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The Digital Rights Movement Needs To Prioritize Sustainable Working

We have known for decades that there is a strong link between activism and burnout. Yet the mental health and well-being of those active in the digital rights field, remain low on the agenda. This needs to change, or we risk doing irreparable damage to our movement and the causes we are fighting for.

A few years ago, Bits of Freedom ran a survey that was sent around to participants in advance of a meeting. One of the questions asked was what respondents saw as the biggest obstacles to achieving their goals. The most common answer – more than 60% of responses – was the risk of burnout. Interestingly, however, neither burnout, mental health nor well-being featured even once on the list of topics people wanted to discuss when coming together.

When you’re invested in change that rarely happens overnight, there’s always something you could be doing, should have done, or feel you need to do better.

Our organisation has dealt with burnout itself, and is very aware of the personal and organisational costs of people’s well-being and mental health not being taken care of. Nonetheless, a self-initiated project that was supposed to provide an overview of well-being “good practices” and ideas about how to prioritise people’s well-being within organisations kept falling off our to-do list. Instead, our attention was devoted to legislative (cookies! copyright!) and communications (donation drives!) dossiers that always seemed more urgent.

As a minimum effort “fix”, we started facilitating and hosting small sessions about well-being at conferences and meetings, joined by (too) many people who had experienced, or were on the brink of experiencing, burnout firsthand. Last year we had the opportunity to facilitate a conversation on well-being during a strategy meeting hosted by the Digital Freedom Fund.

What are people saying?

In our field of work, stakes are high, and people are extremely motivated. For those of us volunteering for an organisation, our activism and advocacy is how we choose to spend our spare time, working evenings and weekends and with little to no structural support (like an office, time off, colleagues to chat and unwind with). For others, we’re invested in our work as more than “just a job”, wrapping our sense of purpose and accomplishment up with the results we do or don’t achieve.

Regardless of our employment status, many of us find it difficult to put our work to the side, and struggle with achieving a healthy work-life balance, meaning that our relationships and social lives suffer. When you’re invested in change that rarely happens overnight, and by nature a lot of your work is dependent on other people’s agenda’s, there’s always something you could be doing, should have done, or feel you need to do better.

Although there is a common understanding that this isn’t a problem of individuals but of organisations and even fields, many people we’ve spoken to feel their organisations are neglecting to tackle this issue with the same fervour they would others.

We need to take this conversation out of a side session and into the plenary.

What strategies are being developed?

At DFF’s annual strategy meeting, we discussed some of the preventive measures organisations are deploying. It turned out practices differ widely, with, unfortunately, some organisations doing little to nothing at all. Some good practices that were mentioned include:

  • Flexible working hours and a four-day week
  • Increased paid time off and paid sabbatical
  • Reimbursing staff for sports and mindfulness classes
  • Reimbursing staff for counseling, therapy and mentoring programs
  • Collective leave
  • Attention to sustainable on-boarding of new staff members
  • Fostering an open and safe environment, and strong relationships between staff.

What are we missing?

Despite there being a lot of shared ideas about what could be improved, many expressed the sense that we’re not addressing the core of the issue. Ideas that came up during the meeting that could help address the problem more fundamentally, include:

  • Acknowledge “well-being” as a fundamental part of your organisation’s operations, and hold management and boards accountable
  • Design wellb-eing and remuneration strategies to ensure high levels of staff retention
  • Add a person to your organisation’s board with a background in well-being or mental health
  • Conduct research into the resilience and sustainability of the digital rights field
  • Publish a benchmark
  • Ask funders to require Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for well-being
  • Start a conversation with funders about what kinds of funding contribute to organisations’ well-being and what kinds exacerbate risks to well-being, and about what amount of work can be expected from organisations.

What's next?

We’ve known for decades that there’s a strong link between activism and burnout, and, fortunately, mental health and well-being are becoming easier and easier to talk about. However, that isn’t enough. As someone during one of these conversations stated: we need to take this out of a side session and into the plenary. That doesn’t just mean we need everyone in the room, but also that we need to be very explicit about burnout being a management failure. And it’s not just people we’re failing. If our organisations don’t deliver challenging, fun and sustainable working environments, we’re doing irreparable damage to our movement and the causes we’re fighting for.

This article first appeared on Digital Freedom Fund's website in October 2020.

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