Be The Change – But Not All Of It!

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heart shaped yellow candy with 'Just Say No' imprinted on it in redWhen Gandhi said ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’, he didn’t mean we had to be ALL of it, all the time.

I was saddened to learn recently that a friend and colleague of mine, who is working in both paid and unpaid roles in what I will call ‘deep sustainability’, and who has worked at senior levels in both the corporate and academic world, has fallen into the grip of depression. He is now off work indefinitely, and I have not been able to get in contact with him via phone or email (he lives interstate). I have no idea how he is.

The person in question is usually so optimistic, full of humour and ideas and energy that this came as a shock to me, even though I know he has previously battled a similar situation. It is a huge loss to those collaborating with and learning from him, and where his input will be absent for the forseeable future, because he’s been involved in so many things, and contributed so much.

And maybe that is part of the problem.

I’ve wanted to say something about this for a long time.

My friend is just the latest in a long list of ‘sustainability’ people I know who have found themselves in a state of burnout.

Now, this is not to say that only people who work in sustainability (which captures a wide range of environmental, social, development and change management work) become burned out, sick or affected by depression. It’s not to say that others do not suffer, and face real trauma or struggles in their work, or that other social movements throughout history have not faced profound challenges and times of despair, especially for those change agents who put their body on the line.

But from personal experience, and from discussion with many others working in this area, I know that there is a unique emotional angle to the work that is a factor in burnout and depression in sustainability folk. This is different to dealing with an immediate trauma, tragedy or emergency; it’s different to other social movements where people are at the point where they are engaged, ready to take action, or a campaign is underway, and the power struggle has commenced, however violent or difficult it may be.

The difference here is that those working in sustainability are deeply worried about not only what is already here, but what is to come. They are acutely aware of what James Howard Kunstler calls ‘the long emergency’ or what Paul Gilding calls ‘the great disruption’. They knowing what’s coming, that it’s global, that it has most likely already begun, that the range of consequences could be catastrophic, and that the scale of response is either too small, too slow, or not on the horizon at all.

Despite all the positive things that are happening out there, and reminders to focus on what is possible, to stay upbeat, there is no getting away from the reasons we are engaged in this work, or pretending they don’t exist – because they do.

Our work is to avert humanity from bringing about its own demise through ecosystems collapse and social breakdown.

And we are trying to do this through articulating positive futures for people to aspire to, yet at the same time, constant exposure to examples and warnings of ecological and social crises on a daily basis take their toll. Yet it’s a frequency we must tune into, in order to know what is going on, so we can do our work. And then it becomes a burden of knowledge – having ‘borne witness’, one cannot then simply ignore what one knows.

quote by albert einstein 'those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act'

It’s a combination of  frustration, panic and despair akin to what someone on the bow of the Titantic would have felt, trying frantically to get a message to the bridge to change course, but those on the bridge – or enjoying themselves drinking and dancing in the ballroom – are not hearing the message. Or worse still, you are ignored, laughed at, or characterised as a doomsdayer who is in love with the drama. And yet you feel that because you can see that iceberg, the responsibility falls upon you to act. So you must shout louder, harder, or find a way to shout more effectively.

So you take on another task, another role, another responsibility. Because you must ‘be the change’, right?

There is absolutely a link between working in this space and, at a minimum, mental and emotional stress, or at worst, depression and suicide.

Anyone who doesn’t work in this space might say – ‘well, just stop doing it. Stop reading, thinking and talking about it! What a bunch of sooks – why don’t you try working in a really tough job, like an emergency room, or with abused kids, or in a country where there is brutal, systematic oppression?’

Like any work where there is a deep personal commitment and intrinsic motivation, its not so easy to ‘let go’. Although other types of work involving trauma absolutely have their own emotional strains (many of which are manifestations of the same dysfunction sustainability seeks to address), it shouldn’t mean that the impacts borne by sustainability folk as a result of their work are considered any less valid. Unless you are in this space, you cannot judge those who are.

Having ‘borne witness’ and internalised the concern, it is not us who can’t let go of the work – its the work that won’t let us go.

The American ecologist Aldo Leopold said:

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.

It is interesting that he uses the metaphor of a doctor. Just as people working in caring and healing professions – doctors, nurses, emergency services, carers – feel an intrinsic responsibility at the scale of human beings, so those of us working in sustainability are people who take responsibility at the macro scale for the wider world. Just as the former don’t live in a world where they can down tools when they’ve worked longer than their shift, because people depend on them, sustainability folk cannot simply detach and not care. Many of them care so much about the work they need to do that they sacrifice income, professional opportunities and status they would otherwise have, time and health.

I’d wager that everyone who is working on sustainability issues is likely to have experienced some level of physical, mental or emotional burnout, or all three.

To be clear: I’m not talking about tiredness – I’m talking about burnout. There is a huge difference.

Burnout – My Experience

I’ve found myself in burnout more than once. First in the mid 90s, in my final year of undergrad university, where I was also working a five full days a week in a voluntary capacity with an NGO around uni contact hours. I completely wrecked my health and it took about 12 months to recover fully. Because I worked voluntarily and did little to no paid work, I also sacrificed at least $100,000 (working on $10/hour) over five years of involvement. Even so, I still wouldn’t change it, because I learned so much and had so many opportunities, and I know I had a much more interesting life than I would have in a paid job!

Then five years later, following an internship in the US, I embarked on months of ‘extracurricular’ work to bring the ideas and message of the Ecological Footprint and overshoot to my community, while still working my full time job.

And almost again last year, while working full time, and coming home to do a ‘second shift’ of activism – writing, networking, social media-ing until well after midnight most nights.

There are only 24 hours in the day. Time, it turns out, is as much of a non-negotiable limiting factor as the physical limits of one planet.

When you push limits, something always gets sacrificed.

Oh yeah – sleep. Exercise. A social life. As much as you love what you’re doing, you can start to get resentful of not getting around to those essentials. But there’s always one more thing to do. And if you don’t do it, who will?

You’d think I would have learned after the first time. Or the second. But you tell yourself that its all worthwhile, essential, that its rewarding work. And it is. But NOT when it comes at the expense of your own health.

You can’t do any planet-saving if you’ve trashed your health, or are worrying about how you are going to support yourself. It costs a lot of time, effort, money and angst to fix. If we want our work to be strong, we must be well rested, nourished, not strung out, and able to have the time and the energy to enjoy OUR lives – whether that’s spending more time with family, friends and people we care about, or doing those activities we keep saving for when the ‘work’ is done.

Guess what!? The work will still be there when you get back.

But even though we know this, when its the early hours of the morning and we’re replying to one last email; or we’ve agreed yet again to take on something else that is important to us personally even though we’re already stretched, all that gets bargained away.

Like the very culture we’re trying to shift, we prioritise the short term gain over the longer term risk management.

Now, there is reams of advice out there on ways and means to better manage ourselves, and its all good, sound advice. You can probably guess what it is. Meditate and do yoga (or something physical). Garden, reconnect with nature. Slow down. All valid.

But this depends on people’s ability to set boundaries in order to give those things the priority they deserve. And although some people have mastered the art of setting boundaries, many of us haven’t – I’ve been one of them, and still am, at times.

I’ve been working in this since 1993, and I’ve done it all, made all the mistakes, I know all the advice for managing work life balance and don’t always follow it (which is why I’m writing this post now instead of going out for a walk), but I have this year discovered the most powerful weapon in the battle for work-life balance:

The word ‘No’.

Wow – that’s it? What a revelation, right? </sarcasm>

I’m not telling you anything new. We all know this. We just don’t DO it. Like so much sage advice, we intellectually take it on board, but somehow do not act on it. Again, like the very culture we are trying to shift!

And contrary to most of the literature out there, this isn’t about setting boundaries with difficult people, its about being ruthless with yourself!

In order to throw a ‘circuit-breaker’ on myself, I took some of my long service leave and had some time out this year. A sabbatical. One of the reasons was to focus on some of that voluntary activism work, and to free my brain up from the mental demands of my paid work to do so. I also had plans to progress a couple of other things I’d long been wanting to do, one of which was initiating and developing this blog.

As soon as the word got out that I was taking ‘a year off’ – and those quotes are there because I have done a lot of hard work this year – I got an incessant stream of requests from people I’ve worked with (including virtually, and never met) to do x, y, and z ‘now that I had all this time on my hands’. Augh! Of course, everyone thinks their one request is just one little request. I’ve spent all year batting them away despite making it clear over and over that I was taking the time out to do two or three specific things that I really needed mental focus for, and that was it.

While its lovely that people think enough of me and what contribution I could make to seek my involvement (caution: do not let your ego let you say ‘yes’ because of this!), it was difficult for the people-pleaser in me to constantly have to decline requests and have to explain why over and over.

I’m now on ‘holiday’ even from the voluntary work – an absolute break. Annual leave from my unpaid work, as one friend put it. I’ve made a pact with myself to say no, whatever it is, no matter who is asking, because for my own sake, I must. And yet I still feel compelled to offer justifications for this decision, when perhaps I am perfectly entitled to make it with no reason needed, so that I can spend a day or two here and there doing absolutely bloody nothing. Our increasingly hyper, 24/7 culture is suspicious of people wanting to do nothing – well, it’s lazy isn’t it? Selfish, even, After all, you could be doing something productive. Yet we forget that rest and regeneration is productive.

It still feels wrong to say no to things I could help out with, including things that I personally feel are valuable initiatives, and ones that could be good personal opportunities. But I am determined I will not go back to paid work in January feeling as burnt out as I did when I left. And I am certainly not going back to fourteen hour days (half paid, half unpaid) and spending more time interacting with my computer than my family and friends.

Not only am I now being ruthless about what I do agree to, I’m also shedding previous responsibilities that I can no longer give time to, and have been feeling guilty about not making time for them!

Taking on too much – if its ‘for the world’, or for justice for others – can and will make you sick and tired. And when you are forced to worry about your wellbeing, which includes your material and financial survival, you are no good to anyone or anything. You can’t offer the world your best work.

You know those air safety videos which recommend that you put your own oxygen mask on before helping others? The same principle applies to sustaining change agents.

To be your best for the work that has chosen you, set boundaries, say no, don’t feel guilty about saying no, and recognise that we first need to ‘sustain the sustainers’.

And to my friend – be well. Hope to speak to you soon, and get back to sharing ideas, insights and those much-needed laughs.

Have you ever found yourself in a state of burnout? How did you get back on track?

Did you make any changes to prevent this from happening again?

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  1. Great post, very moving – challenges that are pertinent to lots friends of mine.

    You’re right about the oxygen mask. It’s all about creating more sustainable systems. The first system you need to look after is your own life. It is so obvious it’s crazy, but that doesn’t make it easy to do. Especially when all the other systems SEEM so much more important. You know, maybe they really are more important… but your capacity relies upon having your own sustainable grounding for contribution. Self-sacrifice doesn’t add up.

    Props to being able to say no. (And thanks for nevertheless saying yes re C2I : )

    • Thanks for this thoughtful comment John – I think this is more of an issue than many people realise. And it was a pleasure to come and speak at Collaborate to Innovate about the ‘shareconomy’, which is a despair-busting, positive way to address many of the challenges we face!

  2. Nice piece, and its so important to take care of yourself if you plan on being effective in the long term. My biggest challenge is to look after myself when I’m on the road most of the time – so not having the habitual exercise, meditation, dance, social activities. The laptop is always there, so its always easy to do that next piece of work.

  3. Well done Sharon. A timely reminder, well argued, for everyone in this space. It’s not easy to say “no” but given there’s no limit to the opportunities to say “yes”, it has to come at some point. So you might as well bring it on early. Love the oxygen mask analogy. Perfect.

  4. A fine piece of writing, Sharon, compassionate, incisive, true. And so hard to really, really live. Enjoy your holiday!


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