At times of crisis or perpetual struggle, people working as part of initiatives to counter the effects on the community often deal with intense periods of heightened emotions and stress. People tend to leave projects and the initiatives as a result of ‘burnout’ – feeling too burdened with the toll that working with a certain issue takes. This is a normal and happens quite often with organizations and initiatives as they see enthusiasm disappearing among the team and even numbers of volunteers dropping over time.
Youssef Shoufan from La Maison de Syrie talks about his personal experience with burnout and frustration after putting so much time and energy into the project.
Well, if you’re talking about burnout we if I talk for myself, of course sometimes since we put so much energy in it, you get tired, and sometimes you also ask yourself, you know, why am I doing this? Is it worth it? And I think people who are as involved as we are ask themselves these questions and a lot of people get tired and it’s normal especially that what we’re doing is in a condition that is not easy. So yes, sometimes it’s I ask myself questions on, you know, why are we doing this? Is it worth it? But I think there’s, like, this roller coaster where, sometimes you’re, you know, it’s harder, you know you’re on that down part but then something happens – you do an event, you see how people are enjoying it, you see some positive results, and you know it gives that energy to keep going.
I think if you believe in what you do, don’t hesitate to ask for help keep doing what you’re doing. Sometimes I think we also need to step back, you know to have an overview of what’s going on to be able maybe to not be too into what we’re doing and not having an overall picture. And sometimes also maybe taking breaks like we have done it sometimes we need more, but I think it’s fine to take a break to come back stronger. It’s not always easy to do it for real because you always feel like you need to do something, but yeah taking your break to better come back. And something I have – and I don’t always apply it, but at least I have it in my mind – but I realized it pretty early on that with Syria -but it could have been with so many other issues – it’s not an issue that’s going to be solved over a short period of time, so in order to be able to be effective and relevant for a long period, the energy has to be dosed and spread through time, just like if we unfortunately we have to run a marathon, so if you give everything you have in a short period of time you will just get tired and not be able to run the whole thing. And maybe that could be good for some people that want to give it all in a short period of time but in my case, I feel like I need to give a little less, but on a longer period. So yeah, keep running.
Jai Sen describes the burnout and the toll he had experienced throughout his activism especially as being part of building the “national campaign for housing rights” in India that fought for policy change. He talks about the importance of acknowledging failure as part of the process for any group or initiative.
People had similarly started working and we came together to build a national platform called the National Campaign for Housing Rights. It became the first broad cross-sectorial platform in India composed of hundreds of organizations of all kinds from so-called slum dwellers and tents to agricultural workers, factory workers, to women, environmentalists, political parties, human rights people. Just about any field you can think of. Because the home is so central to about every part of life.
And in the five years of its existence it succeeded in raising this question as some likened it to a fire that was burning in the country. I think many people came around to agreeing to in a way learn from people that – as I was saying – housing was not about buildings. Housing was about a place to live, security, and dignity. And this redefinition, aside from our trying to bring it in international policy and into law, ended up also going up to the United Nations and becoming embedded in UN agreements and covenants. So, not by ourselves, we joined an international coalition of people concerned with housing issues and it was that coalition that carried that forward- the Habitat International Coalition.
So it was a successful process in one way but on the other hand, several of us in the group that I was involved in, an organization called “Unnayan” – it means development in the sense of unfolding and self-realization – what happened was that many of us got brutalized by this experience. Certainly I did. In the sense that we were so intensively engaged in the work that we were doing that we began to lose our families and lose contact with them- we were working 16 hours a day. And we started becoming abusive towards our families and children but also to the people we were working with. It became a question of we were driven, if you’d like – I don’t know if that word is clear- but we felt that we had to succeed and that nothing could stop it. And unfortunately, I got burnt out badly and I dropped out of activism. I found that I could not sustain this pace and somebody helped me realized what was happening to me. So I stepped out of activism in the early 90s and I moved into research on movements as therapy for myself and hopefully to contribute to social knowledge.
In many ways, I’m still doing that today, I did about 10-12-15 years of research of movements and globalization of movements I continue to work and publish on that basis. And that’s why I am in Ottawa now – on the basis of that, I was nominated to be a senior fellow at the University (of Ottawa). I look back at our work and I can see the very complex dynamics. And we usually don’t hear about the complexity – usually the stories that are written about are the success stories and really all the success and it’s a straight line more or less, maybe with one or two bumps on the way. But the idea is to get across that you can be successful which is not a bad thing to do is. But it is not very helpful for movements or people in movements to only be told about the successes since most of us know that most movements are not successful. So I attempted to draw out, even in a successful movement, what were the contradictions and complexities.
The success stories of groups and initiatives are usually highly publicized and shown, leaving behind the many failures and attempts taken to reach that success. This builds an image that success is automatic and if failure does occur, then that alone can put an end to the initiatives. Rather than see success as a continuous effort overcoming failures and challenges, the either/or vision further burdens the team and adds more frustration.