Seems like you are burnt-out, dear

Some information and advice how to prevent burn-out for yourself and your team.

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We are launching our #antiburnout section with an article about what burnout is and how one can cope with it. We have attended a training session of an anti-burnout expert Jolanta Cihanoviča and are happy to share some valuable advice and comments.

You come to work on Monday morning already thinking of a weekend, though you kind of like what you do. It feels like you don't have time for anything and there are so many responsibilities and obligations that coping with them without bursting into tears doesn't seem possible. No one around understands how they can help you. Even you yourself don't know what exactly is wrong, everything just doesn't fall into place. Dear, it seems like you got burnt-out. It's not disastrous, it happens to many on a bigger or smaller scale. And it won't last forever, especially if you have already realized it and want to help yourself.


Listen, you are great! The fact that it is difficult for you right now doesn’t mean that you do something bad or not professionally enough. You were devoted to your work and those for whom you were doing it, thank you a lot for it! But now, please, allow yourself to take care about very you!

What is it and why did it happen to me?

Burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in emotionally difficult situations or by a devotion to an activity that doesn't live up to your expectations and efforts.

Burnout happens when we give more than receive, when there's nothing left to be burning, all the resources are used up and no recharging happens.

Situations of uncertainty and lack of control raise the chances to burn out. It's quite spread in activism that a certain activity might be lasting for years, but it stays unclear when the issue will be resolved or when definite success will come. No measurable and fast results appear and it seems that your work and you as well are just little drops in a storming sea. 

Besides, almost every person nowadays regardless of their temperament or level of social activity can sometimes or often feel lonely. This feeling of a global loneliness can exist even when you have plenty of friends on Facebook and there's always a company to go to a cinema, but there's no understanding, sharing of your ideas, support and sympathy or you don't feel them.

Jolanta Cihanoviča compares this with a 50-kilo backpack. Wherever you go this weight is always there with you. That is why all those one-time methods to relax and friends' invitations to go for a walk or to a club will hardly work – it is indeed hard to dance with an enormous backpack.

Jolanta Cihanoviča is a clinical psychologist, internationally recognized organizational trainer and consultant, human rights activist from Latvia/Great Britain. She is an expert in anti-burnout prevention and psychological security. Together with her colleagues Jolanta has founded the only LGBT organization Mozaika and a centre for HIV/AIDS positive people in Latvia. 

Stress that is needed

According to Jolanta stress on its own is a normal state. Stress is our awareness and a means to survive in the surrounding world, therefore there's a certain level of stress which is comfortable for us. Stress situations cause the adrenaline rush. When it's too little we try to get it artificially by drinking coffee, arguing with someone, taking drugs.

Aspects of burnout

Jolanta Cihanoviča distinguishes six aspects of burnout. As a result of prolonged stress situations one or several aspects can crash and lead to discomfort, often with no clear realization of what could cause it. 

Jolanta compares these aspects with wolves and encourages to feed them, or in other words, pay decent attention to all of them, so that they are more likely to be like your pets rather than a flock of hungry wild animals.  


Symptoms of burnout – insomnia, fatigue, headache, various pains in the body.

You have, certainly, heard dozens of times how important it is to have a good sleep, drink enough water, breath in a proper manner and go for a walk? Well, sorry, but there's nothing crucial to add to the basic body care. Though we do have something unexpected here: everyday's 5-minutes of doing nothing! Exactly, nothing at all! You can sit, or lie, or stand, but nothing more. Just don't forget to breathe! Having your phone in your hands doesn't count as fulfilling this task properly. Try to practice this every day.


Symptoms of burnout – apathy, cynicism, pessimism, feeling down.

Emotions appear when life events pass through your mental map. By a mental map in this case we understand the complex of our beliefs, values, needs and interests that affect the way we perceive and evaluate events and how important they appear to us. Thus, a minor event for one can be very sensitive to the other. So, the emotional reaction can also be different. Jolanta insists that we are all traumatized by life. Probably, there hardly exists a person with no negative situations on their way that significantly influenced their mental map. 

Try to write a list of 10 things that help you to feel better and to do something from it, once you get to fell down. It can be anything – your hobbies, little joys, communication with people or nature. The items on the list should follow three criteria:

  • Depend only on yourself (to exclude any dependence of their fulfillment on external factors)
  • Be realistic (it's worth writing down «a journey around the Earth's orbit» only if you really have a spaceship parked in your yard)
  • To be diverse ("check likes on Instagram", "scroll the Facebook timeline", "see what they have twitted there" is not the best combination for this list).
By the way, if it seems that all the wolves are hungry at once and it is not clear who to feed the first, the best is to start with Body and Emotions.


Symptoms of burnout – indifference or a negative attitude towards personal achievements, formalism.
In society as a whole and to many people individually there exists a frame of a "good person". "A child of a good mother never cries," "a good professional is never wrong," "a good activist never sleeps". The voice that says these phrases inside us often devalues ​​our merits and achievements: "Okay, you did it well, but only with 8 out of 10".
Try to ask this internal critic the following: who is this actually speaking in me? Is it my mother, my grandmother, a primary school teacher, abstract society? And why do they do it?
In cognitive psychology, there is something that is called cognitive restructuring. It is when we find something constructive in the swirl of our thoughts and worries and try to do something about it. Your thoughts are thoughts, not facts. Do you remember the mental map and the perception of the world in different ways by each individual person? Something for what your inner critic gives you "8", can be estimated as the best work by literally everyone who somehow faced it. If you do not perceive your emotional experiences as established facts, it will be easier for you to cope with stress.

Cool advice from Jolanta:

  • Give yourself freedom of action! Name what you think is a mistake a search, or an experiment instead.
  • Compare yourself today with yourself a week, not a year ago. We live in the present and the future, the past has already gone, and you are already quite different than a year, two or ten years ago.
  • Think about the positive aspects of those traits of character and behavior that are traditionally considered negative. For example, "I'm quick-tempered" can be transformed into "I know my boundaries well and express my feelings," "I'm jealous" into "I can notice achievements of other people". After all, these are your strengths indeed. Use them! For the sake of interest, you can write down all of your strong and nice features, then of a person you like, and afterwards of one you don't. Most likely you will see how you describe similar things in different ways, for example, "sense of purpose" in one case and "stubbornness" in another.


Symptoms of burnout – reluctance to learn and develop, acute lack of time to perform tasks.

The key to many things including a feeling of developed competencies lies in planning. When there are a lot of tasks, and you do not have time for them, and also the responsibility and fault for the undone/laziness/procrastination join in, it may seem that you do not have enough knowledge or skills to do something.

Try to estimate how much of real time your work tasks occupy. Don't think of how much they should last ideally or how much you want them to take, but for how fast (or long!) they can be done in this real physical world. Perhaps, you have lack of time not because you have not enough skills. You might even do great in making lists of tasks for the day/week/month, but the actual duration of each is what makes you fail.

Networking, or participation in professional groups is a great way to increase your social capital and feel surrounded by the right people. No matter how developed your competencies are, doing something alone without a possibility to share success and pain in a professional community can be extremely difficult.

Talking about how to feed the wolf of competencies for your team, it is worth paying attention to the Appreciative Leadership – this is an approach that helps members of your team to reveal their creative and professional potential.

Appreciative leadership is based on the 5 principles:

  • Inquiry – ask questions about what your colleagues think about new suggestions, how they feel, what stories of success they can share. Questions and sincere desire to listen to the answer give people the opportunity to feel necessary and meaningful.
  • Inclusion – it is a possibility for absolutely different people to be included in various kinds of work processes and receive information.
  • Inclusion and openness create a friendly atmosphere, in which one wants to be coming back.
  • Inspiration – it can be a story of great success or a day when you all go around the office, covered in glitter. In general, it's small and big joys and positive examples that can lift everyone's spirit and give energy for fruitful work.
  • Illumination – identifying the best in people and situations, which can bring an excellent result. It helps people to see the strengths of themselves and others, gives confidence in taking risks. Integrity – creating a common vision, a sense of unity that helps people to do individual part of the work for the sake of great good.


Symptoms of burnout – a sense of lack of support, detachment from close people, social isolation.

Any relationship is based on something in common: a purpose, an activity, an interest. If it's important for you and you need to establish or maintain a good relationship with someone, try to find the points of unification. Even with your opponents, you can build effective communication based on how much you can see their interests in realizing of yours ideas.

Communication is especially important in working relations: what is said, how it is done and at what time. As a rule, even for the most critical claim, you can express it in a friendly way. For example, instead of "You are late with the deadline as always!" you can say "How can I help you to get the task done on time?" Of course, it makes sense only if you are concerned about the result, not the fact of making a claim.


Symptoms of burnout – loss of meaning of your activities.

When you are engaged for a long time in business that does not bring success or is carried out with great efforts, it is likely that you will lose an answer to the question why you do it at all.

A simple tool of anti-burnout is to note your achievements and what gives you pleasure in work every week. You can write them down and sometimes re-read. Even in difficult moments this can remind you that there is good in your work and that you are doing it for something better.

A good tool for "feeding" the meaning according to Jolanta Cihanoviča, which you can use both for yourself and for your team, is a narrative approach. It means collecting stories of people for whom something has changed for the better because of you or your organization/team.

In general, Jolanta considers it absolutely normal that our values ​​and motivations change a bit (or substantially) over time. Accordingly, the meaning can also be transformed. Jolanta advises to share with each other feelings of how we change and how the attitude to the work changes.

There is another rather simple, but effective way to maintain a motivated spirit in your working group. It's great to inform people, who remain behind the scenes – administrators, accountants, volunteers, etc. – of the final results of your teamwork, joys that you can all share and can be recharged with.

Since you've read this article, it's high time you did something from that list of 10 things that cheer you up. Yes, do right now, everything else will wait!

Meanwhile we will continue to collect useful information, talk to experts and write about how to shine, but not to burn out and make life for yourself and your fellow activists more pleasant and emotionally safe. All articles on the subject can be found by the tag #antiburnout.

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