Beware burn-in — and think about the long haul

The path through the Covid-19 crisis is long and hard. Organisations making a huge difference now, and leaning into the challenge in communities, must also consider the world we want to see in a decade, and our role in shaping it. To do that, we need to look after ourselves and one another in new ways.

Eighteen months ago, I wrote about my experience of burning out — a brutal numbing of energy and joy that came from working 100-hour weeks, sixteen weeks running, several times over. It wasn’t an easy vulnerability to admit. But I shared my experience to help others recognise that our collective efforts toward social change are our greatest un-renewable resource — and that we need to manage that resource with care and for the long term.

Frankly, I’ve not always taken my own advice. While I’ve invested more time in recent months in going a little slower, in taking breaks, in friends and family and not just in the mission, the team at The Cares Family will tell you that I remain perennially impatient.

In the context of a crisis, of course, urgency matters. With the Covid-19 emergency taking root, thousands of lives are at stake, the NHS is under immense pressure and, pertinently for The Cares Family, social isolation is affecting more people than ever, including older and younger people we work with who are now facing months at home. Many of them will be alone for the duration. It’s our job to do whatever we can to help those people stay connected in a disconnecting time.

But, simultaneously, Coronavirus is also revolutionising how all of us — in charities, businesses, governments and families — live, work and play. Gone are face-to-face gatherings that enable shared purpose. Gone are the chats at the water-cooler that provide comfort, connection and community as well as some of the best ideas. Gone are routines and rituals that create culture and catharsis. Gone even are the small interactions with bus drivers, cafe workers and strangers that can feel important quite because they’re so weightless. Instead, for all of us in the social sector, everything feels heavy.

In this context, we should beware of burn-in — the paradoxical restlessness and fatigue of being cooped up indoors; the cabin fever that can create mental health challenges; and the narrowing of our apertures to the short term. With my own tendency to overwork, I’m already feeling its effects.

Every morning, the 7am alarm wakes me from dreams of a hundred opened browser tabs and 20 social media channels all whirring at once. I turn addictively to my phone or laptop, before staggering to a kitchen table eight steps away. For the next 15 hours, I sit at that same desk to work and to eat.

For variation, I may take a phone or Zoom call eight steps back on the edge of the bed. But since my partner and I live in two rooms in a cramped attic flat, there’s really nowhere else to go. She says I’ve numbed again; that she’s never missed me more than since we’ve been together constantly.

I’ve tried to reinstate routine. A run can make a difference. Friday night FaceTime with my oldest mates has rekindled long held silliness and friendship. A puzzle, a game, a film have all offered respite. But when you derive your energy from moving constantly to tackle unexpected challenges, from scrapping to make a difference, the slow energy of stillness can be a misplaced gift.

Over the last few days it’s become clearer that this moment is indefinite. And it’s become clearer that, just as in normal times, people working in community amid the Covid-19 crisis need to look after themselves and one another and think about the long term. In spite of the urgency — or perhaps because of it — that task of self-care is crucial now too.

So yes, we need to think about the immediate and respond to the emergency that Coronavirus has brought on us — by staying home wherever possible, and by leaning hard into our community work. And yes, we need to use this moment to adapt, to innovate in our ways of working, and to make better our models for equity and social change.

But we also need to recognise that in that new normal, it’s still the timeless things that will matter most: our values; the space between different psychologies and our ability to work together in that space; our gratitude for one another; the stories of connection we share; and the sustainability as well as changeability of our work.

That greatest of human resources — time — will always remain un-renewable. There’s no better place to put it than into tackling this once-in-a-generation crisis. But, if we’re smart about it, we will also use this moment as regenerative, and a time to renew our missions — to recognise the world as it is and to re-make it as it should be for the long term.

Alex Smith is the Founder and Chief Executive of The Cares Family which reduces loneliness, isolation and disconnection amongst older and younger people. He is an inaugural Obama Fellow and Encore Public Voices Fellow.

Founder/CEO of @TheCaresFamily . @ObamaFoundation Fellow. Previously @Ed_Miliband aide and @LabourList editor. Camden head, MUFC heart.