Mason Researchers Address Activist Well-Being and Burnout

By: Whitney Hopler

Communications Coordinator, GMU Center for the Advancement of Well-Being

Many people who are working hard for social change stop their work despite their passion for the cause because they become too burned out to continue. The attrition rate of social justice and human rights activists is measured as high as 60 percent in research studies, says Dr. Paul Gorski, associate professor of Integrative Studies, who will present the free talk “Activist Well-Being and the Sustainability of Social Change Movements” on Tuesday, September 20, 2016 from 12 noon to 1 p.m. in 1201 Merten Hall.

Burnout, not wavering commitment, is the factor that sidelines many people from working on the social justice and human rights issues about which they care deeply, Gorski’s research suggests. Often, he says, “the anxiety and stresses associated with activism wreak such havoc on the emotional and physical health of activists that they are forced to walk away from causes to which they are tremendously committed.”

Gorski plans to describe how activists like students and others in the Mason community can cultivate well-being in their lives and communities so they’ll be empowered to fight burnout and continue their demanding work together.

Paying attention to symptoms of burnout is important for activists – both for themselves and for those who are working with them for a cause. Burnout can show up in a variety of ways, from emotional signs such as depression and anxiety to physical signs like illness or a pattern of unhealthy eating, Gorski says.

The issue of overcoming burnout is a vital one for students who devote themselves to any kind of work in which they’re trying to make the world a better place. Margaret Lo, director of the Office of Sustainability, plans an annual “Sustain the Sustainer” retreat to give students a chance to get away from the stress of their regular routines and renew their well-being.

At the retreat, which is held in the spring, students try out various well-being practices to find ones that prove to be most helpful for them, such as: meditation, yoga, journaling, and community service. “We give them different ways of rejuvenating,” Lo explains.

Activists “have to be able to stay positive and hopeful,” Lo says, despite the negativity and apathy around them. When they become tired or discouraged, “being able to appreciate the small positive changes that are happening” through their work can help, she adds.

When progress towards change comes more slowly than expected, activists can get discouraged, but shouldn’t lower their goals, says Gorski. “I don’t think the idea is to set lower expectations, but instead to learn how to see and appreciate smaller victories.”

Networking with other activists can also help. “Partner with like-minded people to encourage each other,” Lo advises.

Intentionally investing in caring for themselves and other activists in their communities is vital, Gorski explains. “Activists can take care of themselves by being intentional – adopting specific practices that feel rewarding to them. This might be meditation or other mindfulness work, but it also could be making sure to spend time with friends and family, eating healthy, and being sure they have a supportive community of people who share their struggles. But just as importantly, activists can take care of each other by changing the cultures of activists’ organizations and movements with an ethic of community care, so that these practices are seen as part of effective activism.”