Categorized | IN OUR COMMUNITY

Tips to prevent activist burnout

Posted on 29 July 2020 by Tesha Christensen

Paul Johnson encourages people to build in times for rest, self-care and exercise throughout the day. Consider blocking those times off on your calendar. (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)

Burnout affecting many South Minneapolis residents affected by COVID-19 and racism, says Paul Johnson of Workflow Strengths

Longfellow resident Paul Johnson quit his steady, reliable job at the end of February. He had dreamed of starting his own business for years, and the time seemed right.
When he first heard about COVID-19 shortly after he resigned, he remembers thinking, “Huh, I wonder what that’s about?”
Johnson was certified a couple years ago to administer a tool called the Strengths Finder Assessment. The assessment helps people recognize their dominant strengths, and learn to how to apply them to their work life and their life in general.
Johnson said, “Based on my assessment results, it was clear that I have entrepreneurial strengths. I’m a good problem solver. I have the ability to visualize a better future. I want to be part of building a more responsible, inclusive future.”
Despite his enthusiasm, the limitations of starting a new business during a pandemic set in quickly. Then George Floyd was lynched on May 25. Johnson set aside all goals related to launching his new business, and worked overtime on racial justice and neighborhood issues for the next two weeks. He raised donations for small businesses that had been destroyed in the uprising, did clean-up on Lake St., was vigilant as a security presence with his block club, posted to social media 24/7 about everything that was happening in the neighborhood, and pressed for communication with lawmakers at the city and state level.
He did everything he could, except take care of himself.
Johnson said, “That time was totally exhausting, but it also solidified my passion for social justice. I had to learn how to stay in the game without burning out, getting sick, or damaging my primary relationship. If my occupational goal was to help other people find balance in their lives, I had to get some balance back in mine.”
According to Johnson, burnout as a workplace phenomenon is an outgrowth of unmanaged stress. He said, “Your mind and body are under unrelenting pressure. The symptoms are similar to depression: fatigue, loss of motivation, high levels of cynicism, irritability, and an overarching sense that you just can’t get it right. Over time, chronic stress can manifest into insomnia, memory loss, immune system decline, heart failure, and more. It’s not something to take lightly.”
One of the many challenges people are facing right now, is that burnout isn’t just happening to community activists. Anyone who lives in the neighborhood is susceptible, just by virtue of living here.

Suggestions for work, home, neighborhood
Johnson has some suggestions that can help. He said, “One of the things I do in trainings is to have people think about their triggers. What is something that pushes your buttons every time it happens? Start with something small. For me, an example is getting cut off in traffic when I’m driving or biking. If I know that it makes me angry, I can practice thinking through a reaction that’s more effective than honking, yelling, or ‘gesturing’. With training, a person can learn new ways of responding to small and large stressors – but it takes practice.”
“With enough practice, habitual neuropathways in the brain start to re-wire and that changes everything.”
The bulk of the work Johnson does is aimed at mid-career professionals who identify as activists or change-makers. The following suggestions are aimed at the workplace, but have application on the home front, and in neighborhoods, as well.
• To be effective, it is essential to build in times for rest, self-care, and exercise throughout the day.
• Consider blocking those times off on your calendar. They matter.
• If you work from home, mark the beginning and end of your work day and adhere to that schedule.
• The typical person is distracted in the workplace every three minutes. For someone who works from home and has young children, it’s probably more often. Try to minimize distractions. Let calls go and return them when you’re able.
• Everybody has tasks involved with their work that they find more or less meaningful. Identify how you relate to the different parts of your job using an energy inventory: which of those parts are energy giving, energy neutral, or energy draining? Try to spread the good stuff out to help balance your work day, or whatever other strategy works for you.
• Are there tasks you can eliminate, delegate, or automate?
These are tough, tough times and there is no shortage of issues that need addressing. Johnson is not advocating for diminished passion and commitment. He said, “Burnout is a common thing in social justice work, because many of us are working toward solutions we may never see – and right now every problem seems inextricably linked to every other problem.
“How can you say ‘no’ to housing the homeless, when your core issue is fighting against systemic racism? Sometimes, in order to avoid burnout, you have to develop the ability to set limits. You have to narrow your focus to be effective in the work you have taken up. Knowing your dominant strengths can not only keep you from getting burned out, it can help you to stay healthy and optimally effective.”
For more information or to sign up for a Strengths Finder Assessment, email Paul Johnson at