The Most Dangerous Burnout?

Several conversations lately have me worried about burnout.

Not the individual “I’ve had it with social work and think I’ll open a bakery instead” kind of burnout (I have this thought occasionally, but I really, really don’t like waking up early. And I don’t think my customers would necessarily appreciate running political commentary. So I stay.), but the whole movement “maybe this whole social justice thing is too hard and times are tough so maybe we just can’t do this” kind of burnout.

And, truthfully, this kind scares me a lot more.

In a comment to a blog post awhile back, a colleague talked about how hard it has been to stay engaged in the political debate, since many progressives felt like it was “our” moment in 2008, and there’s a sense of whiplash in the intervening 3 years.

In some of my consulting work with nonprofit advocates, I had a very experienced lobbyist with a well-respected organization tell me that her greatest concern, looking forward, is how many of those alongside whom she has advocated are already giving up, saying that the more conservative legislature and Governor we have in Kansas today is simply more than they can stand.

And, perhaps most chilling are the conversations I’ve had with a few elected officials in our state recently, none of whom have answered my, “so, can we count on you to run again in 2012?” question with anything close to an adamant affirmation.

And I don’t blame them. Any of them.

It’s tough to spend every day advocating on what seem like lost causes, and so many of our dearest struggles seem that way these days: budgets that protect the most vulnerable, progressive civil rights legislation, adequate supports for families, equal rights for women, strong environmental standards, a solid regulatory framework for health care reform…fill in your own “lost cause”.

I wish we were winning more, too.

But the reason that I’m so concerned about these signs of movement burnout is that we will surely lose, and likely lose more ground than we even fear (and, perhaps, more than we’ve even won!), if we step away. If we wait for a better day, or someone else to take up the charge, it will likely never come.

But, lest this post turn into some inspirational poster with an odd animal photograph (is my kid’s classroom the only one to feature those?), here’s a quote from one of my all-time favorite social work advocates. Ever.

“We are all being told that we have to be pragmatic and recognize that this is not a “good” year for social issues, especially if they cost money. That implies that there may yet be a good year for social issues, if only we have patience. But no Congress has ever come to Washington vowing to make things right for the poor, the vulnerable, for workers, or for the environment. In that sense, this year is different only in degree.”

The advocate? Nancy Amidei, the woman behind the “ketchup is not a vegetable” campaign.

The year?


It’s always an uphill climb, no matter who sits in the White House or even how many votes we control in Congress. Trying to vanquish injustice is like that.

And, while I don’t have the answers to how we guard against this burnout and how we collectively care for each other so that we can continue on, I’d argue that the stakes have never been higher than in the next 13 months, at least.

Our causes are no less noble for being long shots. Our clients’ and communities’ needs are no less urgent. And our roles are no less critical. And, together, we can not just hang on, but even carve out some victories.

And maybe even turn some tides.

5 responses to “The Most Dangerous Burnout?

  1. Go ahead and add education reform to your list of “lost” causes. In my corner of the advocacy world (specifically arts education), many colleagues are feeling the same burnout. In many cases the advocating work that we are doing now is toward rallying the base and keeping them in the game. This translates to a loss of overall momentum because you have to keep plugging the leaks at home. Not sure how to combat this, but the social justice movement as a whole needs to figure it out because we have huge mountains to climb right now.

    • That’s a great point, Darcy–when we have to spend more time “preaching to the choir”, we aren’t broadening our base the way that we’ll ultimately need to, in order to build alliances across issues and create a widespread movement. But if we aren’t mobilizing that base, as you say, then we’re losing critical ground. Maybe the challenge, then, is to connect with people’s core interests in a way that’s broad enough to cross silos, so that you’re enlarging your pool of advocates just because your message is more inclusive, even if you’re not actually recruiting more folks to your specific cause? If we address root causes, maybe we can build a bigger tent, so to speak?

  2. I’d say this is the perfect moment for this topic. I think the depth of folk’s burnout is waist high. And it gets tiring constantly plodding through the muck. I think many of us alternatively feel energized and exhausted as we face each of the issues you mentioned earlier.
    So thank you for the quote from Nancy Amidei.

    And you’re right about things ending up worse if we give up. We definitely need to find some successes, no matter how small. And there are certainly some wins out there we can achieve.
    I am too most concerned about the upcoming elections and that the current climate might be a deterent to keeping good folks in office and attracting new ones. We certainly could use some fresh candidates that are ready to work hard for change.

    But how do we energize and get people to get involved

    • Thanks, Lesa. It has definitely been on my mind lately–I rely on folks like Nancy a lot these days, because we need that historical perspective, I think, to put these times in context. Maybe we energize folks around connecting to the pain that they feel, and how policy decisions and the actions of elected officials perpetuate that…because starting with their struggles connects to where they are today?

  3. Pingback: Best Tweets in Mental Health (wk of 10/17/2011) - SocialWork.Career

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