Mason professors delve into causes, symptoms of burnout among activists

Two George Mason University professors are examining the experience of burnout among social justice activists.

Cher Chen and Paul Gorski, professors in the Social Justice and Human Rights Program in the School of Integrative Studies, are the authors of three articles and several studies based on those who have experienced and recovered from activist burnout.

Burnout is about more than just having a bad day; it is a chronic condition, Gorski said. It’s when people who were once highly committed to a movement grow mentally or physically exhausted and lose the ability to engage in their activism effectively.

Gorski and a team of graduate students are currently studying activist burnout and persistence among college students.

“What we really want to know is how college students become involved in activism,” he said.

The study will follow 30 to 40 students through college and beyond to determine what keeps them engaged in activism.

“As an activist myself, my goal is to see what kind of support they need to stay engaged, [and] how we sustain social justice movements,” said Gorski, who runs the group Thriving Activist for students prepping to be activists.

Chen and Gorski’s 2015 study, “Burnout in Social Justice and Human Rights Activists: Symptoms, Causes and Implications” included information on 30 social justice activists. The results were published in an article in the Journal of Human Rights Practice.

In the study, 77 percent of the activists attributed illnesses to burnout. One person reported coming down with pneumonia twice; two others attributed their cancer to the stress and anxiety of their activism. (Evidence from other studies indicates chronic stress can play a role in cancer growth and metastasis.) Others suffered from depression that made it difficult to leave bed and start their work day.

Social activists often forego their own well-being and see self-care as a contradiction to their pact of "selflessness," Gorski said. But sacrificing self-care, coupled with the emotional toll of activism, can hasten activist burnout.

Other stressors can include tense relationships, infighting and bullying among activists. Some participants of color in the study said racism within the social justice and human rights field hastened their burnout.

“White racial justice activists—even in the context of racial justice movements and organizations—still tend to spill their white privilege all over the place, creating burnout for activists of color,” Gorski said.

There is no prescriptive list of ways to prevent burnout, but there are ways to “soften the blow” through self-care, he said. Meditation works for some; for others it may be having hobbies or having networks of activists they can talk to about burnout.

The most important thing is to attend to the dynamics within their movements that elevate the threat of burnout, Gorski said. He explained that this can be accomplished by eliminating the expectation that activists work themselves to exhaustion.