Taking a Break from Saving the World: A Conservation Activist’s Journey from Burnout to Balance

By Rod Ruff

by Stephen Legault
Rocky Mountain Books
2020/$20.00/168 pp.

Now more than ever, the pressures of working on wicked problems such as climate change, poverty, racism and public health are immense. Indeed, a recent Alberta Ecotrust survey of environmental non-profit organizations in Alberta revealed that more than a third of ENGO leaders identify burnout as one of the top three challenges they currently face. For the many people who work in the social purpose sector, Taking a Break From Saving the World is a timely release. Written by Stephen Legault, a prolific Canmore-based author, photographer and environmental activist, the book is a short manifesto about managing burnout—told from 30 years of experience in the cause-related workforce. Following “the most difficult dismissal of [his] professional career,” it’s a personal reflection on what drives change-makers to the edge, and sometimes over.

Using paddling and canoeing as an analogy, Legault explores the situations and patterns of behaviour leading to burnout, and the occasional need to “eddy out”—a phrase coined by river paddlers about the need to take a break from the rush of moving water to avoid obstacles, rest or simply appreciate the majesty of moving water. An open and honest reflection on grinding it out in cause-related work, Taking a Break explores a variety of tactics and strategies activists can use to maintain balance. This includes proven approaches to self-care like meditation and exercise, as well as novel approaches such as deprofessionalizing movements and having your own personal board of directors. Discussing institutional change, Taking a Break calls on organizational leaders and funders to consider deeper support for individual workers. This includes a call for sabbaticals—a literal manifestation of eddying out—to give change-makers the space and time to renew their spirit.

The recommendations are not comprehensive—Legault doesn’t touch on new organizational models seeking to empower leaders and employees, or collective approaches to social and psychological support aimed at alleviating stress and despair for those in the trenches of social change. It remains abundantly clear how little we know about supporting each other in movements. Immense pressure remains on the individual activist to be heroic; burnout is often the result.

These challenges lead Legault to a contemplative conclusion: “There are many ways to save the world, and struggling within a cause-based non-profit is only one of them, and maybe not the one for everybody,” he writes. “The important thing here is to know that, despite how long you rest in the eddy, there are many ways to nose back into the river.”

Rod Ruff is the vice-president of Alberta Ecotrust.

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