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Self-care, stress, burnout – and work

Why should self-care, stress management and burnout prevention be discussed in the context of workplaces?

Thankfully, the concepts of stress and burnout are increasingly entering professional circles and organisations are being made to take these seriously. The WHO recognised workplace burnout as an occupational condition in its 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).  However, conversations on stress and burnout are still tied to instrumentalist ideas of mental health – that is, it is important to manage stress and burnout because it will mean improved productivity/ effectiveness in the field or movement.

We want to challenge that linkage because it only sees self-care as important only as long as the person is productive or economically contributing to society (read more here). Stress and burnout affect various aspects of one’s life – from work to health to relationships, and could become a psychosocial disability if left unmanaged for long. Therefore, self-care is a human concern, not just a productivity-related issue.

And the idea of economic contribution or productivity leaves out a vast group of people: those doing unpaid care work or domestic labour; those whose jobs are seen as voluntary, or “in the service of society” – and that is where those in people work come in.

Do those of us doing people work have the right to self-care?

The assumption is that those doing people work have entered into it “knowing fully well” that they will be working with people in various forms of distress, that it pays little, that it is for the long haul because change takes time. In workshops we have facilitated for those doing people work, we have heard that that was the first time anyone asked them about what got them stressed. All along, the implicit or explicit understanding is that people workers can never “feel” stress or talk about it. If they feel it, then they are “not fit” to do that job.

This is not true. Those doing people work have as much need, if not more, as anyone else to self-care, to stress management and burnout prevention. “Being privy to people’s struggles on a daily basis coupled with a sense of helplessness knowing that one cannot do much beyond a point can take its toll on the case worker’s/human rights defender’s health and psycho-social wellbeing.” (from A Needs Assessment Report, 2019 – here) Additionally, many doing people work do this work because they feel a “calling” – something about their personal experiences or principles resonates strongly with their work, making them relate strongly with the struggles of the people they work with.

Not everyone has the freedom to feel or express stress. Especially not those doing people work.

But those doing people work are not often given the freedom to feel or express stress, or take steps to manage it with self-care, because it is seen as being selfish, or that they are not competent in their work. They feel guilty (or are made to feel guilty – by co-workers, comrades/peers, society, their reporting managers) about putting their needs “above” those they work with.

Self-care is not selfish, and it is not a sign of incompetence. It is a human concern and a part of an individual’s right to wellbeing that goes beyond one’s “ability to do work”. That said,  it is also important because it keeps those doing people work “tuned in” to their jobs – stress or burnout have been proven to reduce one’s ability to stay engaged in their work.

Is it an individual’s responsibility to manage stress and prevent burnout?

It is an unfortunate reality that even in workplaces where stress and burnout are acknowledged, the responsibility for addressing them rests solely with the individual – phrases like “you’re taking too much on” or “you must learn to set boundaries” are commonly heard, without considering the responsibilities of the workplaces or other team members.

Stress management and burnout prevention are not just the responsibility of individuals. Human beings are part of an ecosystem, belonging to multiple institutions – families, workplaces, movements, larger societies, to name a few. Which is why, this website also features information and resources on Collective Care, to emphasise the role that other institutions play in reducing the stress faced by an individual. Workplaces and collectives must provide an environment conducive for staff and members to acknowledge, talk about and seek measures to address stress brought about by their work or by working as part of a movement, without considering it a threat to their work or the movement. This discussion must not be seen as questioning the organisation’s management style (which should be open to change if many feel stressed) or the collective’s intent, although the collective should jointly discuss how they’re working if many members bring up stress issues due to its functioning. Most importantly, such discussions should not cast aspersions on the staff member’s or collective member’s interest or ability.

Some larger sources of stress are beyond our immediate control – say, patriarchy, ableism, a challenging criminal justice system, homonegativity, caste-based discrimination, and more. In these cases, self-care could be an effective way to help us navigate and/or resist the effects of these sources of stress or stressors. Solidarity with others facing these effects is a significant means to navigate and resist these societal sources of stress.

Why is it important for workplaces and collectives to support staff members on stress management and burnout prevention?

At TARSHI, we firmly believe that the key spaces an individual accesses – home, family, workplace/informal groups/collective/movement, educational institutions – have to be Safe, Inclusive, and Self-Affirming (SISA).  A SISA space offers an environment that is non-judgmental, rights-based and sexuality-affirming, where people can feel safe and free from fear to talk about, learn about and/or experience their sexuality and wellbeing.

Such spaces can be SISA only if they provide the opportunity for members to understand, acknowledge and freely talk about their stress and concerns with their managers and other team members without fear of being adversely affected for this expression.