It’s taken nearly eight years to decolonize and deconstruct my own toxic work habits and extractive ways of relating to work - through this time I’ve come to understand (and make it my business to communicate) the enablers of work burnout and how collectively we can start to build affirming and wellbeing-oriented work cultures and businesses. Here I share my lessons from that journey.
It was pretty soon after I left my career in the aid sector and began running my own social enterprise and wellbeing business that I realised this was not the panacea to my woes.
This was understandably a shock. Through my fastidious study of self help books I had learned that all I needed to do to be happy was to figure out how to make money doing what I loved. Right?
So why wasn’t I blissfully happy?
The answer to this question is nuanced and complex - it requires us to look beyond the idea that wellbeing is any one individual’s responsibility. It requires us to understand the intersections of our work systems and our social systems - and how they privilege certain people and disadvantage others.
And it requires us to be open to the possibility that there might be a different way of holding work. Ways that are unbound from the historical underpinnings that continue to haunt us. Ways that are grounded in liberation, regeneration and equality.
Why wasn't I happy?
First and foremost, I wasn’t happy because even though what I was working on had changed, the way I was doing my work hadn’t.
It was still an adrenaline-fuelled, urgency-riddled affair involving lots of busy work. Even though I was now working relatively autonomously, I still experienced the same fear and terror that defined previous working environments - I had no boss, but I had internalised the expression of one and used it to punish, belittle and shame myself for not working enough, not knowing everything and not growing my business as fast as others could.
I would continually override my body’s signals to rest, putting my own needs for movement, fresh air, connection and creative expression at the bottom of my to do list.
Work was a distinct activity in my life around which everything else fitted - I couldn’t see then that, in fact, my work and life are distinctly and profoundly interwoven.
And even though I had changed locations of where I was working - and the job title that I referred to myself had changed - the relational trauma and conditioning that had shaped me remained. Which meant that I would fawn, contort and shapeshift continuously - to keep myself safe from rejection or shame.
Second, I wasn’t happy because the idea of ‘work’ was heavily laden with my cultural relationship to it. While I wanted ‘work’ to be a joyous, creative, connective experience - I carried around my work like a heavy burden - something that ‘had to be done’ before I could go and enjoy my life.
When I started to look into the history and etymology of work and how even our schooling shapes the way that we relate to our jobs and our work - it became incredibly clear exactly why it felt so lumpy.
Our financial systems - shaped through industrialisation and economic neoliberalism are designed to have the vast majority of folks working, paying taxes and generally struggling in order to benefit the few shareholders and stakeholders at the top (whom have often ascended on the coat tails of their gender identity, whiteness and educational privilege).
Our whole economies and the financial infrastructure and architecture that hold them up are built around an impossible concept of unfettered and linear economic growth. And the labour of humans and the resources of the earth are the cost of that growth.
We are sold a fantasy that if we just work hard enough, we might escape the claws of debt, of having to labour even when our bodies cannot.
But the dissonance is real.
At the same time as we cling onto this fantasy, we also see with our own eyes that for many folks who have experienced marginalisation, escaping will never be possible.
We all, I believe, need to ask ourselves whether this conceptualisation of ‘work’ is really the one we want to uphold? We need to hold with compassion the knowing that we all interact with these systems - uphold them in so many ways - while also envisioning a different future, a more resilient and regenerative future built on local economies.
I still wish I had a better word for ‘the things I do in order to exchange my skills in return for forms of currency’, but that is still a work in progress. Until then, I notice how my body feels when I say things like ‘I have to work’. Or ‘I’ll play with you after I finish my work’.
And I make choices to disrupt the known ways of working and being that are so utterly void of life and connection. I work when I have capacity to and rest when I don’t. I try and find places where my skills are valued rather than places where my weaknesses are belittled. Every time I think I need more planning, more strategy, more busy-stuff, I come back to simplicity.
I talk to my kids about the nuances of ‘work’ and how I listen to my body wisdom and the earth wisdom to help me find ways to meaningfully exchange resources with other humans in reciprocal ways. I fight and advocate within workplaces to create inclusive cultures of care - where all folks have a right to economic empowerment and self expression. I nap alot. And purposefully blur the lines between work, life, parenting and relationship. I understand the interconnection between all the parts - and I celebrate the fact that most of my ‘work’ happens as I’m living life. And creating things that I think are important even though I won't necessarily make money from them.
I avoid the urge to commodify everything. I tend to my shame about the ways that I have appropriated in the name of capitalism and try and do better.
I stay open to experimentation, to changing course, to allowing new passions to emerge and recede - like gentle waves on summer sand. I try and model a way of working that sidesteps hierarchy, comparison, competition - and instead values vulnerability, true expression and collaboration.
I believe as humans we are at our best when we are working together to create things, leveraging all the skills and passions and unique ways of being that exist in our communities. I believe we have a natural impulse and motivation to make things, to do things, and to learn things.
The question is - how do we harness our evolutionary intelligence, that desire to move us all forward, in ways that challenge rather than uphold extraction, unlimited growth and exploitation?