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6 May 2009

Burn Out and Taking Care of Ourselves

burnoutBurn out is a real and present danger for anyone involved in Transition, as indeed for any kind of community work or environmental activism. I have known several green activist/campaigners who suffered from terrible burnout, that led to depression, withdrawal and cynicism. At this year’s Transition Network conference there will be a workshop on dealing with burnout, a subject that has been a regular feature of Transition gatherings since its inception. When I visit Transition groups around the country, burnout is raised regularly as a concern, given that most initiatives are self-funding and driven by volunteers. I am not immune to it myself, but I was wondering the other day how come, given the incredible amount of commitment and energy people around the world are putting into Transition, there isn’t far more burnout than we actually see. In yesterday’s paper I read a fascinating piece that offered an interesting insight into this.

spent-coverFrank Lipman (no relation), a New York-based doctor, uses the term ‘spent’ to describe the fact that although people come and see him with a range of symptoms, headaches, backpain and so on, “when you delve into their histories, they’re all exhausted”. He recently wrote a book called “Spent? End Exhaustion and Feel Great Again”, which sets out some of his tips for overcoming the ‘spent’ state. These include things like eat well, exercise, meditate if you can, impose an “electronic sundown”, whereby all electronic devices are turned off at 10pm, sleep in as dark a space as you can create, eat a good breakfast and lunch and a very light supper, and design into the work day ways to switch off for a few minutes.

So far, so bleedin’ obvious you might be thinking. Take care of yourself and chill out a bit, don’t work so hard, create headspace for things other than work…. nothing especially revolutionary there. The bit that piqued my interest though came at the end of the article;

“… Lipman believes the greatest influence on his patients’ wellbeing comes from what he calls “intangibles”: community, friends, family, love, meaning. “People are so isolated in our culture – we’ve got more and more removed from that sense of community. The diet and exercise stuff is relatively easy; its the other stuff that’s hard. How do you tell someone to get meaning in their life? Or create a community?”

In his view, getting involved in helping a good cause, or community project, is the best way to treat Spent. The benefits of community involvement are, he says, a self-perpetuating process. “When people learn to give or start volunteering and caring for others, they in turn learn how to care for themselves as well”.

Struck me that there is perhaps a case that Transition, if done properly, with adequate support and the advice he gave above, could actually be seen as being a solution to burnout, rather than just its cause. I’m not sure that his assertion that “when people learn to give or start volunteering and caring for others, they in turn learn how to care for themselves as well” is completely the case, given that there is more to how people work than just their initial motivation. It is important though, not to underestimate the energy and the power that can come from doing something for a broader purpose, or for others.

When I focus on this, I am always drawn back to a wonderful piece of paper that Andy Langford of Gaia University gave me many years ago which comes from the world of co-counselling.  It could be seen as a Preventing Burnout Charter, and I often come back to it.  It is called ‘The World Changer’s Commitment’;

I have chosen to change society AND I also choose to be intelligent in the way I go about it.

The future needs me well-rested, well-organized, well-nourished and well-exercised.

The past is a useful source of information but never as a substitute for my own fresh thinking. Bill Mollison (or insert any other more recent and suitable thinker/activist) respected Masonobu Fukuoka (or any other thinker/activist) AND did his own fresh thinking. I will respect all past thinkers AND my thinking will necessarily be more brilliant than theirs because I stand on their shoulders.

If I am not enjoying what I am doing then there is something wrong with the way I am doing it and I will correct it.

Although it may be over-egging the pudding somewhat to suggest that Transition, if done well, might actually be an antidote to burnout, it could be that Lipman has offered a valuable insight into why it is not a more widespread phenomenon.  It also highlights one of the key roles of the Heart and Soul elements of Transition.  In Totnes, one of the things that group does is to arrange and organise support for the people in the key places in the organisation, in the form of counselling or mentoring.  Personally speaking, it has made a huge difference to my effectiveness and my ability to deal with burnout.

Burnout is, however, always the elephant in the room of activists and wrld changers.  It has to all have happened yesterday, and; as Bill Mollison once famously put it “I can’t change the world on my own, it’ll take at least 3 of us”.  I would love to hear your experience of burnout and what strategies and approaches you employ to avoid it, both within your own life, and your Transition initiative.  Do use the comments box below….

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.

33 Comments

Harry Leyland
6 May 8:14am

Great concept and the strength one receives when caring and doing for others should never be underestimated; burnout when working at mundane business activities is much more common. As a practicing and devout Christian, I am becoming involved with Transition in my home town (Horncastle in Lincolnshire) and will be actively encouraging fellow Christians to support Transition under the 5th Marks of Mission (which we have had since 1984) ‘To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth’. Best wishes

Harriet Stewart-Jones
6 May 8:54am

I’m with the geese, they seem to know where they’re going (google “A Sense of a Goose” for the full story).

Jennifer Lauruol
6 May 9:38am

Tending the seedlings, pruning in winter, tea in the garden–even watering the houseplants–all help. It’s worth creating small beautiful quiet spaces, free of clutter, kept as sacred, indoors and out. A windowsill with a pebble and a plant; a balcony with a scented herb; a patio seat or green corner. Create the spaces, and retreat to them daily, or many times a day if need be.
Lavender from the garden, harvested in late summer–dry it and sew a pillow-ful to inhale all year–also brings immediate quieting and calm healing. Look after yourselves; look after your family and friends.

Stephen Lark
6 May 9:58am

Transition seems to me to be an extremely effective integrally-informed approach (integral app), capable of individual and (especially) collective transformation. Using integral jargon the UR (exterior individual or behavioural) changes (eg. diet, exercise) are the easy ones in a Western culture, “intangibles” are in the collective and interior quadrants (UL, LL, LR) are not so easy.

Beth Tilston
6 May 10:03am

Very insightful and relevant. I can think of a few people I’d like to show this post to. I’d like to add a little bit to the preventing burnout charter. I think it should read – ‘The future needs me well-rested, well-organized, well-nourished, well-exercised… and laughing’

cristiano
6 May 10:11am

One of the first things Naresh told me when he came to Italy was: “Rest, the path is long, and you must keep in shape”. Certainly, individuals intensely involved in this kind of “missions” can easily fall prey to burn-out.

Above all, what helps me along is how, right in the worst possible moments, when stress levels are high and you feel too tired to go on, someone suddenly pops up and starts to help – resources you never even imagined come to your aid in the most efficient way. I think the worst thing, and the riskiest, is the feeling of loneliness. If you are tired and feel alone, the risk of letting go is really very high.

I found myself in this situation two or three times in the past year, and I think I kept going only thanks to my baggage of experience. Probably, if I had been 20 years old, I would have let the situation overcome me.

Today, I am able to let things go, to forfeit holding on to the futile, to allow myself the time to rebuild my energy and start again. It is also important to have a good sense of one’s one limits, fundamental to stop before reaching exhaustion – sometimes this is hard, because from the outside you are constantly stimulated to go on. Experience helps, through it one must learn the difficult art of “saying no”.

As usual, you are wise to underline this aspect – people doing volunteer work have always had to face this problem (which is also present in the business world, by the way), but rarely do people prepare to face it in advance. I think it is very important to always include this subject during the training process.

Keith Farnish
6 May 11:36am

Change, whatever you are doing, is essential. People living the most full, most connected lives still need to stop for a while, celebrate, communicate, relax, think, create: our brains have two halves for a reason, they both need to be stimulated to get the best out of us; switching off may just be a case of “switching over”…although nothing cures as well as a good night’s sleep.

Graham Burnett
6 May 1:03pm

Thought I’d take some down-time and veg out with the Guardian colour supplement on Saturday afternoon – flopped on the settee and opened it up to an article entitled “THE BLOODIEST DAY” which began with “On July 10th six people were stabbed to death, Andrew O’Hargan investigates the drunken row, the drug deal gone wrong, the jealous boyfriend and the chance encounters that resulted in one of Britain’s most violent days – and talks to the families left behind…”

Chillout and relax time – FAIL!

Marc
6 May 3:10pm

I think whether someone burns out or not has a lot to do with what their answer to the question: “Is Life fundamentally positive or negative?”, is. You see when responding to an issue so big, so overwhelming as climate change (for example), unless you have a strong footing and foundation in the knowledge of the absolute positivity of Life itself; it’s just too much to bare, it’s just too big a problem to handle and yes you either have to back off (and take time out) or burn out – which is backing off.

Jason Cole
6 May 4:50pm

Funnily enough, I’ve been experiencing symptoms of burnout, primarily the feeling of not getting things done. This year’s New Years Resolution for me was “To Focus on the Task At Hand” to avoid spreading myself thin trying to do too many things at once. It’s worked a treat.

Something else I did ages ago, was to take a pad of paper to bed; I’d have lots of ideas about things, and they’d stay in my head as a log-jam until I’d written them down – and was able to “forget” them.

Other than that, I find sitting on the toilet doing a number 2s a great way to relax and collect thoughts.

Bandidoz
6 May 4:53pm

Funnily enough, I’ve been experiencing symptoms of burnout, primarily the feeling of not getting things done. This year’s New Years Resolution for me was “To Focus on the Task At Hand” to avoid spreading myself thin trying to do too many things at once. It has worked a treat.

Something else I did ages ago, was to take a pad of paper to bed; I’d have lots of ideas about things, and they’d stay in my head as a log-jam until I’d written them down – and was able to “forget” them.

Other than that, I find sitting on the toilet doing a number 2s a great way to relax and collect thoughts.

Toni Weir
6 May 4:56pm

An interesting article and thank you Christiano for your most apt comments. I have arrived at Transition fresh from a life filled to the brim with volunteering i.e. knackered.

In the real world, like everyone, I am madly trying to juggle work, no money, study, children, running the house AND helping. The reality of this task of totally changing the way my life runs is like stopping an enormous train in an emergency – full of loud screaching, smoke and arm waving and likely to end with a bang as I use the last electricity on earth to ‘just get this dry/washed/cooked/downloaded/frozen/warm before I go/do that/this’!.

But in the back of my mind are the birds….

At a festival this summer I had my cards read – I have not done this before. There was a particular card that caught my eye – a little person walking and up in the sky lots of birds circling. “cripes” I said suddenly remembering that terrifying Hitchcock film of my impressionable childhood “Are they waiting till I drop?!” Oh no dear, said she. Those are all your good ideas waiting for you to let go of this old way of life. They will come down when you make space and time for them…….

Chris Johnstone
6 May 7:55pm

Very useful post Rob. I know so many people (me included) who’ve had periods of burnout, and it is good to see it named as an occupational hazard for activists. I think Heart and Soul groups can play a key role in addressing the emotional sustainability side of Transitioning..

Here’s something I wrote for Permaculture magazine a few years ago on this:
http://www.chrisjohnstone.info/PDF/Burnout.pdf

PSJ
7 May 9:32am

Yes, definitely had burn out from peak oil/climate change activities, leaving nothing but an echoing depression. Fortunately, I’m not in that state at the moment, and I got there by making more space for more blatantly fun activities, which has actually meant I’m getting more done at the moment. All work and no play makes Jack a dull (and burnt-out) boy.

Clare
7 May 12:29pm

Whenever I feel I am feeling stretched, I recognise that if I feel like this then the rest of the small core group of Transition Whitstable probably do too. We talk and reassure ourselves we could do less, the momentum is out there now (in the community), we can take our foot off the accelerator and ‘roll’ for a while until we feel refreshed. I remind myself and others that the act of Transition also has to be sustainable. We have a Nurture group. I think that says it all.

Mike Grenville
7 May 2:54pm

Last year I was at the Postive Energy Conference in Findhorn and knowing that I was to give a workshop at the Transition Conference last year on Avoiding Burnout I asked Joanna Macy what tips she could give me to pass on. “All my work is about avoiding activist burnout” she told me. Wanting something more practical I asked her again later in the week and she just repeated her answer! I got it the second time ;-)

Joanna’s ‘Work that Reconnects’ includes “despair work through which we discover how our pain for the world and each other actually reveals our interconnectedness and can become a source which energises our action on behalf of the world.”

Rob’s interview with Joanna at that event is here
http://transitionculture.org/2008/04/21/exclusive-to-transition-culture-an-interview-with-joanna-macy/

A website site for Heart & Soul groups to share what works has been set up
http://transitionheart.ning.com/

Robert
8 May 10:54am

Doing creative work (a balance of physical i.e. building stuff and gardening, and mental i.e. writing). Avoiding bullshit. Having conversations, not meetings (and especially avoiding meetings full of bullshit). Keeping the balance can be tricky, but it seems to be working so far…

Greenpa
8 May 3:06pm

It is, for sure, a big problem. All the suggestions from the Spent guy are useful- but keep in mind- you are not a stereotype. It may well not work for you.

Specifically, Rob- for you to spend more time working on Transition is NOT going to help you.

My guess is that the concept of a sabbatical is what you’ll need to look at- periodically take a year to do something completely different. I’m badly in need of one myself; and put a little effort into daydreaming about what I’ll do-

And beware of Emily Dickinson -

“I burn my candle at both ends.
It will not last the night.

But oh, my foes, and ah, my friends
It gives a lovely light.”

Deadly burnout bait.

Graham Burnett
8 May 7:39pm

Unfortunately there is alot of truth in the saying “If you want something done, ask a busy person”, esp in the green/radical movement… It might be good for getting stuff done, but isn’t very good peoplecare…

Robert
8 May 9:09pm

Greenpa

Like the poem – but it wasn’t Emily Dickinson, it was Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950):

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–
It gives a lovely light!

If that’s burnout, bring it on, say I.

Greenpa
9 May 1:09pm

Hey, I was close! And anyway, my first line scans better.

:-) ah, the perils of an aging brain…

Megan
10 May 2:44pm

We have to keep developing as individuals — morally and spiritually aligning ourselves with life itself — in order to be able to come together and shift the culture. We *are* our culture, and as we evolve, so does the whole. We have to change ourselves in order to change the world.

Jeremy
11 May 9:48am

The balance that comes from moving your body through space on a bicycle is the best antidote to the stress and folly of our modern world! By incorporating exercise into your daily transport, one can arrive alert and refreshed at a destination, great for getting to a work place and returning home at the end of the day. Cycling teaches you a balance and understanding of time, forgiveness, and an insight into the places and spaces in which we live. Without my bicycles in my life I think that I would have long ago succumb to a malaise and inertia, unable to think or feel that the future is a place I want to be in. A bicycle can change your life in so many different and subtle ways!

Mel
12 May 2:17am

Well, like all movements, the early adopters, carry the heaviest burden… so transition, needs to also constantly re-invigorate the movement…

to allow the tired blood to re-juvenate and to allow the young blood the room to push the edges…

mel

Josef Davies-Coates
12 May 5:25am

A couple of links via Alice from Trapese (who ran a sesssion on avoiding activist burnout at their excellent week-long workshop at Findhorn College)

http://www.activist-trauma.net/en/home.html it’s a great site with loads of resources on sustainable activism and dealing with side effects of police repression etc whould you ever need it, (I hope not!).

also and here is the link to the pdf i used for workshop about sustainable activism and avoiding burnout
http://www.gipfelsoli.org/rcms_repos/Antirepression/BURNOUT_FLYER.pdf

Smiles,

Josef.

Graham Burnett
12 May 8:46am

I’ve also published a small booklet along similar lines called ‘Towards An Ecology of The Self’, which some folks might be interested in checking out, see http://www.spiralseed.co.uk/ecoself/

“You start with your nose, then your hands, your back door, your doorstep. You get all that right, then everything is right. If all that’s wrong, nothing can ever be right”

-Bill Mollison

A small booklet exploring the role of the ‘personal’ in permaculture design systems. The interconnected permaculture ethics of earthcare and peoplecare imply that wholeness and earth repair is not just about the wider ‘out there’ of our gardens, farms, forests and oceans, but is just as importantly to do with the ‘ecology of the self’. Paying attention to our own physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs and development is fundamental to good ‘Zone Zero Zero’ design. Just as peace is not simply the absence of war, so too health is not just about being free from disease. Therefore self-care – setting up holistic mind and body systems in order to avoid sickness, depression, stress and burn-out – is a vital part of enhancing well-being and developing personal effectiveness.

Mike Grenville
12 May 10:30am

This ‘Letter to an activist’ has some useful advice from someone who learnt the hard way:

http://www.greenspiration.org/memorial/letter.htm

DaveDann
13 May 8:25am

My opinion is that ‘burnout’ happens to people who have far too great a sense of self-importance. It shouldn’t happen in the ‘Transition Movement’ because clearly the focus should be on community action. Maybe individuals who burnout ‘just don’t get it’. The other side of this is that ‘burnout’ of communities is of more interest. Why do some groups go through massive periods of activity and then dissolve (around 18 months seems the critical point in the life of groups)? About 30 years ago there was a publication going around called ‘Co-operative and Community Group Dynamics’ that had an in interesting discussion of this. At a more detailed level the monitoring of plans, such as energy descent plans, is of as much interest as the hyped launch of those plans. I tried to find details of the progress of the Kinsale plan on the net, but couldn’t get hold of anything. Anyone got any references (have tried direct emails)?

Jennifer Lauruol
13 May 2:37pm

With all due respect, DaveDann, some of us also have experienced burn-out for other reasons, but still try and do our best for environmental causes! I was a carer 24/7/365 for my two disabled children for 20 years, and remain their advocate. Nevertheless I have been active throughout in community ventures, advocacy and environmental work. Please reflect that people’s lives often have difficulties they have to carry or overcome which are not due to their overblown ‘sense of self importance’!

Graham Burnett
13 May 7:53pm

May you never experience burn-out DaveDann. I’ll never forget the day in 2000 when I dropped the multiple balls I was juggling at that time and my world mentally collapsed around me – that feeling of being utterly overwhelmed by not being able to cope any more, followed by 3 months of being off sick from my workplace due to stress and depression, not being able to do much of use beyond staring at day time TV all day long. Luckily my wife and children and friends helped me through that time, and being able to apply the ‘problem is the solution’ permaculture principle to my own life I was able to make sense of what was happening to me and assess what was going on and what the universe was telling me, and I came out the other side stronger and with a deeper awareness of my own limits, unlike many others such as the subject of the ‘letter to an activist’ refered to above who never recover or make it back. Even so the road was long and hard for me, with feelings of distress and panic continuing to well up at the most unexpected times triggered by the most unlikely things for months and maybe even a few years afterwards. Hah, that’ll teach me for having such an overblown sense of self-importantance, eh, though!!

[...] said that, with Rob’s recent post on ‘burn out’ in mind, it’s definitely time for a day off for me. Tomorrow is my birthday, and I will be [...]

David Eggleton
1 Jul 6:07pm

I look forward to reading the relevant material mentioned. Thanks!

There is for each person a unique appropriate rhythm and mix that’s easily overlooked when urgency is screaming or stomping. Tuning out urgency in order to be true to self in those terms, is indeed important. At the same time, the uniqueness of the whole person establishes strengths and weaknesses. How many activists take care to put only their strengths to work for the cause? When they do, organizing looks more like bringing on complementary team members and less like adding do-it-all bodies. Such organizing is building what we want for what we want, and it’s notably more synergistic than depleting.

There is some and will be more at my http://www.interdependencedesign.com

[...] And of course, now that I have heard of the book, I’ve instantly seen a reference to it, without even looking: comment on 13 May under a good post about burn out avoidance on the Transition Network website. [...]