No One’s Paying Me To Cry: Burnout And Animal Advocacy
Burnout is a phenomenon common in advocacy circles, in which people in the movement simply lose the emotional (and sometimes physical) capacity to continue their work. Common causes of advocate burnout can be grouped into three main categories: internal stress, external stress, and inter-group stress. Internal stress can refer to any personal angst, dismay, or guilt that an advocate feels about the pace of change, their role in the movement, and/or the extent of the problem they are trying to solve. External stress usually refers to the opponents of advocacy constructing legal or political barriers to progress, or lack of support amongst the general public. Finally, inter-group stress is strongest among already-marginalized advocates like women and people of color, who often find advocacy circles to have their own problems with discrimination. Infighting between organizations is also a common cause of stress, when groups with similar goals refuse to cooperate over ideological or practical disagreements – radicalism vs incrementalism, for example.
This pioneering study from 2018 set out to look at the causes of burnout, specifically in the animal activist community — though Faunalytics tends to use the term “advocate,” the authors here specifically use the term “activist” throughout the paper. Seventeen activists were interviewed, some of whom were paid workers at an organization, while others were volunteers. Thirteen respondents were women, five were people of color, and all but one considered themselves working or middle class (the one remainder identified as being in poverty). All participants saw animal activism as a primary focus of their life.
Psychological stress was identified as a major factor in burnout. Most said that their personality and dedication to the cause led them to overwork themselves, and they generally found it hard to stop thinking about the level of animal abuse that occurs on a daily basis. Many felt overwhelmed or hopeless, and that their individual efforts would never be enough, with one saying that their work was “like shoveling the sidewalk during a blizzard.” Furthermore, workplace and organizational factors were identified as a major contributor to burnout. Several described a “martyrdom culture,” in which burnout was a source of pride rather than concern. Taking personal time or sick leave was discouraged, fueled by the notion that whatever the activist is going through, the animals are going through worse.
Activists had unrealistic expectations imposed on them, and were led to blame themselves when they inevitably failed to live up. They felt like they needed to prove their commitment to the cause, but this came at the expense of their physical and mental health. Interestingly, workplace stressors were not identified in other studies of activist burnout, which focused on other fields like anti-racism, anti-sexism, and anti-poverty work. Furthermore, volunteer respondents were less likely to identify them as a source of burnout than professional activists.
Women and people of color identified sexism and racism as contributors to their burnout. Female activists recounted being passed over for promotions in favor of men, or having male activists take credit for their ideas. Similarly, people of color reported being unsatisfied with the diversity of the movement, and the apparent disinterest in remedying this among white activists. Despite the animal advocacy movement having a diverse support base, these activists felt that its most visible representatives did not represent them well, and that the culture of the movement is constructed around the white, cis, men who are in charge.
External stressors were not listed as a major factor among those interviewed, but this may be due to the fact that all were U.S. adults. While the U.S. does criminalize certain forms of protest, and the agricultural lobby has successfully imposed political barriers to advocacy, American activists do not usually face the harsher penalties of those in more repressive or corrupt regimes. Brazil, for example, is extremely deadly for environmentalists; cattle and logging companies have been linked to massacres and assassinations of activists. Even in the U.S., the authors note that animal activists generally face less-harsh penalties and deterrents than, say, people protesting police brutality.
Burnout is a clear problem that needs to be tackled for any advocacy movement to succeed. It leads to remaining workers being overwhelmed, which in turn fuels more burnout, creating a vicious circle. Treating employees and volunteers with the respect they deserve as sentient beings is essential not only for the movements’ goals, but to maintain ethical consistency; we cannot forget that humans are animals, too.
Changing the general mindset within the movement is difficult, and cannot be done through edict, but positive changes can be encouraged. Supervisors should push their workers to prioritize their own physical and mental health, even if it requires them to work a little less. Yes, the animals are suffering, but the unfortunate truth is that working 80-hour weeks probably won’t get us anywhere much faster, especially if those hours are causing poorer-quality work or shorten activists’ careers.
Animal rights organizations also need to make sure to take the concerns of women and people of color seriously. Sexism and racism have no place in any movement, much less one predicated on the belief that all sentient beings are deserving of respect. Organizations should consider placing women and people of color in leadership positions to help create a more inclusive environment. Finally, groups need to recognize that our goals are largely overlapping, and that quibbling over minor details isn’t in the interest of the movement or the animals. Achieving real change requires a dedicated, united, and efficient workforce, and burnout compromises that capability.