Transition Culture

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17 Feb 2016

Sophy Banks: the Burnout Interview


In a final interview before she left Transition Network to take on new challenges, I sat down with Sophy Banks to talk about burnout and balance, our current theme.  I started out by asking her what, for her, is meant by the term. You can hear the interview in full as a downloadable podcast (here), or read the edited transcript (below): 

“Burnout, I think, applies at every level of scale. There’s clearly a personal kind of burnout that I’ve been close to and know many people that have been to that place where they’ve been out of balance or they’ve been giving so much or working so hard over an extended period that actually their health is very severely compromised by it. At the end point, it always ends up affecting our health physically, but possibly mentally as well.

People are exhausted, where their immune systems are trashed and they’re in a very long process of recovery to come back to full health, if they ever do. The long-term consequences is part of the characteristic of burnout.

Is there an example of burnout in your own life that you would like to share, or that is instructive?

Yes. I’d like to talk about Transition Town Totnes where I think we did a really good job with issues around energy and burnout. I remember that second Core Group meeting, really in the early days. You and Naresh had been doing those launch events and open spaces. You had seeded groups, and some of the groups had come around spontaneously. You called that first meeting in February 2007. I remember talking with Hilary Prentice, we were the two Heart and Soul founders. It was probably her idea, but we decided at the next meeting we were going to do a check-in around energy levels.

This was our second meeting and I think it’s really interesting, when you look back at the minutes, there it is. We had a go-round about – what are you giving, what are you getting from being part of this project, and how sustainable are you for the next one, three or six months? There were six or seven of us each focalising a group that knew they were putting on lots of events, and everyone knew they could probably last six months but not longer. Everybody! We were all so excited and wanted to give so much.

I remember at that meeting we went through that thing – what are we going to do about this? This clearly isn’t sustainable in the long term. We said either we have to get paid support, or we have to really scale back what we’re doing. So we said let’s try the first option, and if we can’t we’ll have to consider the second. In a couple of months, you’d managed to find some funding to get a paid admin support person. So for me, that’s a really good story of a group doing a really good job. I think it’s interesting that a year later we set up the Mentoring Project to give one-to-one support for the personal aspects of  “how are you doing”, and reflection. I know there have been people that have been tired in the Totnes project, but as a project it has had very little real burnout.


In this story, eventually, the corrective loop worked, and I’ve met many people and seen many groups where the corrective loop hasn’t worked and resulted in people with long-term health problems from burnout in Transition and in many, many other movements for positive change, and what a paradox that is. I’ve heard people on trainings say, who’ve been in the environmental movement for 30-40 years, that burnout is ‘the dirty secret of the environmental movement’. That people used to burn out in those organisations from a relentless work schedule and culture, and they would just disappear and nobody would even ask about them. They would just disappear from sight. And how upsetting that is that these very dedicated people would just sink and not be seen again, and be left on their own to deal with the consequences of that.

One of the things that’s central to both of those stories is the person, yourself and/or Hilary, the people who say “I think we need to look at this in a bit of a different way”, to be the person to point out the elephant in the corner. There will be people listening to this I’m sure who are in groups who recognise the same things that you’re talking about, the same symptoms you talked about. What advice would you give to people in that position? To be their burnout whistleblower, the person who names it. What advice would you give to them?

I’ve met many people that have tried to put a check-in at the start of a meeting, where people go – that’s too touchy feely, or – why do we need to do that, or – we don’t have time…

…I remember Sharon Astyk wrote a piece where she even felt that putting chairs in a circle somehow smacked of a cult…

That’s right. There are extraordinary levels of defence against very simple pieces of good human technology in our culture. That’s the landscape that we’re in. One of the things is to have the confidence to put ‘How do we work as a group?’ as an agenda item; that people feel confident in all kinds of other things in that that are about tasks, but actually to say – I want this group to spend 20 minutes reflecting on how we want to work as a group, and to start opening that up as a normal topic of conversation in a group.

Sophy Banks

One of the frames that I sometimes use is – do we want this to be a group that cares about people? And if so we need to know how each other is. How can I care about you if I just don’t know if you’re ok or not? I like that parallel, if you meet someone in the street, you wouldn’t just go “what are you doing, how are you getting on with it, where are you on your to do list?”

The first thing you’d say is “how are you?” You may or may not want the short version of that, but you know that’s how we greet each other because it puts us in a frame of caring. I think if we can root it in that frame of being a place where we’re all about caring in Transition: we care for the planet, we care for our communities, our work in Transition as an embodiment of that, and actually we need to bring that right into this group where we care about each other and we know and we understand the principle.

When we have connected, trusting relationships, that’s when we have a group that can do wonderful things. So there’s not a competition between the time we spend staying sustainable, welcoming new people, and getting on with the doing. They absolutely complement each other.

I do think there is just a frame. It’s like there’s a frame inside us that has this strange belief that spending time on our relationships is a waste of time. As soon as we shine a spotlight on it in Transition it shifts, we just have to draw attention to it in a way that doesn’t trigger too much of a defence. I think how you stand for that – this is what I see, this is my agenda item, this is what I want the group to pay attention to, you do that with a gentle confidence, not an aggressive “this group’s terrible” but to do it with kindness, bringing the qualities that you really want the group to have. It makes it easier for people to relax into that conversation if it’s a stretch for them.

As soon as we’re outside our organisational frame, in to reminding ourselves how we are with our friends, that it really helps us find that part of ourselves that finds it completely normal to check how we’re doing.

You used the word ‘technology’ quite a few times in terms of social technology or group technology. If we think of Transition as being a social technology, a set of tools, resources and things, what would that technology look like or what would need to be different about it so that it could be designed from the outset so that burnout wouldn’t happen. Is it possible that we could design a movement which in its very design, designed out burnout? What would it look like? Is this the first organisation to have asked that question? I’ve never encountered it anywhere else before.

Sophy BanksI think the powerful question is, is in any organisation or movement, “what’s the shadow for us?” “What’s the thing that we create unconsciously that’s destructive or harmful, and how are we like the thing we’re trying to change?”

One of my teachers once said to me “one way to enquire into that is to look at your aspirations as an organisation, what’s your mission, and imagine the opposite of that, and then ask the question, how are we doing that.” So if Transition is all about exclusion, where are we exclusive. It’s quite easy to see there are lots of people who don’t find a place in Transition. If we’re all about healing a culture of manic activity and burning out the planet, where are we creating burnout ourselves. So that, I think is a really powerful question for any group or any organisation to ask.

It’s really important what the leaders do, and if the leaders don’t have good practices where they model balance themselves, if people see the leaders constantly doing and doing and doing and they don’t take time out and don’t reflect deeply and don’t get support, their groups and their movement will be created in their image very strongly.

It’s difficult as a leader to imagine how much impact you have around that. I have experienced that – it’s hard for me to even think of myself as a leader because it’s not my self-image, but I see that I have had a lot of impact. I think at those moments when the symptoms are starting to show, the response of the leaders is really critical. If they pay attention to it and give it value, that’s ¾ of the system. But if they’re ignoring it, dismissing it, haven’t got time for it, actually it’s very difficult for people with much less power or rank in the group to challenge the culture. In some groups there are strong leaders, in others it’s much more shared, so that can be very different.

But there are things that we can build into how our groups work. Nick Osborne’s done lots of stuff on effective groups, and I have this really simple three aspects of group life, one of which is task, and the other is all the structures that we need, the agreements, the roles, the clarity about our purpose. If we don’t have those it’s exhausting because nobody is on the same page together.

The third, which is the group that tends to get marginalised the most is about relationships, about caring, about building trust, about deepening into…I think it’s really interesting to ask – what is Transition, why are we so strongly called to it? You find really, really deep motivations about our love for our children, our profound sense of responsibility for life on Earth, the core of who we are as human beings and our identity. It’s all woven into why we do Transition.

When we open space up to hear each other about that, all of those petty irritations about “I always make the tea” disappear in this sense of being with human beings that share a deep love of life and beauty and this incredible natural world that we all live on and hold. So that bit about relationships I think is important.

There are some great statistics that help with burnout, like groups that spent 25% of their time on process, on how they work; on the how rather than the what are the most successful groups in every aspect; the most productive groups as well as the most long lasting.

Another antidote to burnout is having this culture, that a lot of people hear me talking about, of appreciation and celebration. If we don’t constantly keep reinforcing for ourselves this sense that what we are doing makes a difference, that each person’s contribution is valued, that we’re grateful for the incredible things that we have in these times, that’s also a thing that gradually depletes people. I think it’s interesting to think that sometimes people come to groups just to be seen and valued. They will give a tremendous amount if they get that back.