Is your passion burning you out?
Are you super busy? Do you have pressing deadlines? Is an urgent response needed to HQ? Do you actually have no time to read this article?
Take a moment and ask yourself a totally different question.
How are you? Seriously. How are you?
For all the years I worked in the aid sector, I never really asked myself that question. There were other things that were more pressing, and I just pushed on. It was ok, I loved my job, I believed in what I was doing. I did not want to let anyone down. I also felt that whatever I was struggling with was nothing in the face of what the people I worked with and for were facing. My own expectation was that I would always be there to do what was needed. In the evening. In the weekend. Always. And to not whine. Just to get on with it.
The aid sector relies on people like me, and that is not a good thing. It relies on people who love their jobs, who have a strong sense of purpose and who will always be there to do the work that needs doing. It also thrives on people who do not want to be seen as ‘weak’ and will not say that they are struggling or admit that the workload, or the circumstances in which they work, might be too much.
The reality that this creates is a sector that is supposed to be all about supporting human wellbeing, is slowly wearing down the humans working in that sector. Behaviours like drinking, cynicism, overworking and a lack of work/life balance are much more common than setting healthy boundaries, showing emotions or seeing a psychologist or counsellor. This was confirmed by a report from UNHCR that showed that almost 48% of the staff measured in a survey had heightened risk for burnout.
Surely, this is not ok? How can we make an impact for the greater good if we ourselves are cynical, over-worked and have unhealthy coping mechanisms? This can be hard to realize, because often, when we are in the midst of things, we do not realize our coping mechanisms are unhealthy, we do not see our own cynicism and we truly believe that we need to work the hours we work.
Until something changes. It can be a shock; it can be a slow realisation and change. I have seen lots of examples of shock: illness, burn-out, even suicide. My own change came more gradually, nothing snapped, nothing urgent happened, but I slowly started to realize what I was doing, and I changed, slowly but surely. I realised I wanted to feel, do and be different in my work. I also realised that I no longer wanted to be part of this work culture, not structurally. Fine to work all hours during an emergency, but it cannot be the case that when there is no immediate emergency, we still work like we are in one.
The fact that the aid industry still works in a way that leads many of its people to burn out or have unhealthy coping mechanisms is frustrating to say the least, and actually does damage to the communities we are supposed to support. But I understand how easy it is to perpetuate the system and how incredibly hard and risky it can be to change it. After speaking to lots of people, looking at my own experience, and diving deeply into the latest research about psychology and wellbeing, there are three things that stand out for me. 2 are related to our self and one is related to the system.
# 1 You are your own agent of change
The system will never cater for all of our needs, and we cannot expect it to. We have to take a look at our own role in our own wellbeing and the choices we make. It is incredibly empowering to start to understand our own role in how stressed out, busy or cynical we are feeling. When I started to realize how much of the stress I was feeling was actually made by me, I felt so much more empowered to change.
We all have coping mechanisms, but are they doing us good? Luckily, I learned different coping mechanisms, like meditation, mindfulness and positive psychology. This taught me new skills that allowed me to feel better, take more space and build a healthier work-mode. Skills that were good for me as well as for my organisation, and importantly for the impact of my work. I did not need the system to change to enhance and refine my coping skills. What I felt made me stronger was that these skills do not simply address a symptom, like how to handle my inbox, or how to have effective meetings, but they really went to the underlying habits and behaviours, dare I say the root causes, of my own feelings of stress.
The changes felt quite challenging at times, but overall, I was just feeling so much better and stronger. It is challenging because it required me to get real about myself, and as it turns out, I had some messed up habits and thoughts. But ultimately taking this step is the single biggest thing I did to make myself happier, healthier and experience more wellbeing.
It also led me to stand firm in prioritizing my own wellbeing at work (and life!), which leads me to the second point:
# 2 Know, and stick to, your boundaries
How do you recognise and stick to your own boundaries? Boundaries are different for everyone. For me, I could only really identify and stick to my boundaries when I knew the values I wanted to live by. My thinking was, that if I am not clear on what is important to me, what kind of person I want to be, the relationships I want to have, the behaviours I want to show – how can I know and set my boundaries? If this resonates – there are some really fun exercises you can do to identify your own values. Send me a message or comment on this article and I will send some exercises to you.
When I set my boundaries, I found yourself saying no to taking on extra work, not immediately responding to emails, not even the ones from the donor or my boss! I was also able to identify other kind of boundaries that were being crossed, for example, never speaking up about certain behaviours or expectations. Not only could I identify them, I could also make it clear that this is not how I wanted to do business, without starting a huge argument or blaming others, but just simply saying – no.
The way I tried saying no started with small things. It was by going home at a reasonable hour even if others did not. It meant not responding to emails in the evening or weekend (unless I was in some exceptional, time-bound, crisis situation) and not expecting people in my team to do so.
One of the most challenging things was to stop saying to others how busy I was. It is like you don’t count if you are not busy, and that your role, your worth and everything was linked to your ‘busy’ status. I started to notice that I said it all the time. Even when I was not that busy, but I was afraid to say that things were manageable, with the risk of not being taken seriously. Being too busy cannot be the norm, that means something is wrong. Feeling pressure to be super busy is really the world upside down – so I stopped myself from saying it when it was not true and make a real point of it and get support when it was true.
While small, these things made a huge difference for me, and made it easier to set other boundaries over time, and critically, understand when I was crossing boundaries of people in my organisation. Setting boundaries also meant I stopped perpetuating the system I did not feel comfortable with. Ultimately, for me, that meant a career switch, but it most certainly does not need to be that radical.
Just by doing small things you can challenge the system, challenge which behaviours are considered ok, and show yourself and others that it does not have to be this way. This is powerful mostly because it means you are taking responsibility for your own wellbeing, even if it can feel quite difficult at times, and you will get push-back or judgements from colleagues.
# 3 Challenge the system
You do not have to challenge the system if you choose not to. I actually believe that if you live step 1 and 2 you are already a force of change.
In whatever way we decide to challenge the system, how we do that is critical for our own wellbeing and the success of the challenge. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg says brilliantly ‘reacting out of anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade’. When we challenge the system with frustration and anger, we might reach those people who resonate with our anger and annoyance, and that can feel good, but ultimately the change lies in a bigger group of people. The challenge lies in being heard beyond those who share our emotions and our sense of urgency. This can be hard, because it can be very frustrating in itself to not have our urgency understood or taken seriously. I found that by being my own agent of change allowed me to navigate my challenging emotions in a way that allowed more distance, and I hope, more ability to persuade. This is work in progress though, it is sometimes really hard to not let frustration get the better of me.
Some initiatives are ongoing to address the system and galvanize a community of change, amongst others by the CHS alliance and healing solidarity. It can feel lonely to want to change the system, and it is always more powerful, and more sustainable for yourself, if you have a tribe to work with.
Keep your passion, drop the burn-out
Our passion is usually what drives us to do this crazy job. Passion is such a good thing, and such a great thing to cherish. It is amazing to work on something that you feel passionate about, but it does bring with it an extra burden. We need to watch out that we do not forget to take good care of our self, including our minds.
Good luck and get in touch if you have any questions or comments.