Magazine for Sexuality and Politics

Activism as a form of work? Insights into activist work and well-being

Laura F. Röllmann

Work is a central part of human life. Whether, how, where, and with whom we work influences our relationships, our well-being and our standing in society. For many people, work is a place of identification, knowledge acquisition and everyday structuring (e.g. Jahoda, 1982). Not having this place represents a big problem for most people (e.g. Mohr & Otto, 2016).

But what actually constitutes work, when is something work? This question is the subject of philosophical debates, feminist theories (keyword care/reproductive work, e.g. Winker, 2011) and also pop cultural debates (see e.g. the song "(Ode) to Work" by the band 'Wir sind Helden'). The bulk of research in labor and organizational psychology remains strongly focused on wage labor. However, when discussing whether work is a wellspring of life, we should also consider what is actually recognized as being work, and where people also acquire knowledge on their own and take on unpaid work. Last but not least, we should look at how they are doing with this work. One area that has received very little attention in the academic debate so far is that of activist work. As a consequence, the working conditions in activism and the effects of activist work on personal well-being have hardly been researched.

Based on Klar and Kasser (2009), I define activism as a continuous or recurrent behavior of advocating a political cause. It can take place in different ways, for instance, organizing information events, starting a petition or actions of civil disobedience. Activism was and is indispensable for challenging societal power dynamics (e.g. in the fields of labor struggle, equality, racism, climate justice).

Even if activism is not emancipatory per se, it is crucial for the promotion of many important issues and is present in every society (Martin, 2007). But the question remains: is activism work?

Activism, in the eyes of many activists, is not a leisure activity that they engage in for the sheer joy of it. Activism is often an important part of life that needs to be balanced with various other areas of life, such as professional expectations (Rettig, 2006). Unpaid political work can fulfil those functions of work that, in addition to remuneration, are considered as being fundamental to the psychosocial relevance of work: time structure, social contact, collective purpose, social status and activity (Jahoda, 1982; Ulich & Wiese, 2011). Therefore, activism can be defined as being work (e.g. Biesecker, 2000). Performing productive and reproductive work is inevitably part of the lives of most people - only very few people, for example, have the material conditions necessary so as not to have to do paid work. That is why activist work, despite its emotional and political relevance, is often the first thing to be abandoned when time or money happens to be scarce.

Existing studies on activist well-being indicate that activism can both enhance individual well-being (Klar & Kasser, 2009) and diminish it by leading to overwork or burnout (e.g. Vaccaro & Mena, 2011). Many activists find their work meaningful but equally frustrating (e.g. Harré et al., 2009). Initial findings from my work on activists' well-being show that it is worth analyzing activism from an occupational psychology perspective and that the debate culture of the respective activist group plays a role in personal well-being. What is needed for a better understanding and a more sustainable design of activism in the future would be systematic intervention studies that try to implement and to evaluate changes in the concrete practice of activist groups.


Biesecker, A. (2000). Kooperative Vielfalt und das Ganze der Arbeit: Überlegungen zu einem erweiterten Arbeitsbegrif. WZB Discussion Paper, P 00-504.

Harré, N., Tepavac, S., & Bullen, P. (2009). Integrity, Efficacy and Community in the Stories of Political Activists. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 6(4), 330–345.

Jahoda, M. (1982). Employment and unemployment: A social-psychological analysis. Cambridge University Press.

Klar, M., & Kasser, T. (2009). Some Benefits of Being an Activist: Measuring Activism and Its Role in Psychological Well-Being. Political Psychology, 30(5), 755–777.

Martin, B. (2007). Activism, social and political. In G. L. Anderson & K. Herr (Hrsg.), Encyclopedia of activism and social justice (S. 19–27). Sage Publications.

Mohr, G., & Otto, K. (2016). Health Effects of Unemployment and Job Insecurity. In A.-S. G. Antoniou & C. L. Cooper (Hrsg.), New directions in organisational psychology and behavioural medicine (S. 307–330). Routledge.

Rettig, H. (2006). The lifelong activist: How to change the world without losing your way. Lantern Books.

Ulich, E., & Wiese, B. S. (2011). Arbeit außerhalb der Erwerbsarbeit. In E. Ulich & B. S. Wiese, Life Domain Balance (S. 149–173). Gabler Verlag.

Vaccaro, A., & Mena, J. A. (2011). It’s Not Burnout, It’s More: Queer College Activists of Color and Mental Health. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health, 15(4), 339–367.

Winker, G. (2011). Soziale Reproduktion in der Krise–Care Revolution als Perspektive. Das Argument, 292(53), 3.

Photos: Header (Pexels / Marco Allasio) First page:

Comments ()

    Your email address will not be published. Comments are published only after moderation.