• Rebecca Spencer

Protests, picket lines and personal attacks.

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 been affected by 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 explains it as 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.

A metaphor that describes my burnout experience involves me 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 and no longer wanted to 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, all while juggling being a mum of two small kids and commuting four hours a day. My mental and physical well-being had deteriorated and so had the tolerance of my family, my friends and my colleagues.


But get this - I wasn’t the only one. In a recent survey of community engagement practitioners conducted by Becscomm, it showed that 82.2% of respondents had experienced burnout. I started noticing a trend amongst colleagues in the industry; and it became clear there wasn’t just one factor that can cause burnout. It is due to a number of factors; both external (unrealistic job pressures) and internal (cumulative, personality, wellbeing). This article is going to briefly address the external pressures and what you can do as an individual to stay ahead of burnout.


As practitioners, we act as the front line; the public face of the project while managing the lines of communication between the project and the public. It’s our job to deliver news of significant and sometimes permanent impacts of a project on the lives of others. We manage complaints, feedback, talk to all walks of life and turn the complex world of technical project information into bite size morsels fit for public consumption.


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

All this can lead to burnout.


Surveying colleagues, peers and through my own experiences, I have found that other key external influences that contribute to burnout include:

- Companies under resourcing

- Not investing in training

- Not valuing the function’s value


I have found the under resourcing of community teams a major catalyst of burnout and job pressures. This factor doesn’t discriminate between the size of projects - from small projects with one community representative to mega-projects that have a high level of community and media backlash. Not enough numbers on the ground to deal with complaints, protests, media scrutiny, complex issues, negative feedback or to take the 24/7 community phone home each night leads to exhaustion and burnout.


Another factor is when teams are not adequately trained to deal with the severe pressures that come with this job. This coupled with government agencies not equally prepared or equipped to classify, handle or closeout unreasonable complaints or constant communication from vexatious complainants.

As a profession, community engagement on projects is no longer a ‘nice to have’ – the function is written very tightly into the contract and we must maintain legislation as well as adhere to the extremely tight approval and notification timeframes. Significant pressure is placed on practitioners to ensure deadlines and contractual obligations are met and costly mistakes are avoided.


It’s important that as an individual you take responsibility to proactively practice self-care and know your warning signs when burnout is approaching. There are a number of strategies that you can put in place every day. I have put together a list of my top tips 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 simply 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. Speak 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. It’s never ok to have to put up with abuse, threats or inappropriate behaviour. It is your right to stop the conversation, hang up the phone or walk away - always look after yourself first and foremost.

Rebecca presented ‘Feel the Burn – Managing Burnout as a Community Engagement Practitioner’ at this year’s IAP2 Australasia Conference in Sydney. You can access Bec’s full IAP2 presentation and find out more about how to manage burnout on the Becscomm app – download here: https://www.becscomm.com.au/becscomm-app

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