THE BLOG

It's Time to Talk: Ending Burnout in Movements for Social Change

04/25/2014 11:54 am ET | Updated Jun 25, 2014

We cannot build a thriving future out of burnout and exhaustion.

We cannot build a thriving future out of weary hearts, tired minds and burnt out bodies.

But we're certainly trying to, by the looks of it.

I know this from my work as an organizer in the climate movement -- because that's how I was doing it. That's how we all were doing it.

If you ask a climate movement organizer what's in the way of achieving climate stability and a just future for all, they might say the power of Big Oil, deadlocked politics in Washington, or the lack of economic incentives for earth-friendly choices.

You're not likely to hear about the widespread exhaustion, personal struggle and burnout that most organizers deal with. And you may not hear about the costs of doing things that way: groups or campaigns imploding when a leader hits rock bottom and leaves, hasty plans that fall short of what's needed, important conversations relegated indefinitely to the backburner. Not to mention the vision, creativity and compassion that are rarely present when we're in survival mode.

And it's not just climate movement organizers. Overwork is a near-pandemic amidst people who are devoted to making the world better, whether you're paid or volunteer, an organizer, educator, artist, entrepreneur or any other kind of change-maker.

It's the conversation we're not having, and we need to. It's time to talk.

As residents of this precious, melting planet, we don't just need to change what we're doing. We need to change how we are being.

We need a revolution.

Revolution (noun): "a dramatic and wide-reaching change in the way something works or is organized or in people's ideas about it." -- New Oxford American Dictionary

The revolution starts by admitting that the way we are doing things doesn't add up. Organizers talk about a "theory of change" -- that is, what do we need to do so that the change we want will occur. If we do X, then Y will happen. Having a coherent theory of change helps a group make smart, logical choices about what they're doing so they can achieve their goals. When the theory of change isn't sound, the actions won't produce the results they want.

It's time for us to rethink the theory of change that says if we push our way through this, struggling, overworked and exhausted, we will bring about the change we want.

It's like trying to run a marathon on no sleep and a twisted ankle, and continuing to do things this way is keeping us from winning victories. We are facing a crisis of planetary proportions. We have got to do better than this.

This is the challenge for social movements today. In the height of my grassroots organizing, I was overworking constantly. I was neglecting my health, my heart and the people I love. And at every step, I was re-justifying to myself that this is what the movement needed from me, or that I was the only person that could do what I was doing. There was a lot of action and energy, but I wasn't building much lasting power -- the key to making social change.

When I finally hit my breaking point, I pulled out of everything, and I took projects, campaigns and our momentum down with me. It was the darkest time of my life. I learned that "burnout" isn't just a word that means, "Oh, I'm getting tired of this." It's this empty, dead feeling that you get when the fire that represents all your passion, energy and will for making change goes out and stays out.

When we're run ragged and just getting by, we aren't contributing to others. Our bodies physiologically can't keep up. Our memory is poor. And what's more, our capacity for compassion, kindness, creativity and vision -- the kind of vision it will take to solve the biggest problem our species has ever faced -- is dismal.

I'll say it straight out: The world does not need your 13th or 14th or 15th hour each day. It does not need more email blasts or campaign plans written with bleary eyes. It does not need more of your suffering for "the cause."

The world needs you to thrive.

That doesn't mean just dropping the work that's before us. Thriving means being truly present for all of it, and making choices that give us the breathing room to do that. It means making choices that reflect what we want for all aspects of our lives -- our health, our relationships, our passions and our oft-neglected play time.

And thriving means giving up the justifications and rationalizations that keep us so busy, and being willing to bring a little sweetness into what we're doing for the world. Doing so may not be comfortable, but it couldn't be more important.

First we've got to tell the truth: that we've been running ourselves on empty, and that we've had enough of that getting in the way of us making powerful change.

Then we need to start having the conversation about all this burnout and exhaustion with our colleagues and friends. We need to talk about how we're doing things, not just what we're doing. We need to start imagining a new way of making change that looks more like the world we are trying to create.

This is what social movements need from you. This is what the world needs from you. This revolution starts with a choice.

Are you willing?