Mental Health

Black Burnout



By Nasalifya Namwinga

What we know of burnout come mostly from research on job burnout. Burnout is defined as the experience of chronic emotional and interpersonal distress within a job. It is characterised by three dimensions – exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. A 2019 study looked at causes for burnout among US racial justice activists . The study found four main causes. These were emotional, structural, backlash, and in-movement causes and implications for movement sustainability. This article will combine findings from studies, as well as anecdotal evidence from my therapeutic work. The anecdotal evidence will hopefully make this relevant to the Australian context rather than blindly importing the US context onto a place with a distinct colonial history, brand of systemic racism, white-supremacy, and anti-blackness.

Causes of Burnout

Emotional: People engage in activism in part because of a strong emotion, connection to the cause, and a sense of morality. As a result, they expend emotional labour as well as other forms of labour doing the work which makes them uniquely susceptible to emotional exhaustion and overworking, resulting in burnout. Poor self care as a result of no work-life balance can also become a feature. I have found that there is also social glorification of being overworked, and people feel guilt and sometimes shame about resting. This creates a cycle of overworking, getting burnout, and retreating just long enough to re-engage in overworking.   

What Helps? Being aware of your own capacity and setting boundaries that protect you from going beyond it. That looks different for everyone, but you need enough self-compassion to recognise your needs and to meet them.  

Structural: Systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, anti-blackness, transphobia, ableism, Islamophobia…etc… If you need more information on how these and other systemic issues have a negative impact on the physical, mental, spiritual, economical, and emotional health of people, you can ask Beyonce’s Google.  

What Helps? Social change. It is not the responsibility of the victim to learn how to better cope with their abuser. 

Backlash: People who speak out often become target of violence/abuse. This can come in various forms depending on the context. Abuse comes in many forms including physical and verbal mistreatment, unjust practices, micro-aggressions, abuse of power, and financial. It is important to note that marginalised-identity activists are targeted at higher rates that privileged-identity activists. This is often where white feminism is criticised for its lack of intersectionality, which often results in it perpetuating harm.

What Helps? “Allies” having an intersectional approach and where possible using their privilege to block/buffer abuse e.g. donations can help reduce the financial cost of activism (e.g. legal fees). If ‘allies’ continue to enact harm on you sometimes all you can do is disengage where possible.

In-Movement: As noted above, marginalised-identity activists are not safe from oppression within movements. The absence of intersectionality can be excluding and even unsafe for activists that are, for example, queer, non-binary, trans, and/or have a disability. For these activists, the exclusion of part of their identity and the harm enacted as a result is often a contributing factor to burnout.   

What helps? Same as above. 

Burnout is not the result of a personal failing, but rather a culmination of the aforementioned factors. In order to help enact change, we must first preserve our own health and well being, to be effective as advocates for your self and others.

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