Activist burnout? Far too much!

Activists are especially susceptible to vocational burnout concludes a pioneer study on activist burnout – but few activists are willing to speak up about stress

By Morten Steiniche / Illustration above: Exhaust Port by Ky is licensed under CC BY 2.0


“It’s a widely spread problem,” says Paul C. Gorski about activist burnout.

He’s an associate professor at George Mason University, Virginia, USA and has published a pioneer study on activist burnout together with Cher Weixia Chen.

The results provided in the study must be scary reading for all activists in social justice, human rights, environment, animal rights and such movements.

“You throw yourself into working in a movement with a strong emotional connection to the cause. This is exactly what makes you highly vulnerable to emotional exhaustion.” helps activists and NGOs build resilience against stress

Often this results in burnout, defined as psychological stress characterized by exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm and motivation and feelings of ineffectiveness.

A consequence is reduced efficacy at work and people who suffered a burnout are often unfit for work months or even years after.


Stress is a taboo in activist communities

Gorski interviewed 22 activists, who have all recovered from burnout. Their stories are very similar and show the activist as a self-sacrificing person who fights for the cause 24/7.

Furthermore Gorski describes the activist culture as a culture where a mindset of martyrdom or guilt culture are predominant. The activists don’t allow themselves self-care and constantly suffer from a guilty conscience of not doing enough for the cause.

Other factors leading to stress and burnout can be the constant issue of the need to raise fundings to the movements and the lack of understanding for the issue from the surroundings.

But worst of all, activist burnout is a taboo in the activist communities.

Very few activists are willing to speak up about stress and burnout and NGO’s are often neglecting the problem.

One of the reasons that activists are afraid to speak about stress is that stress is considered a sign of weakness and as we know from the media image of an activist, they are supposed to be strong and resilient.

I wrote an article about activist burnout for the Danish newspaper Information. During my research for the article I had a hard time finding an activist who was willing to speak out about these challenges in the activist organisations.

“That is because stress and burnout goes against the culture in activism,” Paul C. Gorski explained.


Activist burnout is bad for activism

I asked Gorski about the motivation for doing this study.

“I had witnessed organizations and movements that were failing, and one of the reasons as I see it was because they were continually loosing momentum due to the high replacement rate. I’ve been aware of people who suffer a burnout, who simply walk away and never come back. Research has been conducted on how to sustain movements, but what if the biggest threat to sustainability of these movements is the high replacement rate of volunteers? So, that’s how I decided to research in activists’ burnout. It was less about the individual activist. My starting point was really, how do I help sustain these movements by sustaining the people in the movements.”

And how do we do that?

“The first step is to start openly talking about burnout as part of the activism environment rather than a distraction from the activism. But we also need to reframe the problem from being individual and rather that of community care. How do we support each other as activists, how do we create activists’ communities which not only help people to sustain their energy but also help them stay in the game? A shift is needed from self care to community care,” Paul C. Gorski says.