Burnout is an obvious sign that our activism is unsustainable. We burnout when the demands we take on are intense and unceasing. The phrase “burnout” usually refers to a temporary state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. It also refers, however, to a stress related disease that produces a major life crisis. Not only a stress reaction, however, burnout describes a life that is lacking in personal satisfaction and joy.

Symptoms of burnout include the following:

  • chronic fatigue — a bone weariness that sleep does not dispel
  • susceptibility to illness
  • sleep disturbances — trouble falling asleep, waking up with racing thoughts
  • weight loss or gain
  • loss of interest in sex
  • increased use of drugs and alcohol
  • depression, anxiety, feelings of overwhelm
  • feeling trapped, unable to see other options
  • hair-trigger emotions — quickness to anger; irritability; sudden tears
  • withdrawal, isolation, rigid thinking, cynicism, negativity
  • paranoia
  • relationship/family problems
  • spiritual darkness — feelings of futility, joylessness, resentment of the world
  • an obsession with keeping going
  • not caring anymore; giving up; loss of positive feelings for others
  • deteriorating performance, despite putting in longer hours
  • daydreaming

Many factors contribute to burnout, from the societal (e.g. political climate does not support value environmental work) to the organizational (e.g., work environments are dehumanizing) to the personal. Personal factors, which we have the most control over, include the following:

  • over-ambition; save-the-world fantasies — high achievers with high ideals perceive themselves as constantly failing
  • obsession with bad news — overexposing oneself to it and working harder and harder in the face of it
  • under expression of emotion — little emotional release
  • denial of personal needs and wants; drivenness; self-criticism
  • insecurity; feelings of inadequacy; wanting to meet other’s expectations; committing to projects in order to be liked; excessive “need” to give
  • unhealed childhood wounds; low stress tolerance
  • over-identification with the problems of others; inability to care for the world while also maintaining a healthy detachment
  • isolation

Burnout is the result of a high accumulation of stress. Gordon Wheeler defines stress as “challenge without support, something with which I am too alone.” An important element of preventing burnout is therefore finding emotional support and overcoming isolation. Other self-care activities such as exercise, meditation, and creative expression also have an important buffering effect on the effects of stress. Some of the changes we need to make in order to prevent burnout will be more internal, such as healing old wounds that have left us feeling insecure or traumatically stressed. We may also have to let go of the need to have our actions always produce immediately successful results, and instead find satisfaction in simply doing the best we can to take care of the world while we also take care of ourselves.

Burnout Rating Scale 


Physical Self-Care
Eat regularly (e.g., breakfast, lunch, dinner)
Eat healthily
Get regular medical care for prevention
Take time off when sick
Get enough sleep
Take vacations; plan “down-time”
Make time away from telephones
Psychological Self-Care
Make time for self-reflection; be curious about your life
Have your own personal counselor
Write in a journal
Read literature that is unrelated to work
Do something where you do not have to lead or be the responsible one
Notice you inner experience (listen to your thoughts, judgments, beliefs, attitudes, dreams, fantasies, feelings, etc.
Let others support and compliment you
Say “no” to extra responsibilities sometimes
Emotional Self-Care
Spend time with others whose company you enjoy
Stay in contact with important people in your life
Give yourself affirmation, praise yourself
Find things that make you laugh
Identify soothing activities, objects, people, relationships, places — and seek them out
Find people with whom you can express your emotions
Beware of over-attachment (to people, outcomes, etc.)
Spiritual Self-Care
Have a vision for your life
Know what is meaningful to you
Spend time with the natural world
Find a spiritual practice and community
Nurture optimism and hope
Be aware of the nonmaterial aspects of life
Be open to unexpected possibilities or inspiration
Meditate, pray, sing
Say “no” to negative people
Workplace or Professional Self-Care
Take a break during the day
Take time to chat with co-workers
Set time limits with clients and colleagues
Arrange your work space so that is comfortable and comforting
Get regular supervision or consultation
Have a peer support group
Develop interests outside of work
Strive for balance among work, family, relationships, and rest
Get a new job
Categories: Stress