Protests, picket lines and personal attacks – managing burnout as an engagement practitioner

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Opinion piece from Rebecca Spencer, Becscomm

So, you’ve heard about burnout – but what exactly is it? How does it affect you? How can you avoid it? As an engagement practitioner, a leader and someone who has experienced burnout I have dedicated time to finding out more and starting an honest-but-critical discussion about burnout within the community engagement space.

The best description I’ve come across that sums up burnout is that it is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion, caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel emotionally drained, overwhelmed and unable or unwilling to meet constant demands. Eventually, you feel disengaged, distressed, or simply like you have nothing more to give.

My symptoms of burnout encompassed all of the above.

My burnout experience was like running a race too hard, too fast, for too long and placing too much pressure (on myself) to win. My focus on the race came before other important things in my life. One day, I couldn’t keep up the pace, but I didn’t know how to get off the track.

The end of my race came after a decade of being a public-facing engagement practitioner, working a high-pressure job on a high-profile project, managing a team also approaching burnout, all while juggling being a mum of small children. The prolonged stress had worn me out. My mental wellbeing had deteriorated and so had the tolerance of my family, my friends and my colleagues.

I started to think – surely, I am not the only one. I noticed a trend amongst colleagues in the industry; and it inspired me to learn more and dig a little deeper. In a recent survey of community engagement practitioners conducted by Becscomm, it showed that 82.2% of respondents had experienced burnout.

The survey also uncovered that there wasn’t just one factor that can lead to burnout. Respondents raised a number of factors; such as unrealistic job pressures, lack of support from management, long working hours, taking home a 24/7 hotline every night, juggling family and work, cumulative impacts from stressful situations, personality traits like perfectionism and putting physical and mental wellbeing last in the priority list.

Unrealistic job pressure is a large contributor, particularly as front-line practitioners. It’s our job to deliver news of significant and sometimes permanent impacts of a project on the lives of others.

We often find ourselves comforting and counselling our communities and we are often the first to be confronted with their frustration and anger.  Sometimes we do all of this at 2am over the community hotline before we have to be onsite again at 7am to start the day over.

For many engagement practitioners, several years of working in this environment can lead to prolonged stress and fatigue, which can ultimately lead to burnout. This can have a significant impact on our day-to-day lives – our personal lives, relationships, families, careers, physical, emotional and mental health.

From an industry perspective there are several key areas that have the potential to cause unrealistic pressure on engagement teams. However, if these areas are managed effectively it can result in the opposite – it can build resilient and empowered professionals. These areas include:

  • Resourcing community engagement teams adequately from the very beginning of a project. Numbers on the ground early on can save teams from feeling the pressure of long hours, managing the 24/7 hotline and sharing the load of the difficulties of the job.
  • Community engagement teams receiving practical training to manage some of the difficulties of the job. Training must teach teams resilience and ways to cope when managing complaints, protests or personal attacks from the public.
  • Policy, guidelines and support to protect practitioners from unreasonable or vexatious complainants.

It’s also important as practitioners that we take individual responsibility to proactively practice self-care and know the warning signs when burnout is approaching. There are a number of strategies that practitioners can put in place every day to stay ahead of burnout:

  1. Understand your personal triggers and warning signs that you are fatigued – then put in place a self-care plan to reverse these.
  2. Understand and accept the circle of influence. Avoid getting wound up about something that is out of your control. Gain perspective and influence what you can and let the rest go!
  3. Strive for a balance between work and personal life, focusing on personal care. This might include exercise or an activity that you enjoy outside of work. Make time to fit it into your schedule.
  4. Get a mentor or coach to help observe and critique you (or just listen!). They can be your external eyes and ears and judge your performance and wellbeing objectively.
  5. Gain buy-in and support from above. Speaking to your manager about the issues and agree on an individual strategy to help you move forward and stay engaged.
  6. Know when to push back. Its never ok to have to put up with abuse, threats or inappropriate behaviour and it is your right to stop the conversation, hang up the phone or walk away – always look after yourself first and foremost.

Most importantly, the key is to raise the issue and work together as an industry and individuals to be on the front foot with the health and wellbeing of engagement practitioners. The benefits of resilient and empowered practitioners results in successful projects, a more productive workforce and ultimately better engagement with our communities.


Rebecca Spencer