Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
Peace builders experience burnout in the course of their practice where some are known to suffer from secondary PTSD when the burnout is not responded to. Peace builders are exposed to real conflict situations on human suffering, related told stories, documentary and videos which affect them emotionally. Unlike the normal stress which predominantly affect peace builders physically, burnout affect them more emotionally. I consider burnout as excessive emotional exhaustion arising from what we hear, see and experience when exposed to situations in our practice and personal life. Some of the known causes of burnout are ; use of sympathy instead of empathy, emotional labor caused by intra- personal and inter-personal conflicts, lack of understanding of the conflict context , lack of adequate skills to deal with diverse situations, personality issues, cultural and personal values when we want to impose them on others, lack of debriefing, therapy and professional dilemma. Cognitively, burnout is manifested in feelings of powerless, helplessness, hopelessness, sense of failure, anger, and pessimism. Taking action before burnout appears is better than trying to recover from its effects.
Miki Jacevic in his topic on evaluation of peace programs this week clearly indicated that it is not always easy to count, or measure the success of a peace process. This reminded me that during our recent field visit to the Deep South of Thailand, I listened to more than six groups involved in the peace process for the last over 15 years . They have put in tremendous efforts which cannot be seen and I could pick out feelings of hopelessness and helplessness from individuals who spoke to us. I realized that I was also experiencing the same feelings from that exposure and had to deal with my “why” questions in order to detach myself emotionally from that context.
In my practice, my journey to preventing and responding to burnout has not been easy. It all started with the first step of self-awareness and gaining insight about myself as a unique and separate individual which has in turn empowered me to also view others as unique. At the personal level, I have encountered incidences of racial and gender discrimination which used to drain me emotionally but after I gained emotional intelligence I usually make conscious efforts to deal with the situation and I quite find my interaction with diverse individuals much easier than before. I recently voluntarily joined a group of friends to visit the area popularly known as “Red Right District” in Bangkok. I had told myself since my work involves rehabilitation of such clientele, it would form part of the experience that I would share with my colleagues in the office when I go back home. But alas! I found myself asking questions about whether such young girls are being misused without finding any answers. I then realized that I was sympathizing with the situation instead of empathizing which could easily cause me burnout. I listened to my inner self that being part of the audience contributed to the nudity performances by these girls who also have a choice to refuse to do it or they are happy with it. Journaling when done professionally has also assisted me to identify different feelings that I am experiencing” here and now” in order to take action before burnout occurs.
During our 2nd month in the course (July), class 21 was full of emotional outburst. Maqsood lost a lovely peace crusader who had been working with children in his village, there were also the Bangladesh and Turkey incidents which affected Kanika, Ana and Burcu. Rania had incidences affecting her clients and country. Chepsergon from education sector Kenya was getting very worried about the unrest of students who had burnt over 20 schools, and my longtime friend and Deputy in the office SM Mwangi succumbed to cancer. Our facilitators Jan Sunoo and Ted lightened the evident tensions with the rotary train music and the Kenyan dance “hakuna matata”. I then wondered how we were able to overcome these emotions and I therefore purposively sampled a few Peace Fellows from class 21 and interviewed them on how they feel and cope with burnout as peace cultivators. This is what Dr. Monica Maher of peace building in the America Friends peace team had to say “self-care has assisted me in preventing burnout”. I wake up early, meditate in the silence of the morning, take a walk as the sun is rising, listen to the birds, feel the cold breeze, breathe in the fresh air and feel the gratitude to the natural harmony and peace that exists within all things.
According to Qamaruzzaman Amir “Q”, “When I first became an educator, I was put in charge of the toughest group of students in the school because it was clear that I could build rapport with such students. After 3.5 years, I burnt out. In my exit interview, the vice-principal said that my mistake was that I cared too much. My response was that I wouldn’t be an educator if I didn’t care. With hindsight and more experience, I have re-interpreted his words. I continue to care of course, but I have learnt to be kinder to myself. Regular exercise, getting the rest that I need, spending quality time with my wife, opening up to her and my friends about the challenges I face and how I’m feeling, and focusing on the little victories and positives of the learners I work with; have helped me become more sustainable in what I choose to do.
According to Sombat a practising psychologist and Peace Fellow, “Early detection of burnout is critical for practioners in order to deal with it early enough”. I usually create a balance in my life. If I am working with abused children, I ensure that there is something I am doing with the normal children. I take care of myself by doing what I enjoy most “Aikido and Yoga”.
An interview with Ana Patel the Executive Director of Outward Bound Centre for Peace Building confirmed that self-compassion helps prevent burnout for peace cultivators. “I am exposed to many conflict situations and since I like creativity I can feel when my motivation is getting low and without procrastinating, I take time out from my busy schedule and retreat to a quiet place to relax and meditate”.
An interview with Dr. Vitoon the course coordinator and Deputy Director, confirmed that burnout for peace builders is real. He said he experienced burnout many years back and underscored the need to individual self-care for their emotional well-being.
It is idealistic to think that burnout can be completely eliminated. Exposure to conflict issues will always affect peace cultivators from time to time. However, it is important that practioners appreciate that first and foremost they are human beings and they can only be able to give so much. This can help develop and implement preventive strategies that can greatly decrease unnecessary burnout. Professionally led debriefing, therapy, sharing, leisure games, and being happy are some tips to beat burnout. It is however important for individual peace builders to find out what works for them.
Dorothy Muthoni – Kenya
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 21