Work life: Burnout in sustainability

October 8, 2022
5 min read

Burnout and sustainability are two words that you might not expect to see together. But the demands of working in a space that’s ever evolving and ever urgent can take its toll. In this article, we discuss what burnout is and how you can spot the signs.

Freelance life offers flexibility and more control over your time, as well as how and where you work. These are great antidotes to preventing dreaded burnout. But the reality can be very different, especially if you’re new to freelancing and haven’t yet worked out the right work balance for you. We’ve all done this: take on every project that comes our way, overcommit and end up working even harder, longer and more unsociable hours. Freelancing can be tough. Freelancing in sustainability can be even more so. 

Climate anxiety is real and pertinent. Extreme heat, droughts, majestic rivers drying up, burgeoning inequality, gender-based violence (the list goes on) are visceral reminders of the - quite frankly - HUGE amount of work that needs to happen to create a liveable world for all. When you’re working directly on the issues and the gains seem marginal, you can bet that inner voice will be saying: “Should I do more?” “I need to work harder”. “Am I working on the right thing?” 

It’s exhausting. It’s stressful. And it’s emotionally draining. All of the things that lead to burnout, which according to Mental Health UK, burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. “It can occur when you experience long-term stress in your job, or when you have worked in a physically or emotionally draining role for a long time.” Research from YouGov and Mental Health UK in 2021 also revealed that gender and age play a role. In their polling of 2,099 adults, women and young people reported feeling more prone to extreme stress and pressure at work. 

The innate passion you have for justice and change burns brightly, but don’t let it burn you out. Because you’re needed. Your skills, strengths, experience and energy is crucial. Burnout stops all of that. 

Here are the common signs of burnout to look out for:

  • Feeling tired or drained most of the time
  • Feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated
  • Feeling detached/alone in the world
  • Having a cynical/negative outlook
  • Self-doubt
  • Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Trouble sleeping 
  • Physical symptoms such as regular headaches/stomach aches

Spotting the warning signs that you might be en route to burnout and taking time out to relax can help you prevent it. So if you do identify any of these signs, try to take action as soon as you can. Because burnout doesn’t just go away and if left unaddressed it can worsen over time.  

  • Take regular holiday. While the concept of annual leave may belong in the FTE world, taking time off is crucial to overall wellbeing. It gives you an opportunity to relax and recharge. Some freelancers plan in time off every quarter, others work for longer stints and then take a longer break. However it works for you, make sure that you are taking regular time off to rest and recharge and that you don’t slip into being ‘always on’. 
  • Be strict with your boundaries. At the start of each day, set the time you want to stop work by and finish at that time. Do not make overwork with late nights and early mornings the default. You are not a machine - you are a magnificent person who is trying to change the world for the better. Pause. 
  • Treat joy with respect. What brings you joy? Running, yoga, reading, being with friends, crafts, cat videos, dancing, disco music, spending time in nature. Whatever fills your cup, prioritise it. Put down the laptop, and do the things that bring you joy. Schedule in the time for you and respect the importance of that time. 
  • Get physical. Exercise can help to reduce stress and anxiety. Physical exercise can increase the levels of serotonin and endorphins which are your body’s natural ‘happy’ chemicals. 
  • Try to get enough sleep. Shakespeare was right: “Sleep, the main course in life's feast, and the most nourishing.” Turn off your screens. Do something that relaxes you before going to bed, like yoga, journalling or meditation. If you are having trouble sleeping, it is worth speaking to your doctor.  
  • Ask for help. Burnout can be a lonely, isolating place to be. If you are struggling, ask for help. Speak to your fellow freelancers through The Now Work's dedicated freelancer Slack Channel. There are also online resources, like The Clic where you can access quick chat, discussion forums, information, videos and support contacts. And of course, speaking to your doctor is also a very good option. 


On rest 

The Nap Ministry - Rest is Resistance 
Matthew Walker talks at Google on Why We Sleep: the Science of Sleep and Dreams
Sleep Tips from Mind 

On joy 

The Joy Report podcast from Intersectional Environmentalist 
How to add more play to your grown up life, even now. New York Times
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson Ted Talk: How to find the joy in climate action 

On climate anxiety 

Resources for working with climate emotions from All We Can Save
A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet by Sarah Jaquette Ray


Mind’s Wellness Action Plan: A guide for people working remotely 

On asking for help 

The Clic

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