What’s rest got to do with it? The confessions of a recovering workaholic
Last year I struggled!
Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy the work that I do at Accountability Counsel and more so the people that I get to do it with. But I struggled so much with regard to rest/recovery and unplugging in 2022!
This year marks seven years of my working in the human rights space, in different organizations, thematic areas, countries, and communities. Throughout these years, my work has been fulfilling in so many ways, and it is always great to see communities grow in their knowledge, understanding, and agency to demand their rights and fundamental freedoms. I have also grown as a human rights advocate in my experience in human rights education, strategic campaigning, and most recently policy advocacy.
My passion in human rights work has been working with and for communities directly. Building their capacity on human rights and fundamental freedoms, strategizing with them, and supporting them in their causes and goals as communities. This is why the work that Accountability Counsel does in communities has been a great fit for me. I have loved and appreciated the aspect of amplifying the voices of communities to protect their human rights and environment through the respect-based approach which identifies and addresses forms of marginalization and hierarchy that are specific to each community in which we work. Incorporating a respect-based approach in my day-to-day work has been very enlightening and empowering, not just for the communities that we support but also for myself.
Human Rights Work
Human rights work can be a lot of things – fulfilling, demanding, exhausting and sometimes very draining. Change does not come easy, and it may take so many years and different actors to make an impact. Reminds me of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the books that centres me and remind me of why I do what I do. On one occasion, Atticus Finch, one of the protagonists in the book, says, “Simply because we were licked [meaning defeated] a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.” It is a reminder to give our best now regardless of what was (or was not) accomplished before. It also teaches us that protecting human rights is a constant struggle, but that any step, however small, is still a step and will make a mark in years to come.
Human rights workers, on the other hand, are different in terms of their approaches to work, and how they relate with communities, clients and even colleagues. But one thing that cuts across is that human rights workers are usually committed and zealous people who want to support communities and cause change and impact in the cases they work on.
Because change is a slow process in human rights work, and compounded by the fact that human rights lawyers are so committed and zealous – for their countries, environment, and other communities – there is often a tendency to overexert ourselves in the work and forget to take rest/recover. Ask anyone working in the human rights space how they are doing and, 8 out of 10 times, they will say, “I am busy,” or “I am swamped” – I just came up with these statistics based on what my answers would be, but you get the point.
Now, everyone in the human rights space knows the importance of rest; we even remind those around us to remember to rest and take time off. But why don’t we do that for ourselves?
Why did I struggle?
Accountability Counsel has a very progressive policy on well-being and mental health, which becomes more of a culture than just a policy.
Here are some highlights of what that looks like:
- A Wellness Committee (which I am part of) that is charged with ensuring that members of our team and board have the proper procedures, training, and practices in place to guard against security risks, promote staff’s physical and mental health, and respond to issues that may arise. Specifically, the Committee is attuned to physical risks to staff in the field, cybersecurity, the organization’s reputation, and the health and well-being of all staff.
- Good Ally time, which is a policy that allows staff to take action to protect the rights of allied communities and the environment, up to 40 working hours a year. This may include working on issues where staff members are moved to take part in or support actions outside of their job duties. In the past, I have used my good ally time to support human rights defenders and grassroots social justice centers to strategize, plan, and effectively demand for change.
- Wellness Fridays, in which every other week, team members are invited to treat Friday work hours as flexible time to be used for work or wellness activities as needed.
- Buffer time, whereby in work plans, team members are advised to allocate buffer time in quarterly work plans to accommodate anything that comes up and was not planned.
- Decompression time, which staff members can take after work travel to rest and recover.
With all these good policies, I still struggled to rest, recover and decompress. Despite knowing too well the advantages of these in my life and work, it was still difficult. In my reflection of my work in the past year, the below came up as the main reasons for not being able to rest:
Rest, in most instances, comes with a lot of guilt – that the community you are working for or with will not be able to get justice and that you must do more to get them to that point. However, most of the work does not succeed through individual effort, but by joint action of different actors in the space who need to act a certain way for change or impact to happen. I have felt guilty for taking a few days away from work, especially when the case or work that I am doing is at a critical point.
For most human rights workers, the work we do defines us; and because of how demanding the work is, it is probably all we know to do. In my case, even when I took time off, unplugging from work was difficult because it was all I knew to do every day. So if I’m not at work, or if I’m not a “worker,” then who am I?
There aren’t as many human rights workers as there are human rights violations, so in most cases, a human rights worker will have more than one case they are handling or dealing with at any point in time. Of course, most of these cases have different demands and needs, and so the idea of taking time off to rest is difficult.
Difficulty to unplug
When I was able to take some time off for decompression, I found it hard to unplug from work and rest. I would still wake up very early, feel the need to check my emails or Signal messages, call my colleagues and case partners to check in on a case or updates, and even worse, just find myself working!
How, then, do we create a culture of rest?
Over the years, there has been a huge shift in the human rights space with conversations on mental health and well-being and creating spaces for staff to rest, recover, and decompress. This is great because it allows human rights workers to not feel what I have listed above when I should rest.
Rest and unplugging has an impact on your work: it has been known to reduce stress and boost productivity, creativity, and decision-making skills, all of which are important and needed in human rights work. I know that this has been the case for me.
So then, how do we get to a place where rest doesn’t feel like hard work? Especially in an environment where the culture is to always be busy with something and the horrible feeling of letting down a cause when you take time to rest. Here are some pointers that I intend to use this year and hope they work out. You are welcome to do them with me:
Find your “Ile Kitu”
Ile Kitu is Swahili for “that thing.” This is a term I came up with to mean a thing or things you do to make you feel whole! It may be sleeping, hiking, reading a book, binge-watching your favourite show, boxing, dancing, a spa date, gaming – this list is endless, but find what your ile kitu is/are!
Yes! The same way you schedule a 1:1 with a colleague, you should be able to schedule rest. Mark it on your calendar, plan what you will do to rest (and it is okay if sleep is the only plan you have) and be intentional about it. “If you don’t pick a day to rest, your body will pick it for you!”
Communicate with your colleagues and partners
Communicating your needs with others reduces the feeling of guilt or despair. When you are overworked, stressed, and in extreme instances, burnt out, saying so and taking the time you need is important because those you work with are able to support you and manage the capacity needed.
Now, if you’re like me and find this hard, it will be difficult the first few times you try it; and don’t feel bad for plugging back in when you should be off. Of course, set an out-of-office, but over and above that, disable or turn off notifications for your emails or anything work-related on your phone. If you have a work laptop, then put it away and don’t use it when taking time off. If you are called for work by a community member or partner in a case, tell them that you are taking time off and ask to deal with it when you get back to work or, if it’s urgent, then refer them to a colleague who can assist.
Write about how rest made you feel
One way to remind ourselves of the importance of resting is to appreciate it by documenting what it felt like. This is like the concept of a “gratitude jar,” only this time it is dedicated to your rest and decompression stories and how those felt. Contrary to the gratitude jar, where we open and read them at the end of the year, we will read these as often as we can and we want to.
I plan to assess myself this year on these pointers and any others I pick up along the way and see how this year goes!
As I write this, I just got back from an extended leave and I feel refreshed, active, and ready to work to support communities to demand justice.
So, here is your reminder to purpose and schedule rest in your work and not fall into the trap of feeling guilty for it – it all goes towards making you a better human rights advocate, worker, and team member. Your work has so much to do with rest!
Happy, or better yet, restful New Year!