This research summary draws on a year of research and development work which I and the Jijaze Team have carried out over the past year. This research began when we launched Jijaze (now known at the Replenishment Room) in January 2017 and has included:
- Conversations with 30 women working in international development or humanitarian work around 3 focus questions,
- Interactions with my wider network and women who have shown an interest in what we are doing at Jijaze,
- The development and testing of offerings designed to help support women to consider their own wellbeing as an important component of their work for change in the world.
The aim of this piece is to highlight some Summary Themes taken from this year of exploration and to make some suggestions about the work going forward, for both the sector and for Jijaze as an organisation offering support individuals and organisations within it. Themes were identified where a number of people spoke about them in different ways.
We are passionate about our work. That makes us extraordinarily committed AND more prone to overwork and burnout
Without fail each women I spoke with expressed passion for the work she does, with a deep desire to make a difference. Many linked that to the sense of commitment they feel to the day to day aspects of their work and a sense that they therefore ‘go the extra mile’ – work harder than they otherwise might and make significant sacrifices in the name of the work that they believe in. Whilst passion and commitment are valuable assets, the fact that we so ready translate this into doing more and more on a day to day basis is something we want to question. Over-working ourselves may sometimes result in short term gains, but it often takes a long term toll on our ability to continue with the work we feel passionate about. In other words, over time, it may actually be counter-productive to approach every day and week with the attitude of always striving to get more done. This dynamic reflects the patterns in our wider culture, where more and more is asked of us, and particularly of women. The bigger question to look at, then, is when the way we work reflects this, how much are we maintaining, as opposed to resisting, the status quo?
Our passion and consciousness of the enormity of problems make it hard for us to prioritise ourselves.
We are keenly aware of the often desperate plight of others in an unfair world. Our work looks to redress this. Our logic is often along the lines of ‘this work is more important than my wellbeing’. Indeed many women spoke versions of this sentence during my conversations with them over the past year. The conceptual shift we need is to be able to see that our wellbeing can actually contribute to change. That working in the same old ways our culture has driven us to for generations isn’t going to help change structural dynamics. Working differently, as well as taking actions for change, is part of the broader work of social change, opening us to new possibilities of HOW we can go about remaking our world. When we work differently there is potential to deepen our own resilience and offer that back to the work over the longer term.
Work Load and Expectations in the International Development and Humanitarian Sector are high
We expect a lot of ourselves. This relates back to our passion and commitment. A lot is also expected of us. Many of the women I spoke to are working long days and weeks. At times they are doing what might be a number of different people’s jobs. Others are working in dangerous and tense situations. Many travel regularly and are aware of the extra toll travelling takes on their energy, work-life-balance and family life.
Resourcing issues in the sector compound these problems
Often organisations have less staff than they need to do the work they are trying to do. In particular the fact that many funders of our sector don’t want to pay for core costs and the adequate resourcing of people plays directly into the ‘must work hard’ mentality and the fact that many women I spoke to are doing work that is effectively ‘multiple jobs’. ‘Efficiency’ has become a buzzword and the understandable desire not to ‘waste’ resources become overplayed at the cost of realistic expectations of our time and energy. In fact, it is clear that if we are to sustain our work over the long term, investment in our people, resources to support them to work well and tools to help them prioritise their own wellbeing are critical. Sacrificing our people and pushing them harder and harder runs counter to our values and the change that we profess to seek in the world.
We are used to neglecting our Physical Needs
Most of our organisations have cultures which do not prioritise paying attention to and caring for our physical selves. But we find that our bodies (and not just our heads) need to come with us in this work (not that we can actually separate these things!). Neglect for our physical needs and capacities has been a key part of how we undervalue and under resource ourselves in movements and organisations working towards change and social justice in the world. We have perhaps been too much ‘in our heads’ and neglected the wellbeing of our bodies in pursuit of the imagined wellbeing of the world. The problem is that each of us must be well for all of us to be well and so running ourselves ragged is not the answer.
Organisational cultures often appear to run counter to the change we want to see
In many organisations working practices and cultures do not adequately reflect the change we want to see. For example, a specific problem in the International Development Sector has been the sense of an ‘old boys club’ culture which feels like it runs counter to much of the change we profess (as organisations and individuals) to be working towards. This manifests in a number of other ways including the fact that a disproportionate number of organisations are lead by men. Though women do much of the ‘labour’ in our sector, many of us still feel we operate in a hierarchy that doesn’t take our needs seriously. These realities of the culture of our organisations play against the things we feel committed to and often leave us feeling there is a gap between what our organisations profess to believe and how they act.
Balancing Family Life and other commitments with the work we are passionate about is difficult
Family life (particularly care for children) is an extra challenge for us as we negotiate our place in this work and our lives. Many women I spoke to found it hard to find time for things outside their work life. Regular travel tended to make them very focused on their work and make it hard to fit it other things they enjoyed and found relaxing. Family life compounded this. In some cases starting a family meant withdrawing from or rethinking a rewarding career, in other cases the desire to continue the work after children were born led women to stretch themselves ever thinner, juggling travel, very young children and the causes they felt passionate about. For a sector supposedly committed to mother and child health and women’s rights our approach to how women manage their work and their family life often feels shockingly inadequate.
The passion of our early career tends to lead us to burnout. We emerge from that better equipped.
A number of the women I spoke with, had, like me, experienced a ‘moment’ of burnout, or a recognition that, having invested very significant energy in their work in their teens and twenties, perhaps into their 30s, they began to reach a point where they knew that working so hard and pushing themselves so significantly was unsustainable for them, their health and if they had one, for their families. The women I spoke to tended to emerge from these “burnt moment’s” better equipped in some ways, having identified some strategies to manage this. I also noticed that they tended to emerge from them having side stepped in their career, so there was often a very real sacrifice implied in coping with these realisations. A sense of not being able to continue to do this kind of work, to this intensity, in this direction and that “something had to give”. This leads us to question whether things have to be this way. Is our sector setting women up for ‘burnout moments’ that they emerge from, while better equipped, less willing to progress in their leadership? What change do we need in our internal cultures to help us build a different kind of resilience, one that allows us to focus on structural change within ourselves that supports the structural change we are working towards in the world?
We know that there is more we could do to look after ourselves but ‘never seem to find the time’.
Almost every women I have spoken with over the past year expresses a knowing that there was more that she could do to look after herself. We are carrying within us then the knowledge about what we need. The shift needed is to practicing and implementing what we know. I see two sides to that shift. We can work from within, making small incremental changes ourselves, working differently and changing our habits, building our own resilience and modelling that to others. I also think our organisational cultures need to shift. Each of us choosing our own practices will contribute to this AND, we can work now on what is happening at the Team and Organisational level too.
Over the past year I have also been in touch with women working beyond the International development and Humanitarian sectors and, whilst this research summary focuses there, I have found plenty of anecdotal evidence that many of these patterns are more widespread amongst women leaders and women who are driven by a passion for their work in areas such healing professions and social enterprise.
We want to raise the profile of these issues and create conversations and actions that help make shift happen so that women who are passionate about creating change in the world can and do work in ways that nourish and sustain them.
MORE ABOUT THE REPLENISHMENT ROOM
Over the past two years I have developed a process to walk women through building awareness about these issues, focusing on what they want to achieve, developing their own strategies and habits to care for their wellbeing and developing an understanding of how to work together towards creating cultures where our wellbeing & impact can go hand in hand.
I facilitate an online community called The Replenishment Room (Formerly known as the Jijaze Community) that provides structured support designed to help women take what they know about self care (+ some extra suggestions and input from us) and apply it on a daily basis. In 2018 we are also offering a Mastermind Group in which we take a small, intimate group of conscious professionals and changemakers on a journey for three months to establish a deeper commitment to their own self-care and wellbeing for the longer term and work together to devise ways to challenge structures and have a greater impact on these issues. I can provide both Individual Coaching and Organisational Consultancy working on these issues in a way that is tailored to specific people and organisationstoo.