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How Can We Keep from Burning Out?

Credit: itburnout.org

This blog, the last from Sophy as she leaves Transition Network, focuses on the causes of burnout – the physical, the personal, the cultural and some of the unconscious processes that are much harder to spot. We’re giving ourselves spacious time over the next two months to explore the theme, and there will be more on creating balance and health in later posts. 

What is burnout?

“Burnout is the dirty secret of the environmental movement” – quote from a 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:

1. physical or emotional exhaustion caused by overwork or stress. 2 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. We’ve called this month’s theme “Balance or burnout?” because essentially that’s our choice. Here are some of the things that we need to balance: 

What needs balancing..

 

Time spent stimulating the sympathetic nervous system (action and in emergency, fight or flight)

Time spent stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (rest or digest, and in emergency, freeze)

Giving

Time, energy, money, commitment, attention

Receiving

Appreciation, connection, warmth, money, care

Action

Meetings projects building growing doing

Rest

Downtime, silence, solitude, socials

Talking

Listening

Doing

Pushing to get things to happen

Being

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

Strength

Vulnerability

I’ve included 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 start 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 (what a great name for a book – and how relevant for Transition!) 

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. And even though the use of these kinds of practices into 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. 

Leaves

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 up 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: 

  1. 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. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 a couple of stories of projects that listened and responded to feedback. We’d love to hear your stories – add examples in the comments below, or send them to us.

  • 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 TTT 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. 

What drives a culture of burnout?

Here are some of the underlying reasons that burnout is common.. 

The issues are huge, urgent, and very, very important

We care. This is obviously the first reason. If we didn’t care, we would stop. And the issues, or people we are caring about are really important – they are about profound suffering, or huge danger. If the whole of society were organised around caring for these issues they would be manageable – and the scale of response would address the problem; but in a society where one part is actively causing problems, those who feel responsible for addressing them can be a small, poorly resourced minority. I’ve heard people ask questions like “How can I stop when my children’s future is at stake?” and these feelings of caring, of responsibility, of wanting to act are good and healthy. 

To act is better than to feel

For some of us it’s very hard to deal with the feelings that come up when we think of all the movements for positive change failing. We’re inundated with this kind of information if we’re watching news channels – refugees dying, ecosystems in flood, drought, hurricanes; wars over resources killing innocents and laying waste to more of the earth. Staying busy can be a better option than allowing time to feel the despair, outrage, fear, grief, paralysis and other things that are the natural response to these images, and to the possible futures we are aware of.

But if we don’t bring these feelings into awareness it’s possible that they drive us beyond our health, and in ways that are themselves damaging. Our anger can leak out in our groups as frustration or attacks on those alongside us. We can become driven by fear in a way that is ungrounded and out of relationship with reality. Unexpressed grief can solidify into places of numbness, even into sickness in our bodies, according to some.

Finding healthy ways of sharing these feelings is important, and can be deeply challenging in our culture – which believes in doing anything with pain other than expressing it together. Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects, and the new book she created with Chris Johnstone, Active Hope, offer things to do together that are accessible and effective (see resource list at the bottom). Some Transition groups have set up facilitated supportive spaces – either as one off workshops, or an ongoing group – where some of this can be shared. 

Transition mirrors the wider culture, valuing doing above being

It’s inevitable that some of the dynamics of our wider culture will show up in our Transition groups and projects – because it’s part of our make up – like the air we breathe. When I think about the unhealthy balance of doing and being I reflect on my family’s culture, where we talked about ideas and achievements, but never feelings; on the culture of Transition Network, which started with mostly action and very little reflection. And I see an increasing dysfunction in some of the wider discourse where only “productive” work has value, where those who are excluded from the world of work can be treated with contempt by those in power, and where it is acceptable for companies to punish or even sack the least productive employees. To me all of this is a huge distortion created by an imbalance of those artchetypal qualities of yin and yang – with yang dominating, and yin seen as utterly irrelevant to human existence. 

Dartmoor

Transition likes heroes, too

I’m fascinated that the culture of the lone hero pervades even the most radical movements for positive change. We’ve often talked about the danger of Rob becoming the single voice of the Transition movement, and how hard it is to have many public voices in a world that wants a single spokesperson – so there are ways we’re pushed into having heroes, because our culture understands that form. But I also see some leaders in Transition and other positive change movements behaving in ways that increase this tendency. Founders who won’t let go of the reins and make space for new people to shine. People who think they are serving others by doing too much, but maybe don’t trust that others will do a good enough job.  People who struggle to truly collaborate, to share the credit for shared work, to allow their vision to be changed by another person’s view. 

Speed is the enemy of healthy culture

Sitting with awareness of the urgency of our times and resisting the impulse to speed up, to pressure ourselves or each other to go faster is one of the greatest challenges of our time. But when we’re under pressure around time we’re automatically stressed. I’ve been in a lot of meetings, training sessions and conversations which start “we don’t have much time..” (I’ve led quite a few myself.. until I learnt better!). Or where key people are too busy to attend. Or where the times set aside for reflection, evaluation and learning are filled with more meetings and action. What do we miss when we are going too fast and doing too much?

  • There’s no time to sort out hurts in communication so relationships are damaged. Bruising emails, off hand comments, are left unattended to, gradually eroding trust and respect – the foundations of group cohesion.
  • There is no time to listen deeply to the views or needs of those other than the dominant voices – creating an exclusive and unfair culture. Power is concentrated in a few people – those with the most confidence, who have been there longest, who have the least ability to hear others.
  • A culture of scarcity creates a sense of competition. If there’s limited time only some people’s priorities and projects get attended to.
  • Without evaluation and reflection there is no way to adjust strategic direction, so the activities may become less and less relevant
  • Constant doing means no time for learning, personal growth, or deepening (all of which require the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system) 

I think it’s interesting that very few private businesses would last long without spaces for reflection - managing and improving work practices, adjusting strategic plans, investing in the development of staff through training and coaching – yet it’s quite common in the world of small NGOs – to miss this out. 

Dartmoor

Burnout is a way that people in power manage their pain

I think it’s possible to view the whole of modern society’s dysfunctional behaviour through a lens of managing pain that is unbearable, as a kind of counter-transference – an unfortunately technical term that means that someone else gets another person to feel something they can’t bear to feel themselves. The helpful question to ask with counter-transference is “what am I feeling that isn’t wanted by the other?”. So exploring the unconscious dynamics of burnout we might ask, “what is the experience of the people who burn out, and how is that present in those who are not experiencing it, but have power in the system that creates it?”.

I’ve been on the edge of burnout, and talked to many people who’ve experienced it. The feelings I hear are of being incapacitated, disempowered. Of sitting on the margins of society, unable to have a voice, to act. Of exhaustion, of course, but also of overwhelm, where any small action is too much. Of an end to motivation, to a sense of purpose. Of dependence on others, neediness. Of being unable to contain feelings, sadness or depression.

For me these are all the feelings that go with traumatic experience – whether it’s a sudden, one off event; or a chronic long term situation. Is it possible that some of those who seek power do so because of their inner sense of powerlessness? That they make others feel devalued (targeting the poor, homeless and vulnerable) and under-resourced so they don’t have to feel their own unconscious sense of lack of worth and inner scarcity? For me this is a helpful viewpoint – and of course it’s not the whole truth – which helps me to stay with a place of compassion for leaders who behave like this. 

Attending to the dynamics of Burnout in Transition – questions for this theme

How we might create a culture in Transition where there is no burnout? What if this was the first aim of every Transition group, including Transition Network? This is one of our greatest dysfunctions as a movement, and so something that we should pay close attention to. What should leaders in our groups and our movement be modelling to show that well being and balance are more important than always doing? To model that it’s not acceptable to override one’s health to give a bit more, again and again? To give value to downtime, social time, listening, stillness, caring in our relationships, honouring and celebrating what really matters in our lives. What should Transition Network and national Hubs be communicating that would really embed the values of caring for self and other in our projects so that we are able to take care of the wider world of communities and nature? 

Balance or Burnout – share your ideas and resources

Over the coming two months we’ll be exploring the issue of balance and burnout on our website. We’d love to hear your stories on this theme. We also welcome good ideas for practices and resources that have helped you or your group. How do you stay healthy? What pulls you towards exhaustion? How do you notice and come back?  There are some basic resources on personal and group resilience in the TN project support offer, as well as a lot of on line resources, some listed below. 

I’m off for a long rest now!

This is my last themed post for Transition Network as I finally walk my talk and take time out! I’m already feeling the relief of stepping back, and can feel that holding the inner dimension of Transition at its centre has been a responsibility that carries a sense of burden as well as incredible joy and privilege. I think we all in Transition can find ourselves picking up the heavy responsibility for the future of our world that some of our political leaders don’t want to feel – another element of counter-transference – and it may simply be true that we need to step in and step out to have a rest from this aspect of what we do. I wish balance and rest for all of us that are carrying the light of Transition in our hearts and our work in the world, knowing that this journey of change is going to be continuing for years, and our own health and healing is an essential part of the healing for our species as part of the beautiful living web of life on earth. 

Resources 

  • Here’s a burnout questionnaire from the British Medical Association (aimed at doctors but still relevant) 
  • The Activist trauma network has some great writings and support to prevent, or help with burnout
  • Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone have created a book and  on line resources titled “Active Hope - How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy”:  Joanna’s “Work that Reconnects” is a set of practices specifically designed to remedy some of the causes of burnout – a spiral of gratitude, safe shared expression of pain for the world which lead to a shift to a deeper sense of interconnection with self, human and the living web, and then honing how we bring our energy into action in the world. There are practictioners of this work in most countries.  Chris Johnstone offers on line resources including courses and webinars in personal resilience. 
  • John Kabat-Zinn on stress, health and mindfulness (see John talking to google staff – including mindfulness in their organisational culture here!). Books include Full Catastrophe Living
  • Paolo Freire was a famous Brazilian activist and philosopher who completely embedded balance in his model for creating change – a cycle of action and deepening reflection. Underpinning his philosophy is the realisation that we can’t create transformation using the existing culture in our change process.
  • Finally, here are some Inner Transition films which might spark a conversation in your group about burnout, balance and feelings.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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