Burnout. It’s become something of a buzzword lately, especially among those in the nonprofit and public service sectors. Usually it comes with an admonition to engage in self-care, draw on your support system and leave time for reflection. But what is burnout, really, and, more importantly, what causes it?
In her book, The Idealist’s Survival Kit: 75 Simple Ways to Avoid Burnout, Alessandra Pigni addresses not only the symptoms of burnout, but examines the organizational and cultural issues which cause it, especially for aid workers who specialize in crisis situations.
A humanitarian psychologist who works with activists and humanitarians in the field, Pigni has witnessed and experienced firsthand the effects of burnout. While there are steps individuals can take to mitigate the exhaustion and cynicism that characterize burnout, Pigni argues that much of the responsibility lies with aid organizations, which often foster unhealthy work environments, discourage humanitarians from seeking assistance and promote a culture of work-until-you-drop idealism.
The result is burnout, which Pigni defines as “a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion and frustration due to devotion to a way of life that does not produce the expected fulfillment and rewards.” Idealists, Pigni notes, are especially susceptible to burnout due to their high expectations for their work and their innate sense of perfectionism. The Idealist’s Survival Kit provides a number of strategies to help such individuals understand, anticipate and overcome their burnout.
As one might expect from the title, The Idealist’s Survival Kit consists of 75 short chapters, each dealing with different concepts and approaches to preventing and dealing with burnout. These include: “Burnout Recipe,” “When Self-Care Is Not Enough,” “I Am Not My Job,” “This Is Not a Survival Contest,” “Breathe” and “Changing the World Starts From Within.” Readers can easily get through a chapter over a coffee break or quickly before bed.
Indeed, The Idealist’s Survival Kit best lends itself to being read gradually. Each chapter contains quotes and anecdotes. These likely best serve the audience when meditated on and considered carefully, rather than rushed through. Read quickly, it does give the impression of being somewhat repetitive, as Pigni takes care to include definitions and ideas more than once. Taken slowly, this revisiting of ideas reinforces key concepts without forcing the reader to flip back and forth unnecessarily.
More broadly, Pigni divides the book into four sections: “Burnout and Meaningful Work,” “Beyond Burnout,” “Taking a New Road” and “Disruptive Notes.” The first tackles definitions and symptoms of burnout, which can resemble depression; the second addresses other complex psychological concerns facing humanitarians; the third empowers aid works to make meaningful changes; and the fourth addresses the ways in which we can interrupt the abusive cycles that lead to burnout.
While certain themes—like how organizations might better support those working in the field—reappear throughout the text, the book does build from section to section and chapter to chapter, slowly giving readers the tools to think about their preconceptions regarding both burnout and humanitarian work.
The Idealist’s Survival Kit is a multi-layered text that takes multiple approaches to the question: “how can we best support those doing humanitarian work?” And although Pigni focuses on those working the frontlines abroad, many of her arguments also apply to those engaging in domestic humanitarian work around the world. She highlights systemic problems in NGOs and nonprofit organizations, particularly the lack of support for their employees, volunteers, and allies and the culture of over-commitment, which is all too pervasive among such groups.
Nor are her solutions overly complex—many of her suggestions would improve any working environment. Workers should have the opportunity to engage with one another, places in which they feel safe to talk about their difficulties without judgment, approachable supervisors and the ability to take ample time off to process and heal. Too often, she notes, organizations remove aid workers who have had difficult experiences from the field without their consent rather than supporting them.
For individuals, she provides insights on how to manage one’s expectations, engage in meaningful self-care, make use of existing support systems, and, if necessary, how to leave a toxic work environment. She includes breakthroughs and reflections from humanitarians in similar situations. Moreover, she liberally peppers the text with thought-provoking quotes, poems, and letters. Arguably, there is something for every style of reader in this relatively short guide.
Ultimately, of course, The Idealist’s Survival Kit cannot address every eventuality facing humanitarian workers in the field or provide a universal solution to the issue of burnout. It’s important to note, however, it doesn’t try to do this. Rather, it provides a necessary and long-awaited beginning.
The Idealist’s Survival Kit: 75 Simple Ways to Avoid Burnout
253 pages, softcover