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By Jen Vishloff

Burnout Series Part III: Why Self-Care just isn't Cutting it

What happens when we do all that good work to take care of ourselves, hold ourselves accountable, get support, and we still can’t seem to climb out of that pit of fatigue and burnout?

Burnout Series Part III: Why Self-Care just isn't Cutting it
As I described in Burnout Part I and Part II,  there are aspects of managing burnout that are within our control:
  • Structuring self-care activities into our life
  • Being curious about the reasons that make it hard to slow down, take care of ourselves, and not take on so much
  • Getting support in learning how to approach ourselves with more kindness and develop self-compassion

But what happens when we do all that good work to take care of ourselves, hold ourselves accountable, get support, and we still can’t seem to climb out of that pit of fatigue?

Because burnout is contextual, it doesn’t really go away on its own unless the circumstances of our lives change. 

For many of us, doing more self-care activities isn’t a realistic option, and may not be adequate in addressing burnout. Often other healthcare professionals who talk about burnout will stress the importance of adequate self-care to bounce back from burnout.

While self-care is definitely important, it also puts the burden of wellness entirely on the person who is burnt out. If only I could sleep more and do enough yoga, the stress I experience daily would be tolerable, and I would be replenished! 

For many of us, this just isn’t going to work.

So why isn’t self-care enough?

In addition to the aspects of burnout discussed in previous posts, another major factor that can create burnout is experiencing and witnessing injustices in the world around us. 

Having to live within oppressive systems in which we, or others around us experience indignity, violence, racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, and poverty just to name a few, takes a toll on us. 

Vikiki Reynolds talks about the importance of treating people with dignity through our work supporting those who are oppressed, and searching for those examples of justice-doing. 

Outside of helping professions like counselling and healthcare people still come up against injustice on a daily basis. For example: reading the news about the limits being placed on women’s reproductive rights, seeing new legislation that makes it nearly impossible for transgender folks to safely use a public bathroom, or seeing that even with medicare not every Canadian receives the same quality of healthcare or respect from healthcare workers.

In the weeks following Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony my colleagues, my clients, and my loved ones all found it difficult to wrap our brains around the picture of trauma and injustice that was unfolding before us - all while feeling powerless to impact what was happening in any meaningful way. 

For many, following this story in the media triggered our own personal experiences of similar injustices. While sharing the experience of oppression and injustice can be helpful in reminding us that we are not alone in resisting these oppressive systems, it can also serve as a reminder of our own personal pain that comes from these experiences. That reminder, particularly when it is presented by a constant barrage of news stories and conversation at home and at work can really wear on us, and ultimately, lead to burnout.

Fighting injustice takes a toll on everyone. For this reason, it’s important to remember to:
  • Recognize the ways you resist injustice 
  • Take a break (from the news, from your social media feed)
  • Talk to supportive people
  • Connect and engage with supportive communities
  • Focus on taking care of yourself 

As difficult as it is to remember, acts of resistance are not just a means to an end. They are instead part of a long process towards changing systems and fighting for equality. This fight is a marathon, not a sprint, and we have to learn how to pace ourselves if we are to get through the whole race. 

If you want to read more about how to take an intersectional approach to avoiding burnout while being an activist, check out this comic from Everyday feminism


Jen Vishloff is a Registered Clinical Counsellor, and creates and facilitates workshops on burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma. She specializes in supporting people  in helping professions. If you’re interested in working with Jen you can click here to book an appointment.