Are you dancing on the edge of burnout?

September 24, 2012

Burnout as a topic has come up in a number of my recent conversations. One such example arose when I worked with the core organizers of One Love Movement in Philadelphia. Rooted in the Cambodian refugee experience, and having witnessed loved ones being unjustly deported, the passion, talent and commitment of these five young volunteers has inspired the creation of One Love Chapters around the country.  By day, they work as waiters, cable technicians and general contractors, but nearly every evening, they’re on the phone or gathered at their donated office space to tend to the work of One Love.  They asked me about burnout, and here’s what I shared with them.
First of all, the symptoms: insomnia, impatience, withdrawal, neglect (personal and relational) and blurring of clear boundaries.  I told them about how I find my partner awake at 3am thinking of ways to save a teacher’s position, or hear of a friend spending weekends watching “Law and Order” marathons, or watch a colleague gain thirty pounds in two months – clear indications that they are on the path to burnout.  These symptoms are all too familiar to me, having crashed and burned myself.
Twenty years ago, at the height of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, I was directing the HIV program at Asian Health Services by day and after hours, caring for my friends and loved ones who were living with AIDS.  It was a 24/7 existence and I felt that if I let go, everything would fall apart.  Basics such as exercise, eating well, and showering went by the wayside. I skipped family events, lost touch with my friends and stopped taking dance class. My boss forced me to go on vacation and once I got away from it all, I crashed hard.  I was so out-of-it that my father had to fly to Hawai’i to accompany me home, and I basically slept for six weeks. 
I did return to my job and stayed there for three more years.  But I went back changed in fundamental ways.  First, I realized that I was not responsible for saving the world, and there were plenty of allies willing to share that responsibility.  Second, I owned the fact that I was hiding behind my work to avoid dealing with other issues in my life.  Third, I realized that I had to change my outlook from a death-affirming to a life-affirming cycle.  Instead of focusing solely on the death and dying aspects my work, I had to resuscitate my sense of passion, purpose and hope for myself and for those around me.  I re-balanced my work life with my personal, creative, and spiritual elements of life. As a result, my health and relationships improved, and my capacity to make a difference in the world deepened. 
Dancing with burnout leaves unmistakable marks. You may feel you are walking a hollow path, having lost a sense of purpose and passion.  You may wonder whether your work matters anymore.  A good friend of mine recently decided to leave his job even though, as he said “Things were going ok,” but I knew that if I didn’t get myself out of the situation, it would take me out.  Maybe not this year or next, but I would soon resent the work, and that wouldn’t have been good for me, the organization, or our community.”   
If you are dancing with burnout, please give yourself the permission to take a break, even for a few days, and assess the situation with people you trust.  Finding your way back to a life-affirming outlook may help you to reconnect with your essential self and give you the needed adjustment to return to uplifted days and restful nights. 


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Kevin will be working with several community-based organizations on "Collaboration and Bringing Down the Fences," in Biloxi, MS in early October.

Kevin will be facilitating "What's Worth Saving?" - a session with Grace Lee Boggs in Detroit on October 13, 2012.

Kevin will be leading a session on "The Both/And Approach to Equity and Healing," with the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance in Detroit on October 14, 2012.

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