Avoiding Burnout

Avoiding Burnout

By Roger O’Halloran

At recent annual meetings comments have been passed by various long-term strategic allies noting how I maintain my passion for the Palms vision.  I do, so I take the comments with quiet pride, rather than the alternative possibility that they may just be a polite reflection on my ageing.

In contrast, I’m told that many social justice and human rights workers, who once beamed with the fervour of setting the world right, often depart their vocations early as hollow shells. Worse, I’ve seen a few who have lost hope, but stay in their roles, poisoning the work of all around them with destructive cynicism.  That’s Burnout!

Palms’ training frequently cites an Oscar Romero reflection, ‘A future not our own’, which I’m sure he created for Palms. We ask participants to choose their favourite stanza and explain why. Mine is:

We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realising that;
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way

When I forget this advice my frustration with the failure to achieve desired outcomes can see me redouble my efforts.  That may work for a time, but ultimately becomes tiring; I lose hope and I give up, rather than doing my small part well.

Romero goes on to make a good case for faith providing something bigger to believe in than our own efforts.  Certainly, burnout seems less likely when we believe in something bigger than ourselves.  If I believed that all the answers were up to me, or Palms, I would have burnt out long ago.

A strong teaching in any of the great traditions is that faith is enhanced as part of a community.  Recently I heard Tim Costello speak of the “resource of faith”. Without doubt, Some of the most resilient people undertaking a Palms assignment have been people who draw on their faith.

On the other hand, some people of faith who offer service through Palms, and many others who have adopted our culture’s elevation of individualism, can be drawn to believing they have the best approach to ‘saving the world’.  However, it does not work this way in the collective cultures to which most go to work.  Palms preparation, therefore, needs to reprogram participants away from the individualism that we all pervasively consume as part of our cultural diet.

Certainly each of us brings special gifts to social justice and human rights work.  Consistent with most faith traditions, Palms “facilitates mutual formation” because we know that the different strengths and resources that each brings to our mission can inspire all.  In this way, our residential orientation course, over eight days, can become an example of an effective community culture.

Successful achievement of Palms mission means also providing frameworks and processes for engaging all in working in and with communities, both at home and abroad. Those who accept being reprogrammed from saviour to working as a networker and negotiator on shared community objectives have something bigger to believe in than their own efforts. They are more likely to achieve broader and deeper sustainable outcomes and less likely to burn out as they do so.