“I am in awe of how you sustain your energy by attending all these events across the world while leading a whole team and its work in India. It is quite remarkable. What is the secret ingredient?” I asked.
She said, “I’m dying doing this, and it is unsustainable. There’s no secret ingredient. I’ve sacrificed my wellbeing to be able to do this, and I wouldn’t recommend it.”
This was my conversation with Jigyasa Labroo, a friend I hold in high regard. She is also the Founder and CEO of Slam Out Loud, a growing nonprofit that uses the power of arts to build creative confidence skills in children from disadvantaged communities.
Listening to Jigyasa’s response, a part of me was relieved she was not superhuman. Had I not asked her the question and relied simply on her social media posts, I would have never known what she was going through. I was grateful for her vulnerability. She shared her struggles with juggling multiple internal priorities and external opportunities. She made visible some of her beliefs and considerations behind her choices.
I asked Jigyasa, “Why don’t you make this side of your story visible to the world too?” She responded, “I want to, but I need to make time for it.” This article emerged with her consent and the sparks that the conversation offered.
A Growing, Worrying Trend
I caught Jigyasa on a downward slope. She was aware of her depleting reserves and was committed to creating time to replenish them. She was conscious of her style of work which has bursts of high intensity followed by periods of restoration. However, her approach is not the norm. Many social impact professionals struggle with catching themselves on their difficult phases and making space for their well-being.
Numerous friends and colleagues in the social development space have confessed their wellbeing-related challenges. I experienced burnout early in my journey in the sector and had to recalibrate my pace, practices and expectations. The Failure Files series by India Development Review and the research published by the Wellbeing Project globally offer plentiful evidence of the problem (they also present the potential of acknowledging and working on well-being).
Development professionals in our workshops often rate their well-being on a 7 or 8 on a ten-point scale, with 10 indicating “I am happy and well.” You may think they are doing okay. However, when asked about their dominant emotions, over 80% of them report fear, anger, anxiety or stress. Negative emotions, when unaddressed over prolonged periods, can erode one’s mental and physical health. There may be a crisis brewing.
Working Towards Well-being
Given our current cultural context, prioritising well-being takes work. Many prevalent narratives justify deprioritising it:
- Inner well-being? What? What is that wishy-washy thing?
- My stakeholder’s needs matter most above everything else.
- Well-being isn’t directly connected to social change.
- If you ask for help for well-being, you are weak.
- Well-being is a personal prerogative — there is little organisations can do about it.
Some organisations are beginning to recognise this trend within their teams. Partnerships for mental health counselling and preventive support are growing. Spaces to check in with their employees as whole people and nurture relationships among them are commonly reported in their structures. Employee policies are being made supportive of mental health needs. These are small steps in the right direction, but more is needed.
Until we cultivate wellbeing-centered cultures, all other inputs may not add up significantly in people’s everyday experiences. Some organisations in India are reimagining and co-evolving their vision and mission, culture and values, people practices and systems to integrate well-being. In my subsequent post, I will share my conversation with social entrepreneurs attempting to embody the answer.
Social changemakers do important work. However, they cannot pour from an empty cup. Like Jigyasa, they need to make space for rest and restoration. Creating this space is as much their organisation’s responsibility as it is their responsibility.
The question I am holding is: How can we weave change-making organisations and their ecosystem in a regenerative way, so that we heal both our inner and outer worlds? How can we create environments that nurture wellbeing for self, others and our society?
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