Advocacy Burnout is Real

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.

Taking Action

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.

Give Yourself…You

We’re all taught that if we treat others as we’d like to be treated in return, we’ll live happier lives. But isn’t it about time that we turn that around and focus on providing ourselves the same kind of admiration and love we give to others?

Self love goes beyond the stereotypical pamper sessions. It’s about so much more and a deeper-rooted concern. Too often, we don’t have a big enough inner container for the love we deserve to give ourselves. We are infatuated by the idea of other people giving us love, but it will never work if we can’t even provide ourselves with a small portion of the same kind of love.

Many people associate self love with being selfish, when in fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Being able to take time out for yourself and your own needs eventually reflects on the way you act towards others. Constantly being negative and hard on yourself leaves no room for others to give you love.  If you can practice self love around others, it will be a subtle reminder to them to love themselves as well.

Self love is such a vital part of our existence, yet one we ignore – often purposefully – on a daily basis. We can get caught up in the complexities of life while trying to balance the need to achieve, impress and belong. We can forget about the most important part of this complex puzzle – ourselves.

“If you have the ability to love, love yourself first.” Charles Bukowski

I am my own harshest critic. I am always the first to criticise and tear myself apart for the slightest mistake or failure, time after time. It took me a long time to realize that I do not need a green light from the rest of the world to reassure me that I’m on the right path. I’m now learning to trust my instincts instead of my ego.

Listen to your body and ignore all the whispers and dark murmurs in your mind. It’s true that if you talked to others the way the little voices in your mind talk to you, those people may not stay your friends for very long.

Choose yourself first before you let anyone else in. Appreciate yourself for the extraordinary being that you are. If it helps you, thank yourself for getting up in the mornings and then reward yourself for making it through the day. Just as you are a well-functioning, powerful machine put on this earth, there is also a delicacy and fragility within you. You must refuse to seek permission or approval to be yourself. Recognize that you, like everyone else, deserve to take up space on this planet just as you are right now.

As award-winning slam poet Caira Lee says, “I am the most important person in the world to me. I accept that person and I admire that person, and I will do everything in my power to see that person’s dreams come true.”

A Healthy Twist on International Women’s Day

It has been quite a year for women in the world. We have raised the #MeToo movement from a hashtag to a force. We have marched, yet again, for rights that are often agreed upon but still seldom given. We have won seats in government, testified in court, spoken out in interviews. We’ve started organizations, and built families. We have persisted.

SOGH members attend the Women’s March in Stockholm. Credit: Giorgia Dalla Libera Marchiori, Sweden

Despite all of these ‘women’s wins’, there are still glaring disparities in literally all categories from economic gaps, to social treatment, to health. There are global programs, data sets, indexes, and statistics to prove and draw awareness to those discrepancies. Recently, the UN released a report declaring that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) gender indicator still leaves “significant gaps to women’s empowerment”, specifically in health areas.

If the big international and governmental organizations struggle to deliver promises for equality, what can we as individuals do?

It can be difficult to know where to begin or which steps to take to create a solution for inequality. The answer is simple: just start somewhere. There is so much each of us can do! At the Swedish Organization for Global Health (SOGH), we start with health. We join together as individuals with different backgrounds and expertise, and commit to standing together, working in solidarity, and fighting for health equality.

If you’re somewhere other than Sweden (Hej, from Stockholm!), we’ve crafted three ways for you to celebrate International Women’s (Health) Day:

First, understand.

Women face different threats than men do, and still must fight for basic rights and protection to their own bodies. The top threats to women’s health globally include: reproductive health problems, maternal health issues, HIV, sexually transmitted infections, violence (intimate partner, sexual, or gender-based), non-communicable diseases (addictions, accidents, obesity), being young, and ageing. Globally, the health of girls and women often become secondary priorities. Women in the United States make 80% of all health care decisions for their families, and tend to prioritize their own health last. Some women are purposefully kept from care, while others may not be able to obtain the procedures they need. Understanding the threats and the issues women face is the foundation to a healthy future.

Second, practice.

When was the last time you went for a check-up? A breast exam? Have you talked to the girls in your life about self-care, safe-sex, health relationships? What have you been doing to ensure that you and your circle are practicing a healthy lifestyle? From food, to decisions, to difficult conversations, we cannot help to create health in others if we don’t first seek it ourselves. Practice what you preach, click around the Girls’ Globe health posts, make an appointment, quit a habit, have a difficult conversation, and check-in with your loved ones to elevate health in and around you.

Third, unite.

On International Women’s Day, we reflect on the status of health for women. Our work must address the uniqueness of women’s health based on circumstance and environment. Some threats to women are universal no matter the context or place. However, issues like gender equality, access to care, and quality services vary intensely based on income or geography. This added layer means that as activists, we not only have to understand or practice, we have to act. Our action can be in towns nearby, in organizations reaching far away, or in classrooms where future leaders are preparing themselves. Wherever we are and whatever we do, we must unite together for all women.

For more information on International Women’s Day, follow hashtags #IWD2018 or #TimeIsNow, and read about the 2018 UN theme: Rural and Urban Activists, Changing Women’s Lives.

5 Feminist Resolutions for 2018

2017 was, in many ways, a fantastic year for women.

I want to make 2018 the year all your feminist dreams come true, with these five feminist New Year’s resolutions:

1. Listen To Learn 

There is no singular ‘female experience’. While many women share similar experiences of marginalization and oppression, we are not the same. Moments like #MeToo remind us that we must listen to women and believe what they say if we are to continue working towards equality. We must create an environment where women, minorities, and other underrepresented, marginalized groups can speak for themselves.

2.  Educate Yourself On Intersectionality  

Intersectionality theory was first developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 as a way to explain marginalization of African-American women through the intersection of race, class, and gender. This intersection of identifiers remains relevant today and understanding how race, socio-economic status and gender marginalize some while empowering others is crucial. In 2018, we must continue marching together whilst acknowledging that each person is a person of diversity.

3. Collaborate With Women

In 2017, women kicked some serious butt. This was made possible by rallying at Women’s Marches worldwide and standing together to protest widespread sexual harassment and assault. As we continue fighting for equality, we must collaborate in new and creative ways. Make it your mission to break down old boundaries and rules by supporting the creativity and ingenuity of women around the world. We can all challenge our own assumptions and the assumptions of others to be the best possible versions of ourselves.

4. Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is 

In the U.S. we vote with our dollar, and so by buying from minority- and women-owned businesses and understanding the costs of consumption we can proactively support the things we believe in. Many garments are made by women and children in developing countries, and in many cases workers are neither treated humanely nor paid fairly. By understanding where our clothing comes from, we can consume more intelligently. For example, Sseko Sandals is a female owned and operated brand using sustainable materials and supporting women’s higher education in Africa. There are so many ways to support women and minorities: donating to women’s organizations like Girls’ Globe or buying art from women and minority creatives. If you are not in a financial position to monetarily support other women, you can open your network or volunteer your time and expertise to help other women. The possibilities are endless!

5. Self Care Is Not Selfish

Take care of yourself. Make sure the people around you are taking care of themselves, too. And be patient with your self care. Sometimes you have to try something new, or spend more (or less) time taking care of yourself to feel at your best. I think that women often undervalue themselves, and so by caring for yourself you remind yourself and others that you are worthy of love and care.

What are your feminist resolutions for the year ahead? How are you going to make sure 2018 is a great year for gender equality…wherever you are in the world?