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Social Movement Studies
ISSN: 1474-2837 (Print) 1474-2829 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/csms20
“Nobody’s paying me to cry”: the causes of activist
burnout in United States animal rights activists
Paul Gorski, Stacy Lopresti-Goodman & Dallas Rising
To cite this article: Paul Gorski, Stacy Lopresti-Goodman & Dallas Rising (2019) “Nobody’s paying
me to cry”: the causes of activist burnout in United States animal rights activists, Social Movement
Studies, 18:3, 364-380, DOI: 10.1080/14742837.2018.1561260
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/14742837.2018.1561260
Published online: 25 Dec 2018.
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“Nobody’s paying me to cry”: the causes of activist burnout
in United States animal rights activists
, Stacy Lopresti-Goodman
and Dallas Rising
Equity Literacy Institute, Asheville, NC, USA;
Psychology, Marymount University, Arlington, VA, USA;
Independent Researcher, Minneapolis, MN, USA
We examine the causes of activist burnout –a condition in which
the accumulative stress associated with activism becomes so debil-
itating that once-committed activists are forced to scale back on or
disengage from their activism –in 17 United States animal rights
activists. Following a phenomenological qualitative approach, ana-
lysis of interview data revealed three primary categories of burnout
causes: 1) intrinsic motivational and psychological factors, 2) orga-
nizational and movement culture, and 3) within-movement in-
ﬁghting and marginalization. Implications for understandings of
activist burnout and the AR movement are discussed.
Received 2 March 2018
Accepted 13 December 2018
Animal rights; burnout;
activism; activists; social
Animal rights (AR) activists face a variety of challenges that could aﬀect their abilities to
engage in activism eﬀectively and long-term (Gaarder, 2008; Pallotta, 2008). Some
scholars have documented emotional or psychological challenges, such as deep emotional
investments in AR issues and profound senses of responsibility to eliminate animal
oppression, making activists vulnerable to self-blame and hopelessness when change is
slow (Bryant, 2006; Jamison, Wenk, & Parker, 2000). Others have identiﬁed challenges
associated with contesting corporate and legislative powers, including public ridicule or
criminalization (Hansson & Jacobsson, 2014). Still others have tracked troublesome
conditions within AR organizations, including in-ﬁghting between movement factions
(Greenebaum, 2009; Wrenn, 2012) and the reproduction of racism, sexism, and other
oppressions within AR spaces (Drew, 2010; Gaarder, 2011a; Wrenn, 2015).
Although it has not previously been documented empirically among AR activists,
studies of racial justice (Gorski, 2018a), feminist (Bernal, 2006), and peace (Gomes, 1992)
activists have shown that the accumulative stress related to these challenges can cause
activist burnout (Cox, 2011). More than temporary frustration or occasional weariness,
activist burnout is the long-term, accumulative, and debilitating impact of activism-
related stress (Chen & Gorski, 2015; Maslach & Gomes, 2006). It can have deleterious
eﬀects on individual activists, deteriorating their emotional and physical well-being until
they are forced to disengage from social movements (Rettig, 2006). It also can have
detrimental eﬀects on the sustainability of social justice movements, as once-dedicated
individuals leave their activism, disrupting movement consistency (Plyler, 2006). The
CONTACT Paul Gorski firstname.lastname@example.org 22 Mauricet Lane, Asheville, NC 28806, USA
SOCIAL MOVEMENT STUDIES
2019, VOL. 18, NO. 3, 364–380
© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
disruptive nature of activist burnout has led some scholars to argue that it is among the
biggest threats to social movement stability (Pigni, 2016; Pogrebin, 1994).
Despite the absence of studies centrally examining burnout among AR activists, parts
of the AR community have begun to acknowledge its harmful eﬀects. Evidence of this is
found in books in which AR insiders describe movement conditions and activist
dispositions that lend themselves to burnout (e.g. Rettig, 2006). It is also found in AR
organizations’initiatives to help activists ‘beat burnout,’including the In Defense of
Animals Sustainable Activism network and a growing number of blog posts about
activist self-care (e.g. Orde, 2015; Schweizer, 2016).
These eﬀorts to combat burnout demonstrate growing awareness of the problem.
This study, a phenomenological exploration of burnout causes as characterized by AR
activists in the United States, was designed to help strengthen these eﬀorts and to
inform movement leaders and activists about conditions commonly leading to burnout.
It also was intended to contribute to the emergent knowledge base about activist
burnout by examining how it operates within the United States AR movement.
This study is, to our knowledge, the ﬁrst to document causes of burnout as described by
AR activists. It is grounded in activist burnout scholarship, which includes observa-
tional insights on burnout from animal rights activists (Jones, 2007; Rettig, 2006), but is
built largely on studies of other movements (e.g. Gomes, 1992; Gorski, 2018b, Gorski &
Chen, 2015; Plyler, 2006). We synthesize these below to ground this study in existing
understandings of activist burnout and its causes.
We synthesize this scholarship understanding that ﬁndings of existing studies and our
study likely are inﬂuenced to some extent by conditions speciﬁc to activist contexts. For
example, Meyer (2006) described how activists often strategically claim credit for move-
ment gains to serve their own or their organizations’goals –increasing membership, for
example –as they compete with other activists and organizations. Although there is no
explicit evidence in any study or personal narrative cited here (or in our study) that any
particular activist was posturing in this way, it is important to acknowledge that activists
may have a variety of motivations for shaping their narratives the way they shape them
Conceptualizing activist burnout
Responding to high rates of turnover in social movements (Nandram & Klandersman,
1993;Rodgers, 2010), scholars began applying vocational burnout theory
(Freudenberger, 1974) to activists’experiences. This research birthed the concept of
activist burnout (Cox, 2011; Plyler, 2006). Activist burnout has been deﬁned as when
long-term activism-related stressors deteriorate activists’physical or emotional health
or sense of connectedness to their movements, impacting their eﬀectiveness or abilities
to remain engaged (Gorski, 2015; Maslach & Gomes, 2006). Activists enter and leave
activism for many reasons. Activist burnout refers to what happens when people once
deeply embedded in movements –people who intended to remain engaged –are forced
to disengage due to the stress impacts of participation. Emphasizing the signiﬁcance of
SOCIAL MOVEMENT STUDIES 365
the impact of activist burnout, Rettig (2006) characterized it as ‘the act of involuntarily
leaving activism, or reducing one’s level of activism’(p. 16).
Activist burnout can result in high turnover rates within movements (Pogrebin,
1994). For example, during her yearlong study of international human rights activists,
Rodgers (2010) found that one-third of organizational staﬀleft, which she associated
with conditions that fed burnout, while many who stayed continued suﬀering the threat
of burnout. In their study of Dutch trade union activists, Nandram and Klandersman
(1993) found that 47.5% experienced symptoms related to burnout. Plyler (2006), who
studied social justice activists in Toronto, found that high burnout rates caused move-
ments to lose institutional expertise, leading to a constant process of wheel-reinventing.
Making matters worse, burnout begets burnout, as movement work is taken up by
fewer people, who begin to burn out, engage less eﬀectively, and take out their hope-
lessness on fellow activists. Pogrebin (1994) explained,
Before long one individual after another becomes exhausted or disillusioned, then one
group after another shrinks. . .and ﬁnally, what was a movement dissipates into separate
people nursing their separate dreams and disappointments, their energy lost to the
[activist] community. . .(p. 36)
As Rettig (2006) and Jones (2007) observed, activist burnout results from and repro-
duces toxic movement conditions. Pogrebin (1994) thusly characterized it as the
deterioration of activists’well-being resulting in the deterioration of social movements’
Causes of activist burnout
Causes of activist burnout generally have been synthesized into three categories: (1)
internal causes related to activists’unique characteristics, (2) external causes related to
the overwhelming scope of injustice and to retaliation for activism, and (3) within-
movement causes related to toxic movement and organizational cultures and how activists
treat one another (Chen & Gorski, 2015). Scholarship exploring AR activist ideologies,
dispositions, and engagement (e.g. Jacobsson & Lindblom, 2013; Wrenn, 2015), and
observations from AR insiders (e.g. Bekoﬀ,2010), suggest that many conditions causing
burnout in other movements are present in AR spaces even if they have not been linked
empirically to burnout.
Activists involved in social justice causes have deep emotional investments in their
activism and profound senses of responsibility to create change (Barry & Dordević,
2007;Eﬄer, 2010). Their sense of responsibility is linked, not just to understandings of
individual instances of individual suﬀering, but also to mass-scale suﬀering and struc-
tural oppression (Barr, 1984; Weber & Messias, 2012). For example, racial justice
activists may feel outrage about interpersonal racism, but also carry the emotional
weight of understanding systemic racism (Gorski, 2018a)–a level of oppression most
people are ‘unable or unwilling to face’(Maslach & Gomes, 2006, p. 43). This emotional
weight makes activists uniquely susceptible to emotional exhaustion and hopelessness,
precursors to burnout (Pines, 1994).
366 P. GORSKI ET AL.
Researchers also have found these conditions in studies about AR activist disposi-
tions, attitudes, and motivations. AR activists feel a deep sense of responsibility
(Jamison et al., 2000) and empathy (Pallotta, 2008) for suﬀering animals. They are
hyper-aware and profoundly impacted by instances of violence and by structural
oppression against animals (Bryant, 2006). They see animal abuse everywhere
(Gaarder, 2008) and carry the emotional weight of internalizing the violence other
people ignore (Herzog, 1993; Pallotta, 2008). As a result, they are susceptible to feelings
of guilt for not doing more (Jacobsson & Lindblom, 2013) and frustration about the
slowness of change (Jamison et al., 2000). These ﬁndings, although not linked explicitly
to burnout, mirror internal or dispositional conditions associated with burnout in other
A second category of burnout causes involves stress related to challenging powerful
corporate and legislative powers. This can result in the threat or reality of retaliatory
actions from organizations displeased by movement objectives. For example, burnout
has been tracked to state actions meant to quell activism such as police violence,
surveillance, or murder (Barry & Dordević,2007; Cox, 2011). It also has been attributed
to retaliatory actions from non-state actors ranging from public criticism to violent
attacks (Bernal, 2006; Jones, 2007). Additionally, researchers have associated activist
burnout in part with professional and ﬁnancial vulnerability, especially for activists who
are vocal in non-activist workplaces (Gorski, 2018b). Even if none of these forms of
retaliation materializes, the ongoing threat of retaliation can undermine activists’emo-
tional wellbeing (Cox, 2011).
Although it has not been linked empirically to burnout, the most well-documented
threat of retaliation endured by AR activists over the past decade is legislation crim-
inalizing their activism (Gazzolla, 2015; Shea, 2015; Walby & Monaghan, 2011). AR
activists also endure demonization and threats of violence from individuals and orga-
nizations hostile to their causes (Drew, 2010; Francione & Garner, 2010). Additionally,
they often are dismissed as irrational and over-emotional (Bryant, 2006), a reality
Gaarder (2011a) associates with sexism and the predominance of women in AR
Researchers also have associated activist burnout with inﬁghting and ego clashes (Barry
& Dordević,2007; Gomes, 1992) and other hostilities between activists (Norwood,
2013). Based on her study of activists in Toronto, Plyler (2006) concluded that the
biggest cause of their burnout was how activists treated one another. Her ﬁnding was
supported by Gomes’s(1992) study of peace activists and Gorski’s(2018a) study of
racial justice activists.
Similarly, unhealthy movement and organizational cultures elevate burnout (Nair, 2004;
Pigni, 2016)–most speciﬁcally, how activists police one another’s commitments to their
causes. Rodgers (2010) and Chen and Gorski (2015) described a culture of martyrdom in
activist organizations wherein burnout was deemed a marker of commitment. Their
conceptualization of this culture reﬂects Rooks’s(2003)analysesofthe‘cowboy mentality’
among United States labor organizers. She found that organizers often enter the movement
SOCIAL MOVEMENT STUDIES 367
with romanticized perceptions of organizing. Many quickly realize that their job is not as
glamourous as they imagined once they face long work hours, social isolation, and other
draining conditions, and leave. Those who stay, Rooks (2003) found, survive in part by
adopting a ‘cowboy mentality,’holding tight to romanticized perceptions of their work,
sometimes to the point of disparaging other people’s roles in their organizations. While
some appeared to derive beneﬁts from this mentality, others –particularly new organizers
and women organizers –tended to experience them as exclusive and alienating.
Burnout studies similarly suggest that burnout causes related to organizational
and movement culture are not distributed equally. For example, women activists and
activists of color cope with the same stressors as their male and white colleagues, but
also endure sexism and racism within activist spaces, hastening the threat of burnout
(Gorski, 2018a; Norwood, 2013). The persistence of sexism, racism, and other
oppressions is well-documented both in studies of AR activist experiences (e.g.
Gaarder, 2011a,2011b;Herzog,2007; Wrenn, 2015) and in narrative essays by
marginalized-identity AR activists (e.g. Drew, 2010;Dunham,2010;Ortega,2017).
For example, given patterns of sexual harassment by male leadership at one of the
most prominent animal welfare organizations in the United States, movement insi-
ders have published several popular press articles focusing on sexism (Berger, 2018),
allegations of sexual harassment (Gunther, 2018a) and gender bias (Gunther, 2018)
within the movement.
Scholars also have highlighted inﬁghting and intra-movement judgmentalism among
AR activists, particularly between organizations with more incremental welfarist and
more liberationist approaches (Goodman & Sanders, 2011; Greenebaum, 2009). The
result, according to Wrenn (2012), is factionalism within the movement. Although
these scholars do not connect these conditions explicitly to burnout, what they describe
reﬂects conditions associated with burnout in other movements.
Creswell (2013) argued that a phenomenological approach to qualitative research is
especially useful when deeper understandings of a phenomenon can inform eﬀective
policy and practice. This argument, along with Finlay’s(2009) contention that phe-
nomenology is well-suited for capturing the essence of phenomena in people’s lived
experiences, compelled us to adopt phenomenology as our research framework. We
conducted semi-structured interviews with 17 AR activists who had experienced burn-
out. We analyzed data from these interviews to answer, How do activists who have
experienced burnout as a result of AR activism describe its causes?
The activists interviewed for this study deﬁne their primary lifework around AR
activism. Some are ﬁnancially-compensated employees at AR organizations; others
engage in activism outside their work hours.
Participants were recruited via snowball sampling. Invitations to participate were
extended at gatherings of activists, through social media, and in emails. Invitees were
encouraged to share the request with others who might be interested. Following
368 P. GORSKI ET AL.
common conceptualizations of activist burnout (Chen & Gorski, 2015; Maslach &
Gomes, 2006), participation criteria included (1) identifying as an AR activist, (2)
having experienced long-term physical exhaustion, emotional exhaustion, or hopeless-
ness related to the stressors of AR activism, and (3) having experienced those condi-
tions severely enough that the ability to perform activism eﬀectively or remain engaged
in activism was compromised, resulting in scaling back or disengaging at least tem-
porarily. Based on these criteria, 17 activists were interviewed.
They ranged in age (31–66) and years of AR activism (ﬁve to 40). They were diverse
in terms of race, gender, and social class. (See Table 1.) Their activism also was diverse.
They advocated against the use of animals in entertainment and research and for
farmed animal protection, animal rescue and adoption, and legal protections for
animals in captivity. Ten held paid jobs in AR organizations and seven did not work
in the movement.
The researchers conducted a 60–75 minute telephone or in-person interview with each
activist. Interviews were semi-structured, allowing the activists to share insights about
which we might not have thought to ask. The interview protocol included questions
about perceived causes of activists’burnout as well as the symptoms, consequences, and
implications of their burnout. These questions were modiﬁed from previously devel-
oped, expert-reviewed, and piloted interview protocols designed to assess burnout in
racial justice activists (Gorski, 2018a). The modiﬁed protocol was pilot-tested and
adjusted based on that process.
Interviews were audio-recorded. Participants were given the option of reviewing
their transcriptions prior to analysis. They were then assigned pseudonyms to ensure
anonymity and conﬁdentiality.
Table 1. Participant demographics.
Female 13 76.47
Male 4 23.53
People of Color 5 29.41
White 12 70.59
Middle or Working Class 16 94.12
In Poverty 1 5.88
Professional 10 58.82
Volunteer 7 41.18
Participants answered open-ended questions about their gender identity, race, and
class, and self-identiﬁed as ﬁtting within the categories listed above. Individuals who
were compensated for their activism, or who were employed full-time by AR
organizations, were identiﬁed as professional activists, while those who were not
compensated, or did not work full-time for an AR organization, were identiﬁed as
volunteers. We chose not to further disclose racial identities beyond ‘People of Color,’
concerned that doing so could potentially compromise participants’anonymity.
SOCIAL MOVEMENT STUDIES 369
Consistent with coding practices in phenomenological research, each researcher ana-
lyzed data in search of signiﬁcant statements (Creswell, 2013), portions of participant
responses that spoke to causes of their burnout. These responses were organized into
what Creswell (2013) called clusters of meaning: big-level themes such as ‘burnout
caused by activists’and ‘profound understanding of the scope of animal suﬀering.’
These were discussed among the researchers until a consensus was reached about the
major themes –the categories of burnout causes discussed below. Next, we analyzed the
data to identify sub-themes through repeated reexamination, synthesis, and reorganiza-
tion until we agreed with the sub-theme into which each cluster of meaning best ﬁt.
It is important to note that we analyzed conditions to which the activists attributed their
burnout. Although all participants saw their activism as a central life commitment, activism
does not happen in a vacuum, separate from other aspects of activists’lives. It is impossible
to know the extent to which these other dimensions –their spiritual or family lives, for
example –also made them susceptible to burnout. It is, however, possible to know what
activists believe are the causes of their burnout, which is what we documented.
We found three primary categories of burnout causes –causes to which the activists
attributed their burnout: 1) intrinsic motivational and psychological factors, 2) organiza-
tional and movement culture, and 3) in-ﬁghting and marginalization among AR activists.
Motivational and psychological factors
All 17 participants attributed their burnout in part to motivational and psychological
factors. These factors included strong emotional connections to AR issues, deep senses
of personal responsibility to end animal suﬀering, and profound understandings of the
scope of structural animal violence.
The deep emotional connection to their activism contributed to their burnout.
Several explicitly described AR activism as, in Kate’s words, their ‘core purpose in
life.’They felt so passionate about AR work that it ‘consumed’their lives or made them
emotionally ‘vulnerable.’Ella captured this vulnerability: ‘I care too much. . .And I wish
I didn’t sometimes because it makes life very hard. . . But I can’t turn it oﬀ.’
Due to this emotional connection to AR activism, many felt that their sense of
personal responsibility to work tirelessly on behalf of animals contributed to their
burnout. Laura shared how she experienced, not just a sense of ‘urgency, but a sense
of duty.’The activists often blamed themselves for their burnout because they chose to
‘overwork’for the good of the cause or to say ‘yes’to everything if they thought it would
help animals. Alex shared, ‘There are animals dying every single second all around the
world, and it’s hard to feel like you can just step away. . .’
Beyond a profound sense of responsibility for helping animals, the activists had deep
understandings of large-scale animal suﬀering, contributing to emotional exhaustion.
Several mentioned ‘seeing’suﬀering and violence in everyday life where others do not
see it. Others mentioned viewing violent imagery or working directly with abused
370 P. GORSKI ET AL.
animals as contributing to their burnout. Connor summarized these burnout causes:
‘[T]here is a certain type of personality that is drawn . . . to animal rights activism.
I mean these are people who are overly empathetic, and I say “overly”not in a bad
sense. . . They . . .have their hearts permanently wide open and everything is ﬂooding
there: all the suﬀering. . .’
The activists generally felt overwhelmed by the scope of animal suﬀering, feeding
a lack of optimism about their abilities to aﬀect change. Sam described the scope of
suﬀering as ‘disheartening.’She shared how understanding the enormity of systemic
animal oppression contributed to her burnout: ‘[I knew] that just a couple hours before
I was standing in one of the worst places on earth, and those worst places on earth are all
over the planet.’Anna explained, ‘I feel like I’m shoveling the sidewalk during a blizzard.’
Organizational and movement culture
All of the activists attributed their burnout in part to negative organizational and
movement cultures. For example, they contended with a culture of martyrdom within
the movement that limited their abilities to perform their work in a healthy manner. As
described above, this martyrdom was reported by some participants as internally
imposed –in this sense it overlaps with the motivational and psychological causes of
burnout described earlier –while for others, it was imposed by organizations with
which they engaged in their activism. Regardless of the locus of the cause, the common
theme underlying the martyrdom was the message that non-human animals’suﬀering
must be prioritized above even the most basic needs of human animals. Speaking to
how this mentality is embedded in movement culture, Connor observed, ‘There is
a mentality that you just have to push through it and no matter what you are
experiencing, the animals are experiencing worse.’He continued, ‘That’s what I think
is most disturbing about all of this, is that on a cultural level we can see the [challenges
experienced by other activists]. [And we] look the other way or say that they just need
to work harder.’
Extending Connor’s point, Hannah described the activist community as an ‘ecosys-
tem. . .of anti-compassion.’Melodie explained that when she worked at a large AR
organization and a colleague mentioned she needed time oﬀ, a group of fellow activists
discussing her concerns felt that ‘Animals are dying and suﬀering, how can you take
time oﬀ?’Notably, this experience was not reserved for people with paid AR jobs –both
paid and unpaid activists felt the sting of this culture of martyrdom.
Another condition contributing to the activists’burnout, especially for those who
worked in AR organizations, was that discussions relating to burnout were discour-
aged and silenced. If activists were exhausted from activism, they were considered
weak. Laura, who worked at a large AR organization, explained the mentality:
‘Nobody’s paying me to cry, so soldier on.’Steven, an employee at the same
organization, summarized the organizational culture as ‘”Fuck your health and
fuck your sanity”.’
As Connor explained, the martyrdom culture encourages activists’tendencies to
impose unrealistic expectations on themselves, then to blame themselves when they
prove incapable of meeting them:
SOCIAL MOVEMENT STUDIES 371
[T]here is a shame to it. . . [M]y friends . . . are ﬁnding ways to push through it. . . They are
doing horrible and diﬃcult work also and yet I was just kind of falling apart. .. Makes me
wonder if there is something chemically or biologically wrong with me that made me more
susceptible to that type of depression –I had really severe depression –or if I just wasn’t
being tough enough.
Further compounding the feelings of martyrdom, the activists who were employed in the
movement felt overworked while also coping with ﬁnancial vulnerability related to being
underpaid, particularly at organizations where leadership expected them to work to
exhaustion. Supervisors treated them as though they were lucky to have jobs in the move-
ment, as though they should be happy to have that opportunity. Gail shared, ‘They know
you love [working for animals] and they use it against you.’Steven similarly described this
sentiment in the organization in which he worked: ‘Animals need you and you’re going to
do this work, and we know you’re going to do it. If you don’t like it, then leave.’
The pressure to work nonstop did not aﬀect only paid activists at big AR organizations.
It was perpetuated among activists outside AR organizations, where it operated some-
what diﬀerently. Many of the non-paid activists had networks of friends consisting
entirely of activists with few non-activism interests. This normalized the martyrdom
culture, feeding their burnout. Alex shared, ‘If your friend is like, “Hey . . . do you want to
do extra leaﬂeting or something with me?”then it doesn’t just feel like you’re saying no to
the cause, you’re also saying no to one of your friends.’Even if their jobs are not at risk if
they decline, they felt as though their self-images and support systems could be.
On the one hand, the activists felt they needed to comply with these dynamics to
demonstrate their commitments. On the other hand, they could feel their physical and
emotional health deteriorating. The fact that most needed to burn out in order to
dislodge themselves from what they came to see as harmful aspects of movement or
organizational culture, and that most had to seek support outside the movement to
recover from their burnout, illustrated the danger of burnout, not just for the sustain-
ability of individual activists, but also for the viability of the movement itself.
In-ﬁghting and marginalization within the AR movement
The activists also attributed their burnout to how they were treated by other activists.
For many, interpersonal tension, hostility, and in-ﬁghting ignited their burnout.
Similarly, many grew exhausted and hopeless coping with oppression and bias within
Karyn explained how sexism within the movement fed her burnout: ‘[W]ith the
movement being made up of primarily women . . . it’s weird to feel excluded when you
are in the majority and when men will mostly get leadership positions.’Some women
experienced this exclusion explicitly. Sam stated she ‘was treated kind of like
a charming but benign presence’who was often ‘spoken over’while male activists
took credit for her ideas. For others the sexism was more implicit and arose, in Karyn’s
words, out of a ‘boy’s club,’where men instituted a ‘bro culture’built around language
that ‘does not translate at all to women.’
This experience of gender bias and sexism relates in part to the previously discussed
culture of martyrdom and how it might operate diﬀerently for dominant-identity
activists (like men) as compared with other activists. Whereas male activists must
372 P. GORSKI ET AL.
cope with how the movement prioritizes animals’needs over their basic needs, many
female activists coped with that prioritization on top of the ways movement culture is
constructed around the identities, language, and culture of their cisgender male peers.
Women who have experienced sexism and harassment and who are determined to
challenge these conditions in the movement are starting to come forward to talk
publicly about their experiences despite pressure from some male movement leaders
who try to silence them (Gunther, 2018). Rose described being stalked and harassed by
a male activist, which resulted in her disengaging from a local AR group. She suﬀered
burnout. The organization and the movement suﬀered the loss of a committed activist.
In total, eight of the 13 women activists we interviewed attributed their burnout in part
to sexism they experienced from men in the AR movement.
For activists of color racial discrimination and bias were, in Laura’s words, ‘a huge
problem.’All attributed their burnout in part to experiencing or witnessing racism
within the movement. Kate called racism ‘a primary cause of my burnout’and
described the emotional price she paid as a woman of color in the movement. In one
incident, she had to expend energy challenging an AR organization after it hired a white
woman who ‘had been taking a racist position on the Black Lives Matter movement’as
a speaker for an event. In addition to her activism, she felt responsible for educating
white activists about racism –a task that ‘comes at [the] cost’of making her doubly
vulnerable as an activist and an activist of color; triply when considering gender.
The activists of color were demoralized by the failure of movement leadership to
reﬂect the racial composition of movement activists. Alex explained, ‘It’s generally . . .
a pretty white movement, especially in terms of who gets visibility.’Although not all of
the activists of color experienced blatant forms of racism, the slow grind of implicit
racial bias and erasure elevated their burnout.
Another condition commonly contributing to the activists’burnout revolved around
inter-organizational tensions and the lack of cooperation among AR organizations. Alex
Part of [my burnout] might have been inﬁghting, because . . .you have to already defend
and explain animal rights issues to people who are not within the larger movement. If you
also have to defend the tactics or things the organization is doing within the movement,
then that ends up being an issue.
Similarly, like several activists, Michelle attributed her burnout in part to managing
competition between organizations. ‘Instead of combining forces,’she explained, ‘they
just ﬁght. And they try to destroy each other.’This source of burnout appeared to
especially impact the activists employed by large AR organizations.
In some ways this study’sﬁndings support existing understandings of activist burnout.
Mirroring examinations of burnout in racial justice (Gorski, 2018a), educational justice
(Gorski & Chen, 2015), and feminist (Barry & Dordević,2007) activists, motivational
and psychological factors associated with a profound sense of responsibility for elim-
inating structural violence and deep connections with AR causes contributed to parti-
cipants’emotional exhaustion and hopelessness. Similarly, participants’attribution of
SOCIAL MOVEMENT STUDIES 373
their burnout to within-movement causes, such as in-ﬁghting, reﬂected studies in other
movements (Chen & Gorski, 2015; Pines, 1994 ; Plyler, 2006). The conditions under-
lying these burnout causes –tensions between movement organizations (Goodman &
Sanders, 2011; Greenebaum, 2009), activist dispositions characterized by intense empa-
thy for suﬀering animals (Gaarder, 2008; Jacobsson & Lindblom, 2013), and the
persistence of racism and sexism within the AR movement (Drew, 2010; Wrenn,
2015), for example –have been well-documented in scholarship about the experiences
of AR activists.
Other ﬁndings diﬀer from or complicate understandings of activist burnout causes or
demonstrate nuances in how burnout might operate diﬀerently for AR activists than for
other activists, sometimes in ways could also reﬂect national contexts. For example, studies
on activist burnout in the United States (e.g. Gorski, 2018a) and scholarship based on
activists’experiences in United States social movements (e.g. Jones, 2007; Rettig, 2006)
often have attributed burnout to external causes such as repercussions leveled against
activists by state and corporate actors threatened by social activist causes. Similarly,
scholarship on AR activism in various regional contexts reveals how activists are subject
to deleterious state actions related to surveillance, criminalization, and demonization by
state and corporate actors (Gazzolla, 2015;Shea,2015;Wrenn,2012). However, the activists
interviewed for this study did not attribute their burnout to these conditions. One possible
explanation for this discrepancy, drawn from experiences described by two of the activists
interviewed for this study, could be that activists understand retaliation risks when they
enter the AR movement, so that they see such repercussions as expected consequences of
their activism. Burnout-inducing conditions they ﬁnd within the movement, on the other
hand, might be unexpected and, as a result, harder to grapple with. Additionally, whereas
United States based AR activists increasingly face criminalization and the risk of arrest,
a history of scholarship on activist experiences suggests that they are less likely to face the
sorts of consequences that activists in more repressive political contexts risk facing, such as
torture, rape, and murder (Bernal, 2006; Grimm, 2015).
Inversely, the ﬁnding of the prevalence of within-movement burnout causes, includ-
ing in-ﬁghting, racism, sexism, and the ways activists police one another’s commit-
ments, mirrors scholarship on burnout (Gorski, 2018a; Gorski & Chen, 2015; Norwood,
2013; Plyler, 2006), the culture of selﬂessness or martyrdom (Rodgers, 2010), and the
‘cowboy mentality’(Rooks, 2003) in other movements. These conditions refer primarily
to how activists relate to one another and how structural oppressions outside the AR
movement are replicated within it. However, in contrast to previous scholarship, the
ﬁndings revealed how activists –especially those working for big AR organizations –
attributed their burnout, not just to interpersonal tensions and oppression within
movements, but also to other aspects of destructive organizational and movement
cultures. (Volunteer activists who have less day-to-day interaction with these organiza-
tions appear to be comparatively protected from some destructive aspects of these
cultures.) The conditions underlying this portion of participants’burnout were related
to how activists were treated by AR organizations, often their workplaces –how they
felt underpaid, underappreciated, and expected to prioritize organizational goals at the
cost of personal well-being. These conditions have been documented in AR activism
literature (Jones, 2007; Rettig, 2006). Notably, no other study on the causes of activist
burnout has identiﬁed them as even tangential burnout causes.
374 P. GORSKI ET AL.
Whereas this ﬁnding is inconsistent with previous activist burnout research –none of
which has focused on AR activism –it is consistent with research on vocational burnout.
Following a couple early studies of activist burnout (Gomes, 1992; Pines, 1994), social
movement scholars deserted vocational burnout theory as a viable tool for examining
activist burnout. The former, it has been argued (Gorski, 2018a), is not adaptable to the
unique characteristics of activists and contexts of activism. Maslach and Gomes (2006)–
pioneers of vocational burnout theory (see Gomes, 1992; Maslach & Pines, 1977)–ﬁrst
made this distinction, explaining how, unlike people doing other labor, activists tend to
have deep levels of awareness about structural oppression and large-scale suﬀering.
Others have noted additional aspects of activists’uniqueness that are unaccounted for
in vocational burnout research, such as their susceptibility to state retaliation (Bernal,
2006; Cox, 2011). Common causes of activist burnout revolve largely around stressors
associated with those characteristics, such as oppressive movement conditions and a deep
sense of responsibility for creating large-scale change (Gorski & Chen, 2015; Pines, 1994;
Plyler, 2006). Common causes of vocational burnout revolve around workplace issues
such as workload, job autonomy, and personnel turnover (Ben-Avi, Toker, & Heller,
2018; McFadden, Campbell, & Taylor, 2014). Until this study, no study of activist burnout
has identiﬁed workplace conditions and organizational treatment as prevalent burnout
causes. Many participants of our study who worked paid jobs in AR organizations did
point to workplace conditions and organizational treatment –namely, feeling over-
worked, underpaid, and undervalued –as a primary source of their burnout.
This ﬁnding complicates previous understandings of ‘within-movement’activist
burnout causes, but it also provides the beginnings of a potential bridge between
theoretical constructions of activist burnout and the literature on activist retention.
Scholars studying activist retention or persistence –the conditions and dispositions that
keep activists engaged in their activism (Bunnage, 2014; Mannarini & Talò, 2011)–
often have attributed retention in part to how activists are treated by the organizations
for which they work. It has been somewhat of a mystery, then, why studies of activist
burnout had not identiﬁed workplace conditions as a common burnout cause. As noted
earlier, activists interviewed for this study who experienced these burnout causes
typically worked for AR organizations –they were, in Cox’s(2009) words, professional
or full-time activists. They diﬀered from other participants in the sense that their
vocational and activist lives were entangled. Whereas about half of the activists inter-
viewed for this study worked for an AR organization, a closer look at previous burnout
studies reveals how they were based largely on samples of activists who were employed
outside the movements in which they were involved –what Cox (2009)called leisure
activists. For example, of the 30 participants in Gorski’s(2018a) burnout study of racial
justice activists, only two were employed in racial justice organizations.
This may speak to the need for a more ﬂexible theoretical framework for activist
burnout that diﬀerentiates between activists whose workplaces also are their activist
organizations and those whose work lives are separate from their activist lives. Cox
(2009), in his exploration of activist sustainability, provided a useful point of departure
by distinguishing four activism situations, including the aforementioned professional or
full-time activism and leisure activism as well as workplace-based and community-
based activism. Inspired by Cox’s(2009) recommendations for better understanding
activist sustainability, we recommend that future burnout scholarship attend more
SOCIAL MOVEMENT STUDIES 375
closely to ‘how movement participation is articulated with daily life’(p. 58), both for
activists for whom activism is their primary life commitment (as was the case for this
study) and for those who engage in less consuming ways.
The ﬁndings also speak to the importance of diﬀerentiating understandings of burnout
based on unique regional and movement contexts. Consider diﬀerences in the racial justice
and AR movements in the United States. Although there are signiﬁcant grassroots AR eﬀorts,
the movement revolves largely around nonproﬁt organizations with paid staﬀ.Thereare
inﬂuential racial justice organizations with paid staﬀ, like the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). However, many inﬂuential racial justice orga-
nizations or networks, such as Black Lives Matter and the American Indian Movement, have
been comprised of volunteers. In the United States there is no AR network of volunteer
activists that approaches the inﬂuence of Black Lives Matter. Again, future research could
look at these diﬀerences more closely and how or whether they inform burnout. Overall, with
study were consistent whether they were professional or leisure activists.
Findings of this study also support Gorski’s(2018a) contention that activist burnout
theory must evolve to consider how marginalized-identity AR activists, such as activists
of color in the United States, may face elevated threats of burnout when compared with
privileged-identity activists, such as white activists. Mirroring previous scholarship
about the persistence of racism, sexism, and other oppressions within the AR move-
ment (e.g. Drew, 2010; Ortega, 2017; Wrenn, 2015) and other movements (Cox, 2009,
2011; Srivastava, 2006), every activist of color interviewed for this study mentioned
racism as a cause of their burnout; a majority of women cited sexism as a cause of their
burnout. Activist burnout theory to date has failed to account for how causes of
burnout diﬀer for people who are subject to racism, sexism, and other oppressions
within movements. It also has failed to account for how the overall grind of these
oppressions experienced in the everyday lives of marginalized-identity activists inside
and outside their activism inform their susceptibility to burnout (Gorski, 2018b). This
demonstrates how privilege and erasure can operate even in the theorization of phe-
nomena related to movements supposedly critical of privilege and erasure (Au, 2016).
Finally, scholars (e.g. Pigni, 2016; Rodgers, 2010) have described what Chen and Gorski
(2015) called a culture of martyrdom among activists that associates activist commitment with
a willingness to work to exhaustion. To date most burnout scholarship has associated this
culture primarily with within-movement conditions and how activists police one another’s
commitments (Plyler, 2006;Rodgers,2010). Mirroring this association, participants in this
study spoke widely about pressure from within the movement to prioritize activism over their
well-being and about how conversations about activist well-being are silenced. Unlike
previous studies, they also linked their participation in this culture, not just to within-
movement pressures, but also to the psychological and emotional causes of their burnout:
their emotional connection to AR work and their sense of responsibility to aﬀect mass-scale
change. Because this martyrdom phenomenon has been identiﬁed consistently as a cause of
activist burnout (Bernal, 2006;Chen&Gorski,2015;Gorski&Chen,2015;Rodgers,2010)
across movements and regional contexts, more concerted analysis of its nature, including
how it is sustained through interactions of individual activist dispositions and broader
movement culture, could provide deeper insights into an important aspect of activist burnout
in AR and other movements. Existing theoretical frameworks that draw on research about
376 P. GORSKI ET AL.
emotion in activism, such as emotional labor –what Taylor and Rupp (2002) described as
‘channeling, legitimating, and managing one’sownandothers’emotions and expression of
emotions in order to cultivate and nurture the social networks that are the building blocks of
social movements’(p. 142) –can be useful in this regard.
This study was the ﬁrst to empirically identify causes of activist burnout in AR activists
which may cause them to engage less eﬀectively or to disengage from their activism
altogether, potentially destabilizing the AR movement. We found vulnerability asso-
ciated with intrinsic motivational and psychological factors, negative movement and
organizational cultures, and in-ﬁghting and marginalization among activists to be
participants’primary causes of burnout. Results suggested that some burnout-causing
dynamics in the AR movement might diﬀer from those found in other movements. It is
our hope that these ﬁndings inform emerging understandings of activist burnout
among AR activists and activists more broadly.
Because burnout has been described as a signiﬁcant impediment to social movement
eﬀectiveness, we encourage organizational and movement leaders to consider these ﬁndings
in a collective commitment to the longevity of activists’engagement and movement
sustainability. We urge AR organizations to oﬀer supports for combating burnout and
movement leaders to prioritize leading against burnout. The common approach –work-
shops on how individuals can cope with burnout through self-care –is insuﬃcient when
causes of burnout include how activists treat one another, racism and sexism in the move-
ment, how AR organizations treat employees, and how individuals are recognized and
compensated for their work. No amount of self-care can counteract these burnout causes.
Future research should examine each cause category of burnout more closely,
perhaps also parsing out how they operate diﬀerently in paid or ‘staﬀ’activists and
volunteer activists. Given ongoing revelations about sexism and racism in the move-
ment, the relationship between within-movement oppression and burnout seems an
important place to start. Another prime area for exploration might be the consequences
of burnout for the AR movement.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
Notes on contributors
Paul Gorski is the founder of the Equity Literacy Institute and EdChange. He is a lifelong activist
spanning many social justice issues and conducts research on social justice education and activist
Stacy Lopresti-Goodman is an Associate Professor of Psychology and the Director of the Honors
Program at Marymount University. Her research focuses on understanding the enduring impact
that conﬁnement, social isolation, and physical abuse have on the psychological well-being of
nonhuman animals rescued from laboratories. She also studies alternatives to the use of animals
in psychology education.
SOCIAL MOVEMENT STUDIES 377
Dallas Rising is a long-time ally of other species with experience in anti-speciesism education,
direct intervention, policy, and strategy relating to animal liberation. After experiencing burnout
herself, she stepped away from direct activism and is currently teaching yoga and mindfulness
with an emphasis on equity and inclusion.
Paul Gorski http://orcid.org/0000-0002-9082-8885
Stacy Lopresti-Goodman http://orcid.org/0000-0003-0855-3083
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