Editor's note: Alessandra Pigni wrote this article for Transformation in 2017. She died from cancer at the end of 2018 but her book The Idealist’s Survival Kit. 75 Simple Ways to Avoid Burnout continues to inspire activists around the world. This piece is republished in her memory.
So here we are, a brand new year like a blank canvas, a fresh start full of resolutions. No doubt many people will resolve to invest in their ‘work-life balance.’ But more than New Year’s resolutions which hardly ever work beyond the first week of January, I think we need something much more radical akin to a new year’s revolution in our workplaces—and in the ways we organise for social change.
We don’t need a better work-life balance—we need a new way of working that’s fully integrated into our lives so that work doesn’t destroy our souls.
I’ve grown weary of big mission statements in non-profits about making a difference or empowerment, sustainability and equality. They end up by becoming platitudes, providing an unintentional cover-up of some sort: anything goes in the office because we are ‘doing good’ out there. I’m fed up of big ideals and crabby people who are too busy fixing the world to be kind to their colleagues; too busy making a difference ‘out there’ to look within; too occupied changing others to change themselves. When this happens organisations become unfriendly places that breed burnout—preaching justice and equality but practising very little of either in reality.
Take humanitarian organisations: they are full of resilient people on the verge of burnout. All the signs are there: exhaustion, loss of purpose, cynicism and disillusionment. This quote from a Syrian aid worker working with people fleeing from war puts it in a nutshell: “Do I have to fight to deliver services or do I have to fight my managers? We’re fighting the discrimination on the ground but not in the office.”
But burnout isn’t just a personal issue, it’s a structural one. We can’t deal with it unless we are prepared to rethink the way we work, and acknowledge that the quality of relationships that we craft in the office really matters. It matters to our mental health and to the kind of work we want to do.
Many idealists find themselves wondering if the work they are actually doing matches what they imagined when they started out, full of passion to make the world a better place. Humanitarians, activists, teachers, health professionals and non-profit workers may have different personal and professional paths, but they share a common thread: starting out with wide horizons and big ideals, and often ending up jaded and burned-out. Wanting to make the world a place where healthcare, justice and education are not just the privilege of a few but fundamental rights, yet discovering that the road to doing good and meaningful stuff is paved with terrible managers, short-sighted organizational visions, and power relations that can bend your soul.
How we can break out of this mess? The Idealist’s Survival Kit was born out of my own attempts to find ways to keep sane while serving others, to avoid becoming cold-hearted while being exposed to overwhelming human and humanitarian crises, and to avoid drowning in cynicism while maintaining awareness of my own drives and needs as well as keeping a critical eye on the whole, flawed humanitarian enterprise.
My first humanitarian assignment was as a psychologist in Nablus, Palestine, serving with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders. The experience was an eye-opener and the beginning of a love story—not so much with institutionalized humanitarian work but with the Middle East and with people who do work that matters, often at the margins of big institutions and sometimes in spite of them.
As I prepared myself psychologically for the field, my fears were about political violence and possible traumatic incidents, like being caught in the shooting or shelling and becoming disabled. But none of that reflected the realities I met on the ground, which were intense, enriching, inspiring and challenging, though not always in the ways I had expected.
What became clear was that many aid workers’ biggest trials, stressors and traumas came not from so-called ‘frontline work’—in my case listening to the tragic and harrowing stories of people who had lost their homes and loved ones—but from the petty stresses of organizational life, from controlling managers trying to micromanage, or from the burden of bureaucracy and office politics, or losing sight of a larger purpose or the real meaning of the work.
After some years I realized that I needed strength and self-care tools when I stepped into the office, not when I stepped out of it. In fact, the people I was meant to ‘help’ became examples of everyday resilience and courage—and my sources of inspiration. Did I need their help more than they needed mine? I often think that was the case. They certainly enabled me to find my way and my place in the world, and to face my own challenges with more confidence.
I realized that the humanitarian lifestyle might seem charming from a distance but that close-up, it had flaws that were hard for me to digest. The idealism that propelled me and many of my colleagues dimmed the longer we spent in the field. Many lost compassion and became cynical. It was clear that to serve others we needed a certain degree of mental and emotional fitness, as well as enough self-awareness to avoid helping others becoming a form of escapism in which we end up doing more harm than good.
Burnout, not post-traumatic stress disorder, and bad human resource practices, not war, are the things that wear so many people out who work for nonprofits. These are issues over which we have some control, unlike wars or natural disasters. So we need to rethink our organizations and our relationships to work if we don’t want to end up exhausted, jaded and ineffective.
The aim of my book is to help everyone understand, address and if possible prevent burnout, especially when working as an activist or in other demanding situations of social change. I don’t have a simple recipe for healing, and anyone who advertises a ‘life-changing’ method almost certainly doesn’t have one. As the writer Rebecca Solnit puts it, “We are constantly given one-size-fits-all recipes, but those recipes fail, often and hard. Nevertheless, we are given them again. And again and again. They become prisons and punishments.”
Nevertheless, there are plenty of concrete ways to resist a culture that turns busyness and exhaustion into a barometer to assess our value as human beings, and lots of steps we can take to take care of ourselves while serving others. We can resist by searching for meaning amidst a chaotic yet fulfilling personal and professional exploration. We can begin to take care of ourselves by recognizing that small things matter and by deliberately stepping out of the blender of compulsive busyness. Mental health isn’t something that experts give to you.
For example, something as simple as having lunch together with your colleagues can become an informal yet structured vehicle for emotional debriefing. Over and over again, the people I interviewed told me about the importance of creating forums that breed a culture of respect, care and learning. A meal together doesn't fix the problem or make the pain go away, but it can open up a space to acknowledge that we are not alone in facing what life throws at us.
We can “learn and practice the art of saying no” as a Syrian emergency adviser put it, or “practice yoga (or your favourite body-mind activity) every day, even if you work in a place like Gaza, in fact especially if you work in a place like Gaza.” Other non-profit staff added their own ideas: “keep a journal, write about your experiences, about how you feel;” “connect with a group or an activity that has nothing to do with your work.” “Practice mindfulness and go on a silent meditation retreat; “go on digital detox” or just “go for a walk.” As the late activist Tooker Gomber puts it in his Letter to an Activist: “Be sure to hike and dance and sing. Keeping your spirit alive and healthy is fundamental if you are to keep going.” Do your your work, but don’t overdo it. “If you burn out, you’ll become no good to anyone.”
While these strategies may not save you from burnout if you are immersed in a toxic workplace, they may help you to stay sane and realize that it may be worth knocking on new doors in search of a more humane organisation—or at least a place where lunchtime happens around a table and not behind a computer screen. Instead of pledging commitment to some banal new year’s resolution and running after that ideal but impossible work-life balance, we can all embrace a more radical approach that transforms work by starting within ourselves and our own workplaces.
Alessandra Pigni’s book is The Idealist’s Survival Kit. 75 Simple Ways to Avoid Burnout.
Read the foreword to The Idealist's Survival Kit here.