How do our everyday lived experiences affect our health and work productivity? Could the emotional toll of social injustice, or working to address it, affect us in ways that we do not yet realize?
Burnout: Beyond the work environment
When burnout is discussed in the professional world, it is almost always in the context of one’s occupation. Health care professionals and other caregiving professionals such as social workers are at the top of the list of those at risk for burnout. Solutions that are often offered to employers help to increase employee engagement, address issues related to inadequate staffing, or promote healthy practices to employees at risk. However, what if the factors contributing to burnout–and undoubtedly, worker productivity–are beyond the control of the work environment?
Examples such as juggling multiple jobs, or caregiving duties for children and/or parents may come quickly to mind. But what about citizens across all fields of employment, who are involved in addressing or are impacted by social injustices and inequities?
The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), the leading measure for burnout, examines work-related factors that contribute to burnout. The creator of MBI, Christine Maslach, is quick to admit that work overload may not be the most important factor. She points to additional work-related factors such as lack of control, insufficient rewards, problems in the workplace environment, inequity, and conflict between personal values and job requirements.
Maslach, together with Michael Leitner subsequently defined burnout as:
the index of the dislocation between what people are and what they have to do. It represents an erosion in value, dignity, spirit, and will – an erosion of the human soul. It is a malady that spreads gradually and continuously over time, putting people into a downward spiral from which it’s hard to recover.
It is conceivable, then that factors outside of the work environment itself, such as home environment or the individual’s position within their larger community, could contribute to the erosion of value, dignity, spirit, and will. For example, discrimination or injustice attributed to one’s race or ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation could be contributing factors.
Recent events have led me to wonder what the impact of working towards social justice (outside of one’s employed profession), or being constantly subjected to social injustice, has on burnout (including, but not limited to the workplace). In recent months, I have been an advocate for self-care in the social justice movement, encouraging those who are involved to take steps towards self-care, and to check on another.
Self-care and social justice
At first glance, these two terms don’t really seem to go together: self-care and social justice. A quick search on self-care and social justice yields a plethora of articles discussing compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and burnout. Those who work in the social justice movement are increasingly providing tips on how to engage in self-care and preserve themselves.
However, it does not seem unreasonable to question the impact that the fight is having not just on those on the front lines, but the men, women, and children who live in communities where their lives and safety are in constant danger.
For example, consider the impact that war might have on the health of civilians. A study conducted by Dr. Talma Kushnir and Dr. Shmuel Melamed during the Gulf War examined the impact of war-related factors on burnout among employed Israeli civilians. They referred to burnout as “the chronic depletion of coping resources following prolonged exposure to emotionally charged demands”.
Take a moment to reflect. Does that sound like something that could be happening in the midst of current events?
In the Kushnir and Melamed study, the greatest impact was seen in individuals under the age of 45. There were significant increases in cognitive weariness, listlessness, and somatic (physical) complaints, such as upper respiratory infections. They concluded that factors other than stress experienced in the work environment (in this case, stress from the Gulf War), could contribute to the depletion of one’s coping resources and ultimately, burnout. In other words, an increase in symptoms of burnout was attributed to a decreased ability to cope with the war.
When the message hits home
For many, the current events are playing out not just on a television or facebook page, but in their own communities. They leave for school or work each day, hoping that they and their loved ones will return home safely.
Chronic vigilance, also known as hypervigilance, is the anticipation of a negative event. Dr. David Williams, a sociologist and pioneer in research on the impact of racism on health, studies how racism gets “under the skin”. He has conducted numerous studies on resulting health issues, such as insomnia and hypertension. Dr. Margaret Picken, who conducted hypertension research with Williams states, “overall, the work shows that in cases where racism-related vigilance is low or absent, Blacks and Whites have similar levels of hypertension. But when people report chronic vigilance, the rates in Blacks rise significantly.”
In the wake of recent events, many working professionals have alluded to the mounting toll that social injustices are having on their personal mental health. Evelyn from the internets, a Youtube vlogger, discussed in a video the idea of “calling in black” to work, in efforts to recover and reaffirm one’s humanity. She went on to ask her audience, “what has been the emotional toll of the constant online consumption of Black bodies getting systematically assaulted and/or murdered?” In an age where every day seems to unveil not one, but multiple new cases, it seems to be a valid question to ask.
For tips on self-care, please read We Must Rebuild. Black Lives Matter. Your Life Matters
Do you feel that social injustice, or your involvement in the social justice movement, is impacting you emotionally? Do you feel that it is impacting your health and or work?