Changing the Culture of Burnout

At Commonground, north of Melbourne, I had met with Alicia, a fellow campaigner who had experienced burnout and was now passionate about training activists in self-care. As I continued my journey north, I met many more activists with burnout stories of their own, emphasising to me that self-care training was more vital now than ever.

But I couldn’t shake the idea that we should be doing more than putting the onus on individuals to manage it all themselves. ‘Self-care’ seemed like yet another task that overburdened activists were expected to add to their lists, and for which to feel guilty if they failed.

Many activists operated in organisations where there was a burnout culture, with heavy workloads, long hours, not having enough time or resources to do the job properly, ineffective management and internal politics being some common problems reported. A survey of staff in one campaign organisation found that 39% reported they had developed mental or physical health issues as the direct result of working there, often using the following words or phrases in their comments: stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, exhaustion, headaches, insomnia, back problems, panic attacks, and feeling alone.

If the problem was systemic, if it was the culture that was the problem, then didn’t we need to work on changing that culture, within our organisations and the movement as a whole? Could we introduce structural changes and safeguards that ensured self-care and well-being were prioritised? And if this helped to retain staff and activists, then wasn’t it in the best interests of organisations and the environment movement?

I found myself wondering what ‘best practice’ would look like in an organisation that prioritised staff well-being.

I phoned Alicia to ask her about this. After politely listening to me rant, she agreed that organisations had a vital role to play, but said that this needed to be driven by the leaders of the organisations. Things would only change if they changed their thinking and practices.

There were two particular leaders whom I was keen to ask directly about this, and one of them lived here south of Sydney: my former boss.

Riding through the string of towns along the northern Illawarra coast, I turned off the beachside cycle path and up the hill to a house surrounded by trees on the slope of the escarpment. Claire greeted me with a hug and took me through to their spare bedroom to settle in. That evening after dinner with her family, our conversation shifted to the matter I was most keen to talk about.

Claire was the former National Director of my old organisation. Highly competent and sharp-minded, I had a lot of respect for her leadership. We’d also been through a lot together, and I was glad to have stayed friends after leaving the organisation.

As a manager, Claire seemed to really care about her staff. She encouraged the custom of ‘personal check-ins’ at the beginning of staff meetings and in one-on-one meetings of staff with their line managers, as a way of checking how staff were faring. She listened to her team and invited feedback. Perhaps most importantly she was strict in making sure staff took time off in lieu of any overtime they worked.

Despite these things, there were times during intense periods of campaigning where many staff felt overworked and rundown. It wasn’t something that we staff talked about openly; I would get to thinking that it was just me becoming worn out, and I’d feel increasingly isolated from my colleagues as a result. But then there would be those moments, perhaps when another colleague was staying back late with me, where we would talk quietly in the empty office and they would confide just how much they were struggling.

Claire agreed that it would take the leaders of organisations to drive a move towards prioritising staff well-being. However, she also believed that these leaders were often similarly caught up in the culture of overwork and burnout, and needed self-care too. Claire had eventually left our organisation because she herself was exhausted.

Burnout compromises a leader’s ability to manage others effectively, and Claire later realised that she needed to manage herself first, in terms of workload and self-care, if she was to have any chance of being a good manager and leader.

We had switched from Claire’s living room to her lounge room by this stage. Her husband and two daughters had grown bored and left us to it, and Claire and I were reclining lazily on her sofas, belying the earnestness with which we talked.

I asked her what had helped the most in terms of looking after her own well-being, to which she replied: coaching. Our organisation’s board arranged for her to receive specialist one-on-one coaching, and a big focus of this was on supporting her morale and well-being. It taught her specific skills on emotional intelligence and helped her develop strategies and plans for self-management and self-care. Hearing this made me wonder: What if all staff in positions of responsibility were to receive regular ‘well-being coaching’?

After leaving our organisation, Claire took up a role with a social justice campaign organisation that had to go through a restructure, which she found extremely stressful, as did her colleagues in many different levels of the organisation.

Around this time, an independent review was being carried out by their parent organisation looking at staff well-being. It found that staff experienced exceptional levels of stress, and whilst some efforts had been made to support staff well-being, it had been ad-hoc, reactive and piecemeal.

Amongst its recommendations to the organisation’s management, the report pointed out that this line of work was inherently stressful and quite different from the sorts of jobs that many in society hold. As such, any community mental health services available were unlikely to meet their staff’s needs, necessitating that they be provided with specialised support. It also called for proactive and continuous investment in staff well-being, saying: ‘Don’t wait for a crisis to be the impetus to make well-being a priority. The time is now.’

I’d been wondering how to change the burnout culture that had arisen in many organisations. Here was one organisation that was trying to do exactly this.

Claire described how her organisation went through the change process, with management becoming more intentional about staff wellbeing and establishing an ongoing program of staff well-being measures. The organisation created a policy on staff well-being and began training managers to model positive practices. They took steps to address staff workloads, encourage feedback, and actively foster a culture of safety and trust. They sought to provide better access to counselling services, as well as more specialised support.

They introduced a well-being self-assessment questionnaire that all employees were regularly provided with and encouraged to fill out as a way of helping them become more self-aware. They were able to share and discuss the questionnaire’s results with their manager, if they wished, without fear of retribution — but there was no obligation for the staff to do so if they did not feel comfortable.

The organisation also educated managers and staff about resilience and supporting others experiencing distress. When Claire became my manager I was just starting to grapple with the physical and mental health ramifications of my past burnouts, and Claire had to endure me talking at length about it in our one-on-one check-ins. I suspect she was quite bewildered at times, though she did her best to be supportive. Claire told me now that after her recent training she would be much better equipped to support someone in my situation and respond effectively.

Claire had also recently trained in coaching the ‘Reflected Best Self Exercise’. It was a personal development tool that allowed people to reflect on their strengths and had been proven to lower stress and burnout levels and improve resilience. Claire said the exercise helped orient people to the work that gave them energy, rather than drained it, and helped create the self-awareness needed to work, rest and thrive.

Claire remarked that it was still early days, and only time would tell what effect these well-being programs would have on her organisation in the long run. Would they go out the window as soon as their next intense campaign came along? Or would they result in happier and more resilient staff and teams over the long-term? I suspected that, once again, it would come down to the values of the organisation’s leaders and their determination to prioritise this work.

The hour had grown late, and Claire and I bade each other goodnight. I lay awake in their spare bedroom, thinking over everything we’d discussed and excited by the thought that if one organisation could proactively change their culture of burnout, then surely others could too.

The next morning I said farewell to Claire and rode away. I still had questions, but they would have to wait until I reached the next person on my list further north.