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Being Progressive Shouldn't Be Hazardous to Your Health: Here's How to Avoid Our Culture of Overwork

Burnout isn't just a cliche: It undermines our energy, passion and imagination, and it affects every aspect of our lives.

Progressive leaders, activists and organizers don't take care of themselves very well. They get burned out and either don't know, don't care, or don't know how to fix it. Burnout isn't just a cliché. For its victims, it means real suffering. It undermines their energy, passion and imagination, and it spreads like a virus through their workplaces and families. Almost every aspect of their lives takes a hit--health, relationships with friends and family, creativity, judgment, concentration, and mood.

I should say "our" lives. I have lived, and too often continue to live such a life. I've also treated the burnout of activists and organizers for 30 years, and coached dozens of progressive leaders as they struggle to not only take better care of themselves but change their organizational cultures.

Most of the time, burnout is invisible to its victims until it becomes extreme. But even when they recognize it, they can't remedy it because their fundamental ability to take care of themselves is impaired. There are the obvious signs -- no vacations (or pseudo-vacations in which one is in frequent contact with work), working while sick, failing to eat well or exercise, poor sleep, and overuse of alcohol or prescription medication. And then there are the subtler signs -- lowered immunity to illness, fatigue, social withdrawal, impatience and irritability, pessimism, and joylessness. There should be a warning on your membership card that reads: "Becoming too involved in the progressive movement can be hazardous to your health."

Progressive leaders and organizers are obviously not the only ones who suffer from burnout in our society. Burnout, stress, workaholism, and type-A behavior are ubiquitous in our current economic rat-race and in a culture that privileges the bottom-line over quality of life. The special irony of this syndrome among progressive activists is that we are supposed to be in the business of changing the world in ways that reduce stress, even as we, ourselves, break down under the weight of it. After all, the "good life" we're fighting for isn't one in which the drum beat of daily life sucks the energy out of the body and soul. Too often, our message seems to be, "Do as we say, not as we do." The stress and joylessness that so often mark progressive workplaces need not define the whole of life in order for it to be a problem.

Obviously, leaders and activists enjoy the material benefits of their work, as well as the even more important satisfactions of doing mission-driven work. It's a testament to the ways the work of social change speaks to deep needs for meaning and connection that so many of us are willing to forgo better paying jobs outside the movement in the first place. Still, the toll taken on the quality of our lives by the habits and culture of political activism is tragic.

On first glance, such a tragedy doesn't seem avoidable. Progressive leaders live at the intersection of a perfect storm of pressures and demands that make self-care difficult:

  1. Their organizations are understaffed, driving leaders to do too much and cover too many bases, acting like the little Dutch boy who almost died holding back the floodwaters.
  2. The Right is always working to annihilate us. The pressure to continually fight a defensive war for survival tends to sap our energies and make "balance" seem like a selfish distraction or pipe dream.
  3. Progressive organizations often have a "martyr culture," a way of doing things that privileges the needs of others, views personal sacrifice as ennobling, and condemns as selfish, healthy attempts to put limits around one's time and availability.

Such dysfunctions become incorporated into the everyday culture of progressive organizations, and as a result, become invisible. As if this weren't enough, people who stay in the progressive movement adapt to these external dysfunctions by internalizing them. One senior organizer told me that he trained young organizers the way he'd been trained; namely, he threw them into tough situations to see if they'd sink or swim.

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