How I’m Saving Myself From Burnout While Fighting For Change

Photographed by Caroline Tompkins.
I spent November of last year weeping and sleeping. Too exhausted for suicidal ideation, I simply didn’t want to be awake. As a domestic abuse survivor, I felt stripped of agency and control within the domestic abuse sector I work in, re-traumatized though advocating for Black, queer survivors against a barrage of hate and oppression. Perseverance in a job which, once fulfilling, now required me to sacrifice my own sanity alongside months of self-neglect culminated in a breakdown. Heightened by financial anxieties, another lay off (twice in two years) was the final straw. I was burnt out, the fourth time that year. 
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Google ‘burnout’ and you will see the National Health Service (in the UK where I live) reductively lumping it with stress, as something manageable and situational. Rather, it’s the self-combusting exhaustion that arises when someone cares so much about a cause, within a system that doesn’t seem to care back. No longer having the energy to commit to that care, burnout results in an existential crisis that tells us life is pointless, there’s nothing good in the world. Burnout can be a ferociously acute depression and those impacted float in a cloud of despair, fog brained and on autopilot. In January, I emerged broken yet gifted with a month off between jobs, naively hoping it would be enough to recover from burnout. Whilst I tried to envelop myself in nature during this time, I found taking a month off only caused additional financial stress, not least that the UK's Universal Credit refused to even cover even a month’s rent. My last day of “freedom” before my new job was spent laying on my partner’s lap sobbing with the recognition that I was too ill to go back to work but couldn’t afford to be ill.
For Black community leaders and advocates like myself, whose careers are entwined with their activism and lived experience, burnout is all too common. Whilst UK-based statistics are hard to come by, in the US studies found 71% of racial justice activists experienced feeling depressed and isolated. For many, burnout is the result of working within our own trauma, unable to condense our lived experiences neatly into a 9-5 working day, in workplaces which often exploit and harm us.
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No career should consume us this way, so I’d like to propose a solution: Burnout Leave. The fun part of imagining something that doesn’t currently exist is that it could, hypothetically, be anything we needed it to be. An allocated period of paid leave: one day a week, one month a year, three months sabbatical, to be taken when needed. An allowance which mitigates the risk of harm. Whilst it shouldn’t be for workers to redesign the UK’s employment model, regardless of how it would be implemented, Burnout Leave must:
- Exist in addition to statutory sick and annual leave
- Be a duration reflective of the risk of burnout
- Be mandatory for those in roles at risk of secondary trauma and harm
- Permit recovery without guilt, justification or fear of financial insecurity
- Sit within a holistic, sustainable model that recognizes organizational growth and staff wellbeing as mutually dependent.


“...it’s important we nurture the other parts of ourselves that aren’t the activist: the partner, parent, gardener, the friend down the pub on a Friday night.”

Dwight Turner, psychotherapist
Photo: courtesy of Evie Muir.
A call for burnout leave is an acknowledgement that something must change. And I’m not the only one to advocate this. The new year seemingly ignited a lightbulb of recognition in community leaders across a range of specialisms. From Tanya Compas, founder of Exist Loudly who spent three weeks in Costa Rica in what they described as ‘a love letter to myself’, to climate justice activist Mikaela Loach who, in Jamaica, is ‘waiting until [their] cup is full before pouring properly again’ , and Chanté Joseph who took to Twitter to announce that she will be routinely taking a month off every year to counter burnout. 
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Similarly, Eshe Kiama Zuri, Founder of UK Mutual Aid entered 2021 committing to burnout recovery by returning to their familial home in Barbados. “This year I have stopped and looked inwards to be more intentional, more caring, to give the same love and kindness and energy I give to everyone else to myself,” they told Instagram. However, in speaking with Zuri, realizing this manifestation is an uncomfortable journey. “I struggle to respect my own boundaries, and regularly work long days without days off,” they tell me. “How can I? When saying ‘no’ or ‘not right now’ means saying it to someone who has no heating, food or shelter…we exist within a constant cycle of burnout."
Further confirming that burnout disproportionately impacts those of us with intersecting identities, Zuri tells me how sitting on the intersections of race, gender identity and disability compounds this. “As a person with multiple chronic illnesses, burnout turns into flare ups that affect both my mental health and physical health. Disabled people already must push themselves in work and activism, because these spaces are not inclusive of people who’re not able to achieve a capitalist level of work output. As a Black MaGe (marginalized gender), there’s also an expectation to ‘carry the load’, to be ‘strong’, to overwork and to be dehumanized in my pain and suffering."
With the recognition that I won’t yet be able to take the prolonged trip I also need, I tried to find a more immediate remedy. I pledged a commitment to #MentalHealthMondays, a day which permits me to start each week with self-prioritization; hiking, wild swimming, a pottery class, a rainy day spent reading in bed and a visit to an animal sanctuary. Whilst insufficient to counter eight years of institutional harm, I’ve found doing so to have short-term benefits, ‘Sunday dread’ being replaced with anxiety-free evenings for example. However, the irony and injustice of the domestic abuse sector forcing me into such measures and the financial deficit that comes with working a day less, isn’t lost on me. Individual change isn’t enough, and activists can’t be expected to overcome burnout alone, change must also happen at the societal and institutional levels.
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Seyi Akiwowo, CEO of Glitch is also taking a break from her work against online abuse. On a three-month sabbatical spent in Lisbon, she intends to heal and find joy. Being permitted sabbatical leave in career activist roles feels uncommon, and she tells me of the reclamation of radical self-care practices being prioritized at Glitch.“Flexible working policies, having job descriptions that are based on output and how you get the work done, not the number of hours you do, intentional pausing, reading weeks, admin weeks, meditation and embodiment practices...” she lists as I grow envious. 
Of the wider societal changes needed Akiwowo urges it’s "a holistic, systemic revolution around how funders fund organizations, how governance rewards and supports rest, how the leadership model that, and how the team support it."
"I couldn’t go on sabbatical if it wasn’t for a funder supporting my wellness and understanding the toll of the last two years as a Black leader,” she continues. “But okay cool, we finally get Burnout Leave, then we don’t have anywhere to go to heal and get support in those months. Universal Income, community care and resourcing the NHS are ways that everyone can access this. If you create Burnout Leave for those most at risk, then everybody’s going to be more supported, more protected.” It’s difficult however to be optimistic in the likelihood of Burnout Leave’s implementation nationwide, because as psychotherapist Dwight Turner reflects “there needs to be greater awareness of the role of activism to create change”. 
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“Society perceives activists as bothersome, so to paraphrase professor Edward Said, ‘the intellectual becomes the outsider,” Turner explained. This othering of activists permits those with structural privilege to silence us. The disenfranchisement and demoralization felt by activists within their careers is a perfect example of this, as is the UK's Police and Crimes Commissioning Bill. “How can we hope to have our needs met when the only changes our government wants to implement are to laws which would remove our human rights and criminalize activism?” I ponder aloud, a question neither Dwight Turner nor I could answer.  
In the meantime, how do those of us at risk of burnout stay safe? Whilst the NHS advises those suffering to complete six simple steps including "being more active" and "splitting up tasks," Turner suggests that for those with lived experience, the difficulty of separation from ‘the work’ must be recognized. “Yes, taking time off is important,” Turner agreed, “but it’s important we nurture the other parts of ourselves that aren’t the activist: the partner, parent, gardener, the friend down the pub on a Friday night. That we spend time outside of activism, with people who’re also outside of activism, our children, or friends that share an interest in sport or movies. We often spend so much time seeking others with lived experience, but I’d reason different forms of safety can be found in different people, not just those who ‘get it’."
Turner suggested another form of radical self-care to embed within our activism: ‘realism’. “Any form of systemic change takes generations. Change is incremental,” he considers. “Sometimes it’s easy to think that nothing’s happening and that we need to push harder — that’s when we burnout — so it’s important to realize we’re doing all we can right now, and in doing so we’re passing that on to the next generation. Things ebb and flow and so many successes have been achieved so far.”
To the question ‘should Black activists be given Burnout Leave?’ The resounding answer is yes! Whilst capitalist structures exist, we must ensure that all those working in a career that centers lived experience, social justice and liberation work with a risk of re-traumatization and burnout, are compensated, nurtured, supported and liberated. 

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