Our hopelessly over-active activists

Published 06, Apr, 2017

Bob Leahy on the phenomenon of community activists becoming consumed by the work they do, despite the prospect of burn-out – and how some are coping with it. (Part one of a two-part series)

Our hopelessly over-active activists

This column is not about me – but it could be.

I'm writing this on a Sunday afternoon. Spring has spring - almost. It looks nice outside. But I'm inside, working, just like on most weekemds

In a few minutes I have a conference call with two other activists about an upcoming community meeting in Montreal - an evening meeting as it happens. One of us is sick, coughing and should be in bed. And that's the landscape of what this story is about.

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I work as an independent activist and advocate around others who works as independents. We don’t have 9-5 jobs, people to switch off the lights and send us home. Our lives are unstructured. We operate without the checks and balances – and even supports - that an employed position offers. Or maybe we do have one of those positions, either paid or volunteer-based - but then do more than is required . . .way more than that in more cases than I can name.

We take on too much. But then changing the world is hard work.

Family and friends start saying “you need to cut back.” “You are working too hard.” “You will make yourself ill.” Too often we don’t listen. Why? Because we like the work or we really feel we are making a difference in causes we believe in. Or something.

It happens in the paid sector too, of course. A few days ago I sent one Executive Director an email at 12.04, a little past midnight. (I often work late). The time of her emailed response? 4.41 am that same morning! Two people clearly working outside the parameters of their position, but getting the job done. That kind of thing happens all the time, work getting done at ridiculously late hours, with not a vestige of complaint or even an eyebrow raised.

What’s going on here is partly workload-related – there just aren’t enough hours in the day to achieve what is required of some of us – but it’s also about commitment and passion and, sometimes, a lack of boundaries or avoidance of self-care. More on that later.

A large part of my work here at PositiveLite.com and on the U=U (Undetectable and Untransmittable) campaign involves working closely with community activists. I don’t know a single one who just dabbles. Our work involves scant attention to conventional hours, boundaries or benefits.

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Guelph’s Wayne Bristow is, by day, active with two community-based AIDS Service Organizations, and he is also a peer research assistant with the Ontario HIV Treatment Network. But every night, five days a week he works the midnight shift (literally) at PositiveLite.com, scheduling PositiveLite.com tweets and Facebook promotion. He’s not in bed until 1 a.m. But that’s not all. He frequently writes for PositiveLite.com and is one of the names behind the HIV Disclosure Project.

Like many doing this volume of work, he sometimes feels the need to reevaluate. In a recent PositiveLite.com article he wrote “Here I am today, on the eve of my 63rd birthday and I’m starting to slow down, considerably. I enjoy all the things I’m doing but I’m not as motivated as I need to be. I’m not sure if it’s my medications, the normal aging process or if it’s this new thing I’m dealing with – depression.”

He adds “So I’m realizing that I need to find the things I’m having the most fun doing and stick to just them. I don’t want to see 63 as being over the hill but it’s time to start enjoying life, doing more fun things that don’t resemble a job. It’s time a younger generation jumped in. I’m good and I’m almost done. It’s time to take care of me so that no one else will have to.”

We talk a lot about HIV and aging, but seldom in this context. Yet some of the best advocacy work in our community is being done by older activists who are just running out of energy, or want to focus on the work they enjoy rather than the work that has to be done.

Meanwhile, the spectre of burn-out remains a constant for the over-committed. Bristow quips “It’s better to burn out than rust.” But is he right?

Burn-out isn’t pretty. As one source says “Burnout is a type of psychological stress characterized by exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm and motivation, feelings of ineffectiveness, and also may have the dimension of frustration or cynicism, and as a result reduced efficacy.” It doesn’t sound healthy and it isn’t. Working too hard can make you physically and emotionally sick, sometimes requiring an exit from the work altogether where a reduction in the workload or other interventions may have resolved the issue.

And we don’t always acknowledge that, quite aside from workload issues, the work that activists do is inherently stressful and challenging. Changing systems or changing minds, the bread and butter of advocacy, involves hitting brick walls all the time, dealing with difficult people and challenging the status quo all the time. It wears you down.

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The literature on burn-out associated with working in the HIV-sector is geared more to paid positions than it is to others.  Rightly or not, it seems researchers have paid more attention to the plight of the paid rather than the unpaid. So we have scholarly articles like this and more recently this but less about volunteer burn-out and even less about the predicament of community activists who take on too much.

Not that there aren’t some bright spots. The AIDS Bereavement Resiliency Program of Ontario (ABPRO) recognizes that community volunteers operate from a background of multiple losses, themselves a significant stressor, and emphasizes self-care as an essential component of the work. It’s a good program.

Self-care is arguably key. It’s as simple as taking breaks, enjoying simple pleasures that don’t involve work. Yet I know community activists who routinely ignore it, sometimes placing relationships in peril or making themselves sick. Or both.

I know all this first-hand.

Why do we do this? More importantly, how do we get out of it? I’ll explore that in another article. 

To be continued . . .