Self-care for sustainable movements: difficult but necessary

Photo by Tobias Mrzyk on Unsplash

People dedicated to human rights and peacebuilding constantly face this seemingly impossible choice: advocate for the rights of others or take care of yourself. 

Last year, someone I deeply admire developed a critical health condition due to prolonged and heightened work stress. Another close friend took a break from her human rights organization to attend graduate school because she was exhausted, depressed, and disillusioned by the work she once loved so much. These examples are symptoms and consequences of working in the rewarding but challenging fields of peacebuilding and human rights.

Working in these fields often involves addressing some of the world’s most complex challenges, exposure to trauma and around-the-clock work hours. A study examining the mental health profile of human rights advocates found that 19.4% of the sample met the criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 18.8% had symptoms associated with PTSD, 14.7% had symptoms of depression, and 19% reported burnout. Despite the personal costs involved, my conversations with advocates highlight the prevailing attitude that the only way to address the enormity of human rights challenges is by working non-stop.

And there lies the classic paradox: people committed to the well-being of others often fail to commit to their own well-being. But to attribute this only to personal choices fails to acknowledge the systemic factors that perpetuate these choices. Issues with burnout, PTSD and depression exist at various levels of intervention. Burnout, for example, has been documented across the spectrum: amongst donors, international human rights organizations, and local activists. Individuals in the peacebuilding and human rights fields need to have honest conversations about how these issues affect our ability to sustain and enjoy our work.

Addressing the systemic factors that contribute to this paradox requires efforts at multiple levels. Donors need to acknowledge the impact of demanding measurable results in a field that does not lend itself to immediate outcomes, especially when the work involves building trust and shifting values—both inherently difficult to measure. At an organizational level, donors and managers need to examine and address the effects of time and resource-strapped organizations trying to meet the urgent needs of as many people as possible. Managers also need to explore if there is enough trust within their organizations to have difficult discussions about personal challenges. At an individual level, staff need to confront their own barriers to setting boundaries, including guilt and fear of appearing weak or uncommitted. And all actors involved need to examine how these factors reinforce each other and inhibit systemic change.

There have, however, been some important steps forward. Donors have affirmed self-care as an important part of local partners’ efforts to resist and address human rights abuses. At an institutional level, there are policies and strategies that foster self-care through the provision of professional and peer-to-peer mental health support, set out concrete commitments to promote positive mental health and resilient advocacy, and establish self-care as both a personal and collective responsibility.

"People dedicated to human rights and peacebuilding constantly face this seemingly impossible choice: advocate for the rights of others or take care of yourself".

The challenge now is to extend such efforts more widely in peacebuilding and human rights, and to convert policy to practice. Through many professional and personal conversations during the past year, people in these fields have shared multiple and overlapping concerns with me. Staff in large multilateral organizations expressed that even when there are policies or programs in place, very few people avail of the mental health services offered. They explained that their policies “whitewash the problem” without addressing the underlying causes, including the organization’s own role in perpetuating unsustainable expectations of its employees. Staff in international human rights and peacebuilding organizations highlighted a similar problem with uptake and raise an additional concern that these services are limited to full-time staff and not available to consultants and local partners. Advocates in smaller NGOs shared that self-care is not a luxury they can afford. Especially in the global South, they find themselves negotiating with foreign funders who refuse to even provide sustainable salaries for local staff who live in challenging contexts. Although many of them face ongoing human rights violations and trauma, receiving funds to cover mental health costs and other self-care services is a distant dream.

To move beyond progress in a few organizations and enable a systemic and cultural shift, we need to discuss barriers to change. One barrier is the stigma associated with mental health in some contexts. This inhibits individuals from accessing available services for fear of appearing “crazy”. A second barrier is time: people cannot practice regular self-care if there are no changes to their existing work load. A third barrier is funding that invests in personal well-being. And perhaps the most challenging barrier to confront is that an unconditional commitment to well-being and resilience that moves from policy to practice may come with real losses: taking on fewer projects, allowing certain initiatives to collapse, and in extreme situations, failing to take immediate action to prevent the loss of life. Other losses may be more intangible; for example, the inability to meet the emotional needs of communities whose rights organizations and activists seek to address. For individuals in these fields whose work is not just a job but reflects their life’s purpose, and involves people to whom they are deeply committed, these losses are extremely difficult to face.

People dedicated to human rights and peacebuilding constantly face this seemingly impossible choice: advocate for the rights of others or take care of yourself.  Yet, given serious physical and mental health implications of ignoring personal well-being, the choice to commit to self-care is challenging but necessary. In times of extreme stress and burnout, we can also lose sight of the values that brought us to the work—creativity and optimism devolve into exhaustion and hopelessness, and empathy and compassion are replaced with irritability and strained interpersonal relationships. Failing to prioritize self-care can have the same costs, and likely even more severe versions of them, than those associated with implementing regular self-care.

At an organizational level, a stronger link between policies on well-being and project goals is essential, given that a real commitment to one will impact the other. We need to include self-care within our theories of change, and within discussions of project design and project outcomes. To do this, there must be enough trust within organizations to have honest conversations about individual and cultural barriers to self-care. And organizations that have already made progress and instituted policies should work collectively, and with their local partners who often have less leverage over donors, to push for systemic change.While there are no easy answers, we all need to have difficult conversations about how we can foster a culture where individual well-being is primary to the vision and functioning of the peacebuilding and human rights fields. This will require donors currently leading these efforts to encourage others to shift donor agendas and timelines, making personal well-being as integral to project goals as other activities.

Although holding up a mirror is never easy, these conversations are critical to allow individuals to practice self-care as a guilt-free and necessary choice—for ourselves, for the sustainability of our work, and to retain the optimism, creativity and compassion this work demands.