I recently had a scary episode with a stress induced migraine that mimicked a stroke. I share this to make the point that prolonged stress can do a number on our physical health and, during this eternally long pandemic experience, we can all agree that every single person on the planet is experiencing some degree of chronic stress. People who have worked at the front lines of this pandemic, (including therapists who are emotional frontline workers), are burnt out. Most of us feel worried about abandoning our posts because we realise that our ethical responsibility to serve often trumps our own needs. This is made far worse by the prevailing view that “overworking” and “working well under pressure” are somehow indicators of success and ambition however, this is a complete falsehood.
The reality is that people need rest. This is why in most countries of the world, there are laws around ensuring that employees get time off to recharge. However, in many industrialized countries, there is an implied culture of discouraging people from taking this rest. Stupid adages like “if your company can do without you for a week, you aren’t necessary”, promote a culture of fear around being “dispensable” and therefore likely to be laid off if you take rest. This is why it is commonly known that most Americans (our Southern neighbours), do not take their vacation time. In Japan, there is a word for “death by overworking”, (karoshi) the existence of which is alarming. In Canada, the average worker receives only 10 paid vacation days per year which according to Press Progress, is the second to last out of 21 OECD countries in North America, Europe and Asia. This is NOT good.
This is especially true for people of colour who also have the mindset referred to as “Hustle Culture”. For BIPOC populations specifically, this is a serious problem because racial stereotypes persist about our “inherent laziness” which dissuades us from taking the necessary rest simply because people assume that something is wrong with us for wanting a break. I have had several clients, (especially Black women), who tell me they envy the boldness of their white counterparts in taking “stress leave” and “mental health days” not to mention their vacations. They elaborate by saying that even when their supervisors tell them “it’s ok to take time off”, they still feel as though they will be punished for actually following through later. It upsets me every single time I hear this especially when they go on to tell me that our enslaved ancestors didn’t have the option for rest or, that their parents cannot understand why they need time off since they never took a day off their entire lives. As Tiana Clark states here in her 2019 article “the truth is, I don’t feel like I am allowed to be tired”. This idea that somehow, it is wasteful and entitled to take necessary rest is an idea that as BIPOC’s we MUST dismantle especially since most BIPOC face a number of tiring microaggressions in the workspace all the time.
Added to this already upsetting situation is the fact that people who are immigrants or temporary foreign workers face even greater pressure to work as hard as they can under less than ideal circumstances, (as is evident from the reports related to migrant workers to Canada ), and their treatment during COVID-19. They pay into Employment Insurance, but cannot access it if they lose their jobs. The wider implication of this is that one’s capacity to apply for Permanent Residency is compromised because the government does not want applicants to access social services prior to it being granted even though the person is paying into them. The manner in which this category of migrants to Canada is treated when seeking Permanent Residency is also a serious problem as there is a requirement to show a certain number of hours of work amidst ever-changing immigration requirements. A simple Google search of “migrant workers Canada” will turn up dozens of articles critiquing the way they are handled by the system.
Even those who came here using other categories of immigration often feel as though they have to work twice as hard to achieve anything in Canada as many of them have to remit money to relatives in our countries of origin. These relatives often do not understand or care about the financial and emotional impact of their demands on the person who has migrated as they have no concept of the cost of living conditions here in Canada. This means that the immigrant often not only faces the racist view among Canadian born people that they are “stealing their jobs”, they also have to handle the bottomless pit of need and expectations from their relatives back home. Added to this fact is the reality that limited access to any social services in their home country often conditioned them to work very, very hard and ignore rest so that they can avoid financial ruin and gain stability.
In my practice as a therapist of colour, (and an immigrant myself), a large percentage of my clients are immigrants of all shades, genders, orientations, religions and nationalities. We constantly have to talk about the “immigrant mentality” and how it pushes us to succeed in our new country but, that this is a double-edged sword in that it leads to a period of poor life/work balance. Most report feeling trapped, like permanent outsiders under constant pressure to “make it” in a system stacked against them.
Articles with titles like “Adopt an Immigrant Mindset to Advance Your Career” and “Want to Get More Done and Be More Successful? Adopt an Immigrant Mentality” glamorize the overworked, “will do anything to survive” phenomenon that may be true for many immigrants though immigrants are by NO MEANS a monolith. For immigrants, there is an expectation that we will accept horrible work conditions and have no rights to “build a better future”. The wider impact of this is that most locally born people don’t care about the concerns we face as they assume, understandably but incorrectly, that we will find a way to pull ourselves up by our proverbial “bootstraps”. However, this is very hard to do in a country where there is a hardening of hearts towards the immigrants necessary to keep Canada running. This is made very clear here.
Ultimately, we cannot talk about self-care without looking at the fact that the ability to engage in it effectively is often tied to economic privilege. If you are able to afford a gym membership, have access to extended health benefits, can afford child care, have a job that covers more than your basic living expenses, and the ability to take paid time off, you are in the position to prioritize rest. Many people simply cannot afford this. Often, people whose parents could not afford to take time off but have the ability to do so themselves feel a lot of guilt about actually resting. In order for the society to be healthier and happier, we have to change this mindset.
Firstly, everyone should commit to taking their vacation time. Not only is it essential to your well-being but, if all employees do so, employers cannot subtly pressure people not to take it. That means that the whole company culture will have to change. COVID-19 is the first time in modern history where workers have the power to advocate for themselves. This article in Forbes Magazine explains the current phenomenon dubbed “The Great Resignation” beautifully. Employers have to respond favourably or watch their businesses fold for lack of a workforce.
Secondly, we need encourage our children to break the cycle of working to death by explicitly encouraging them to rest. It also means modeling that for them as best we can in our current situations. This is especially true for Black women who often bear a disproportionate level of responsibility in their families and jobs along with being paid less than their white counterparts.
Finally, we as immigrants need to be far more transparent with our relatives back home about the actual reality of living in a first world country. Their distorted perceptions of what our lives are like are based far more on television than they are in reality simply because we as immigrants do not share our hardship. This is part of the reason that those with dependents in our country of origin are always the first people contacted when money is needed by our relatives. It is up to us to set boundaries with them as much as we can so that we minimize the level of responsibility we take on for the lives of others.
Having recognised that I am tired, I am now prioritizing rest and recharging. I am hopefully modeling this better for my clients than I was six months ago. May we build on the momentum of the Great Resignation and take the steps necessary to advocate for ourselves. Immigrant or not, we all need periodic rest. If we don’t take it while we are alive, we could end up resting in eternal peace from overworking.