The strict deadlines, tight budgets and high pressure involved in advocacy can be overwhelming, and it comes as no surprise that numerous articles talk about ‘advocacy burnout’ or ‘activist burnout’ as a real and pressing issue.
My Personal Experience
For me, this reality hit home around a year ago. After coming to the end of an exciting and challenging advocacy position, I joined my boyfriend for a few months in Norway. I believed it would be the peaceful break I needed after a fast-paced time in my life.
But it was in our small Norwegian house, overlooking the wonderful natural landscape, where I realised that things weren’t going back to ‘normal’ – at least not in my head. Instead of enjoying the peace and quiet I had been looking forward to, I felt restless and uneasy. My job had become part of me, and now that it had ended, I found myself struggling with my identity and confronted with the question of what my future plans and goals were. I knew I was an advocate, and I knew my passion for advocacy remained, but I didn’t know how that translated into my day-to-day life anymore.
After the first weeks in Norway, I found myself feeling anxious and experienced spells of depression. I was very irritable and I didn’t feel like I was successful. I was starting to forget things (like where I’d left the house-keys, or things off my grocery list) and although I wasn’t doing much, I was always tired.
Initially, I blamed the weather and climate. Being half-Kenyan, I found the short hours of sunlight and cold weather undesirable to say the least. There were also – I should add – other personal circumstances that fed into the way I was feeling. But after I returned home, I didn’t notice any change and so I visited a psychologist who confirmed that I had been suffering from a burnout for over seven months.
After months of not feeling like myself and being overwhelmed, I felt a wave of relief wash over me when she said that. Since then, I have been working hard to get better and I now feel like I’m nearly my true self again.
Burnout & Young Advocates
The reason I’m sharing this personal and painful experience is because I’ve noticed that in the competitive field of advocacy, the issue of stress and burnout is rarely brought up. I have seen many young advocates work tirelessly during the night or through weekends to achieve wonderful results professionally, and then face repercussions in their personal lives.
The experience of burnout is shared by a wide range of young people working in various fields, not only advocacy. In the Netherlands, attention is being brought to increasing rates of burnout among young people, with the influence of social media and pressure to perform being named as underlying reasons for the trend.
Looking specifically at advocacy, the divide between work and home life can become blurred. Being an advocate is often more than a job – it’s part of your identity. Many young people enter this field due to their empathy, compassion and sense of justice. This makes it hard to clock out at the end of the working day and take enough time to rest and recuperate.
Adding in all of the other pressures on ‘millenials’, I feel that this group in particular needs stronger mental health support. They are particularly vulnerable to stress and burnout, given their drive to achieve results.
It is key that organizations and institutions in the development and advocacy sectors pay attention to the young people working for them. They need to provide all of their employees and volunteers with mental health support and information on how to access relevant services.
By keeping a close eye on the demands placed on young advocates we can help to create a more healthy work-life balance. Opening the dialogue on stress and burnout within organizations can help young employees and volunteers feel free to express their emotions without feeling like a failure, fearing stigma or worrying about future career repercussions.
If you’re a young advocate, how can you recognize if you are at risk of burnout? This article, written by fellow Girls’ Globe Blogger Tariro, highlights a number of points to look out for.
I have also noted the following tips from my own experience and online resources:
- Don’t be afraid to look for help. This is the first thing I wish I had known. As an advocate you may be used to being in control of things, but when it comes to your mental health, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Start by reaching out to people close to you and then expand by visiting a health professional (this could be your doctor, a psychologist or a therapist).
- Make time to rest. Whether it’s taking 15 minutes to read a book or taking a ‘mental health’ day from work, it is important to schedule time to do something that grounds you and gives you energy. My personal go-to has been guided-meditation before I go to bed, as I find myself feeling most anxious around this time. I currently use the free app Insight Timer, and I have also heard a lot of positive stories about the Headspace app.
- Say no. If you are like me, you might find it challenging to say no to new opportunities or requests. In my case, it’s not necessarily that I don’t want to disappoint others, it’s more that I’m easily excited and eager to take on a new challenge. Making sure you look at the time and energy you have in a realistic way can help you pace yourself and say no some of the time.
- Schedule time for reflection. A tip I received during my treatment was to schedule a specific time every day just to think. This can help you organize your thoughts and reduce overthinking during other times of the day.
There are many more coping and treatment strategies to deal with burnout or stress which mental health professionals can provide, and so it’s important to make services accessible and available to young advocates. A stronger recognition of this issue will help more young people feel free to open up about the realities of their work and the implications it can have on their health.