The answer is the balance of yin and yang. In an African cosmology I have read about the essential balance is between fire and water – and they say that fire is so dangerous that you need 3 parts of water to every one of fire. Similarly medicine wheels that assign different qualities to compass points, or elements, teach that health will be disturbed when these elements are out of balance.
Even though the use of these kinds of practices in the west is sometimes called “New Age” in fact they are systems that have been tried and tested over centuries and often millennia, supporting human cultures that endure.
The feedback loop is missing
The second requirement for a system to reach burnout is that signals of distress or deterioration are ignored. There will always be symptoms. Humans have evolved to respond to ill-health. And in groups we are wired to notice when things are going wrong.
The symptoms are varied – for some individuals it will be physical; for others emotional, or mental. It may show up as loss of sleep, irritability, illness, depression, or other signs. In a healthy culture we are supported to respond appropriately – with rest, restoring food, good company, love. A culture creating burnout will override the signals, misinterpret them, or fail to find a remedy.
It can be helpful to see that responding to feedback requires several stages:
- Having space to notice the feedback: In groups that are active non-stop, that are going at the pace of the fastest, that have contempt for weakness or vulnerability, it may be that symptoms of tiredness are simply invisible or ignored. Or there may be a denial that the feedback is happening.
- Understanding the feedback: Making meaning of the signal is the second stage. What does it mean that nearly half the group was ill in the last few months? Or that our meetings feel unproductive? That there are more arguments? Groups can be the hardest things to diagnose because they are so complex, but it’s essential to have time both to reflect on how we’re doing, and then to make meaning of what we find. There is a technical expertise in this area just as there is for food growing or energy systems, and groups which have people with skills in communication, personal and group dynamics are at an advantage.
- Taking action to remedy the problem: Creating an appropriate responses to the feedback may require knowledge of tools or methods – for physical or mental health in an individual, or of group processes in a team. It often involves intervening in the culture itself – structuring meetings differently, actively including time for appreciation or celebration, having social time as well as business, talking about working practices, how we invite and welcome new people. For individuals it might mean putting in time for walks, friends or holidays, or starting a practice of yoga, mindfulness or meditation. Like a doctor treating a patient it may not be clear at first what’s needed – in which case we should be open to trying different things.
- Overcoming resistance: Every system has a comfort zone – a kind of default setting – and whatever the old way of working was, there will be an ease about reverting to the old way. Part of the design of the solution should be giving time to notice where there is pressure to do this. If you’re doing less as a group, how does it feel when you say no? Is it uncomfortable to stop and appreciate each other’s work? Is there a voice saying “we’re wasting time” when you look at how to welcome new people? Or as individuals, what’s it like to take time out, to take care of yourself? What judgement or resistance comes? This may be the hardest part of the process – not letting the system just go back to how it was.
- Reviewing the effect of the remedy: It’s a good idea when putting changes in place to plan a review – to see what the effect of the change has been, and whether it’s addressed the problem.
In this analysis avoiding burnout seems easy. Pay attention to balance, and ensure you have feedback loops that work. The feedback loop is the most essential – because it will correct the culture if balance isn’t right.
Success stories of avoiding burnout
Here are some stories of Transition projects that listened and responded to feedback.
- A group in Canada spent the first year doing stuff in their community – events, small projects, networking. Everyone worked hard, with some great successes. At the end of the year they were all exhausted. In a meeting they gave time to talking about this. They decided to stop doing stuff and take a year to get to know each other – just having shared meals at each others’ houses. I met them when they were still in this process, loving getting to know each other, and finding their energy and enthusiasm for Transition rising again.
- In Transition Town Totnes we put in place two significant measures very early in the project. The first, at the second Core group meeting in March 2007 was a check in about each person’s giving and taking and sustainability. When all said they couldn’t go on at current energy levels for more than a few months we decided to take action immediately. We had to either get some paid help, or scale back the project. Tapping local sources for some funding provided us with the means for a short contract for a part time coordinator, enabling the project to continue to grow.
- A year later in Transition Town Totnes I set up the free mentoring service – inviting local therapists, coaches and supervisors to offer free one to one support to activists. I was one of those who benefitted from this – and in the one year that I stopped having support I came the closest I have done to burning out – being ill for about 6 months out of 12. I have never been without this kind of support since.
Download a 2 page worksheet with prompts for reflection based on this article. This worksheet came from a Progress 2017 workshop held by Holly Hammond and Suse Scholem from Plan to Thrive.
- Read Sophy’s full article, including insights about what drives a culture of burnout.
- Inner Transition resources on the Transition Network website.
- Ten Great Resources on Activist Wellbeing
- How do we keep going? Activist burnout and personal sustainability in social movements
- Well being related articles in the Commons Library