How Humans Burn-out and Why Robot-Ways Won't Work
Updated: Dec 22, 2018
A short story about the power of taking some time off
Have you ever heard the famous piece of advice about switching it off and then on again?
It worked for NASA and Hubble Space Telescope, so it would be amazing if it worked with humans too… But what when the machine-like reboot is not helping humans or even makes it more difficult for them to get back on track?
It happens because usually, it is not an actual reboot that takes place, but a fake one. Taking a second off and then expecting miracles is not a reboot. What we need to experience is the cooling down of our overheated brain. We need to make sure our body and mind will have time to find their balance again.
Long-term stress and burning out leave their marks and one won’t heal after a 20-minute break or a good glass of beer.
What does it mean in practice? It means, that introducing small changes to people that are sleep-deprived, probably won’t help them at that stage. It can even backfire when people realize that their problem is well diagnosed, but this solution is just too late. Rebooting with alcohol or drugs is another good example. There is a certain pleasure that comes with those temporary mood-lifters, and you get a small relieve from burnout symptoms, but in the end, it’s not the necessary rest (you know how a hangover is not a state of feeling relaxed, not to mention the addiction issues…).
Burn-out, as explained by Dr Elzbieta Kluska-Labuz, is a consequence of long-term burning. There needed to be a fire for a long time for somebody to lose it finally and not to have any more fuel.
The problem often lays with us not recognizing red light blinking, and clearly saying:
HEY! WE ARE RUNNING OUT OF FUEL!
Time&Rest - the (not so) secret chemistry of regaining balance
There is no good gas station to get it instantly and also we are not as easily refuelled as cars. In the state of burnout, even goodnight sleep can’t be considered a human gas station. When it happens, we can go to sleep at a low energy level and wake up at the same low level. Sleep could give us only so much energy to survive the night. What we got was not enough to even get through the day. Due to the burnout defect, it was impossible to refill our tank.
The secret ingredient missing is time.
When being burnout, and not just tired, time makes the rest happen. If the red light has started to blink, a quality well-planned rest and a plan of where can you find more gas stations on the way (aka how to take better care of yourself) should be enough but if the tank is already empty, time is the answer.
What to do? First of all, do not expect yourself to be better at sleeping and resting than anybody else would be. Don’t punish yourself for not recovering fast enough. Possibly don’t put any deadline for yourself to come back to whatever you call “normality”. It doesn’t mean you need to leave your organization forever and wait for your strengths to come back and then to start working again...
...but first be radical and take as much time off as possible.
From my observations at least some time off is always possible, take the overdue vacation, or because burnout is not only a mental state but a physical fatigue too, you can go to a doctor and ask for “time off prescription”.
If the atmosphere in your organization is good, you can always ask for help in finding a way to organize it. Probably your fellow-activists will be happy to get rid of you because let’s be frank, you’re not a ray of sunshine anymore and probably working with you is not anything they actually cherish in their life anymore. They can help you in cutting some time off. For your and their own sake.
The trick is to make sure you don’t touch your work. Being an activist consists of many formal and informal activities: your actual job, all planned campaigns, being a board member, the 24/7 responsibility for the community, additional sudden activities like protests, unexpected campaigns - all the combinations possible. And it is important to avoid all of the above. Full on sabbatical without exceptions. If impossible, then cut as much as possible.
Cut offline activist life like meetings with colleagues and discussing work or attending meet-ups. But also cut the online activist life. If you can’t live without internet, focus your attention on something else than your normal stream of information. Digital detox is not a bad idea, but I know it’s not as easy as it seems, the smallest thing could be at least turning off the notifications on your phone.
As harsh as it sounds, you can try to imagine you have collapsed and went to a hospital with no access to internet and doctors forbidding visits from your co-workers. The world would survive, hence probably it will survive your less abrupt disappearance. I know a person who actually changed time zones, to be able to run away from constant calls, Messenger messages and so on. And yes, everybody survived...
Not fighting for the cause, what else is there to do?
And what to do with all this “recovering time”?
Just be. Sleep all the time you want. Even 24/7 without feeling bad. Don’t concentrate too much on measuring if it’s already happening and if your tank is filling back again.
Important notice: if you have a family or you are taking care of somebody and it’s impossible to let it go, then just make sure your newly gained time is not devoted to work more in your other parts of life (but! if playing with children is your best relax - do it more often).
Do things you feel like doing, meet people you feel like meeting. I’m sure there are friends and passions you neglected when focusing on activism struggle. Or maybe you can discover new passion? Warning: don’t make new passion, something that will consume all your energy.
Some propositions for a new hobby from the amazing xkcd.com (I couldn’t decide between those two best suggestions):
Also breath a lot, even if you can’t make it too deep, just pay attention to breathing (sounds silly, but it is the thing we forget to do so much when overtired, when being constantly sad or angry). Go to nature, take your shoes off and feel the ground (it helps the brain to get to balance!). Look at the trees. Look up and breath. Walk on the uneven terrain, let your brain have some rest from looking at the screen. Again: a social media detox is not the worst idea.
Give it a try. Take it slow! (-er... if slow is too much)
As a coach, I work with burn-out activist, support clients in designing tailor-made ways against their burn-out while taking into account all the activist-human side of the issue. Contact me to see how I can help you.