Avoiding Political Burnout
Burnout is a real threat to our ability to create a movement for positive long-lasting social and political change. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle poses the question, “How do we keep people from burning out?” As grassroots groups have sprung up and are continuing to grow, this question has been overlooked in the frenzy of activity. However, preventing burnout is an essential part of developing a coordinated, proactive grassroots strategy to build a movement that can 1) gain critical mass among the citizenry and 2) sustain pressure over time.
What is burnout?
Already, we may be witnessing the signs and symptoms of overwhelm among our friends, family members, and work colleagues. Overwhelm is a state of chronic stress where the demands on a person have exceeded the ability to cope with those demands. In the current political environment, overwhelm may stem from an inability to process stimuli, such as emotions or information about current events. People are reaching their threshold for withstanding and processing negative or divisive opinions, such as from social media or news stories. Additionally, people may get overwhelmed from trying to take in and process the amount of information received daily. Overwhelm can affect our mental and emotional states, such as through feelings of helplessness, anxiety, or anger. Physical indicators of overwhelm may include fatigue, frequent headaches, muscle tension or aches, or changes in appetite or sleeping habits.
Being constantly overwhelmed can eventually lead to burnout. Burnout means that a person will simply cease to engage in any information or situations where s/he would be exposed to stimuli that s/he cannot process. Basically, burnout is the end of the game. Once people reach the burnout stage, there may be no going back.
What happens if we burn out?
The implications of burnout in the current political environment are not just serious—they are critical. Political engagement has been at an all-time high and the level of motivation among citizens to participate in the political process has been unprecedented. However, as Isaac Newton observed, “What goes up must come down.” Burnout is the “down.” As constant overwhelm leads to burnout, citizens cease to stay engaged. Attention to political issues, discussion of policies, awareness of government activities, and holding elected officials accountable will no longer happen for citizens who are burned out. Without long-term citizen participation in the political process, progress cannot be made and maintained.
How do we prevent burnout?
We have a collective responsibility to prevent burnout. As individuals, we need to be mindful of when we start to feel overwhelmed and take steps to dial down our stress. As political organizers, we also must be focused on developing our groups' organizational structures and activities in ways that spread action duties across the membership, rather than encouraging everyone to do everything every time. In building a sustainable movement, it is imperative that political engagement be manageable. We need to gain critical mass among the citizenry for a strong movement and spread the responsibility for political action, so that each citizen's "workload" can be maintained over time with all of life's other responsibilities. We can't have citizen's burning out before we even get started, otherwise, how are we going to sustain pressure over time?
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