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Burnout and self-care

Reposted from Giving Gladly.


I think effective altruism often runs into questions about self-care and boundaries, and might have a few things to learn from social work.

For people in helping professions (like nurses, therapists, and clergy), training programs often warn against burnout and "compassion fatigue." To prevent this, training emphasizes self-care. Self-care might include exercise, sleep, spending time with loved ones, spiritual practice, hobbies, and (at least among my coworkers) the latest episode of "Scandal." My workplace asks every prospective hire about self-care, because we want someone who has a plan for not burning out.

As a helping professional, you maintain boundaries to protect both yourself (you do not tell clients where you live) and clients (you do not burden them with your personal problems). And often boundaries are something you maintain to keep yourself sane.

One early lesson for me, when I was an intern at a psychiatric hospital, came while sitting and talking with a young patient before I left for the evening. When it was time to catch my bus home, I told him I had to leave. "You get to go home," he said sadly, "but I don't get to go home." I felt awful for him, and later I asked my supervisor if I should have kept him company a little longer. "No," my supervisor said, "Go home when it's time to go home. There will always be someone who wants you to stay. You can't come in here and do a good job if you're worn out from the day before."

To me, that's an example of what one author on burnout calls "boundaried generosity." I will give my best up until this point, and then I will stop. That's what makes high-intensity, compassionate work sustainable.

The same principles are applicable to helping work that isn't face-to-face. I've noticed that some of the highest-achieving people I know in effective altruism take sleep pretty seriously and don't skimp in that area. They've learned it's not worth it. They also seem to genuinely enjoy their time off. Unlike Susan Wolf's specter of the "moral saint," humorless and single-minded, these people know how to have fun.

But younger people in particular seem to struggle with the balance of self-care and altruism. Often after I speak to a student group, someone will tell me they wonder if they're wrong to spend money traveling to visit far-away friends or buying things for the mother that scrimped to send them to college. It's hard to think of a better recipe for burnout than distancing yourself from friends and family! No, I don't recommend cutting out this kind of thing if you want your passion for helping others to last more than a few years.

For me, this was an important reason to make a budget rather than asking "Should I donate this money instead?" every time I was in a checkout line. It was the equivalent of going to work with no plan about when to go homeshould I see one more client this afternoon? Three? Five? Knowing I'm leaving work after 8 hours lets me be whole-hearted in my work during that time. In the same way, having a budget allows me to be whole-hearted both in what I give (because I know that money is only for giving) and in what I spend (because I know that money is only for me and my family).

It is okay to take care of yourself. In fact, it's a really bad idea not to.

Comments (6)

Comment author: mhpage 23 October 2015 05:32:25PM 3 points [-]

Thanks, Julia. You make an important point here that I think is often lost in discussion of the "how much is enough" issue. The issue often is framed in terms of a conflict between one's own interests and the world's interests (e.g., ice cream for me or a bednet for someone else). But when viewed in terms of burnout/sustainability, the conflict disappears: allowing oneself to eat ice cream every so often might actually be in the world's best interest. Even a means machine requires oil.

Comment author: Tom_Ash  (EA Profile) 23 October 2015 03:19:10PM *  3 points [-]

Thank you for posting this to the Forum. I strongly endorse the suggestion to make a charity budget. Like you, I found not having one and treating each purchase as a huge moral decision was unsustainable.

I'd also suggest reevaluating every year or so whether you can slowly up your budget, or whether you've pushed yourself too far. I think that approach will actually up the amount that a significant number of EAs give by stopping them resting too easily at 10%, while making their giving more sustainable by guarding against burnout.

Comment author: ImmaSix 23 October 2015 08:14:26PM *  2 points [-]

I see deciding wisely about the unavoidable trade-offs between self-care and altruism as a skill that a person could build over the course of years. It is okay to feel a bit of stress or tension sometimes. It is okay to make a mistake sometimes too. (I made mistakes in both directions.)

Keeping a separate donation budget, and keeping track of my spendings, helped me a lot. I should maybe start something similar for volunteering time and mental energy. Any ideas?

Comment author: Julia_Wise  (EA Profile) 28 October 2015 07:55:27PM 0 points [-]

The main step I took was using my vacation days for actual rest (even if not travel) instead of cashing them in for money to donate.

Comment author: Gleb_T  (EA Profile) 23 October 2015 03:53:10PM 1 point [-]

Thanks for sharing this post, Julia. Self-care is so important. I also appreciated the notion of self-awareness as part of self-care, as described in this blog post by Miri Mogilevsky.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 27 October 2015 09:19:48AM 0 points [-]

You won't hit all of these all the time, but trying a new one when you're feeling down is a decent heuristic. https://www.ecu.edu/cs-dhs/rehb/upload/Wellness_Assessment.pdf