Workplace support in socially engaged work
At SIX, we recently introduced a team support session in which we could block a time in our calendar and invite team members along to help process some of the major events happening in the world. If I am particularly affected by a world event, I could request support from my team to talk about the situation. If everyone is busy, I would have the time for myself to reflect.
This conversation came about at team meetings as we talked about wildfires, earthquake, pandemic and the worsening Afghanistan situation (back then). Major events all across the world have had an impact on our emotional wellbeing — this much was evident as we started the particular team meeting on a depressing note. As we processed the shock and grief of natural and man made disasters, we thought about how nice it would be to have time and space to express and process our emotions altogether as a team. So this initiative came along and I requested the very first team support session on Afghanistan.
Two years ago, I had the opportunity to work with groups of refugees in France through Medécin Sans Frontière (Doctors without Borders) and a European project. When the situation in Afghanistan hit the news, I reached out to my friends and asked if they were okay. Their responses went from shock and panic to exasperation and despair. As the situation rapidly worsened, I came across social media posts that could potentially help Afghans in the country. I conveyed the information but most of them do not read English and for some of them, they were still struggling to master the french language. I ended up trying to collect information from them through several phone calls to draft emails that I could send to different embassies and emergency contact email addresses. Days passed and there was no response from any of the emails. I started scouring the net for more information, in between my work and time differences. Phone calls and messages went past midnight and I often ended up in bed at 3am in the morning. It was physically and emotionally exhausting as our hopes were dashed, one by one with the evacuation of foreign troops.
When I requested for the team support session, I was feeling burnt out, apologetic, sad, angry — a mess of emotions from hearing first and second hand accounts of the violence happening in Afghanistan. The fear and desperation brushed off me and I felt bad that I was in a safe place and couldn’t do more. During the session, I shared what I was going through and asked what we could do individually as citizens and professionally as an organisation. We talked through the possibilities and limitations, we shared experiences and learnings. Finally, the team ended up with a list of what they could do to support me — contacts to put me in touch with, the convening of an action learning group of refugee support practitioners and support on writing an article about it.
This brings up the question: How supported are social practitioners working with heavy social, political and environmental issues? How much care are we giving to our own people in this sector and to ourselves in difficult situations? How often have we burned out and how many have had to quit altogether?
In 2017, I started INSEP (International Network for Socially Engaged Practitioners) to support artists who were brave enough to take on social challenges and call that their mission. The twenty-two year old me back then was ambitious and clueless. I wanted to do a global mapping of artists doing socially engaged work. I wanted to provide resources and case studies for practitioners. I wanted to organise monthly support sessions and cross sector connections. I had no funding and was barely able to get by myself, juggling several part time jobs to pay my rent in London. But I still tried anyway and burnt out many times. I watched as my peers in the network burn out, recover and burn out again. I wanted to support people but often felt beyond my capacity to do so as I dealt with my own set of emotional toll finding paid work while working on my projects with vulnerable communities.
Beyond fancy social impact competitions and social enterprise investment funds, who is supporting the hardworking civic organisers and community builders who don’t have scalable business ideas? Are we giving enough care to the carers?
The steps that the SIX team took helped me transition back into my reality and to be honest, I was not expecting this level of support. Work in the social sector can feel very solitary, especially when you work as an independent artist or don’t have a budget to hire team members. For the first time in a long while, I felt like I could fall on a web of support when I’m tired without having to reach too far to get to the support I needed.
My podcast episodes you might be interested in:
A moment for Afghanistan on Onions Talk podcast
Funder's perspective: Firetree philantropy and experimental funding (Touches on the burnout that practitioners go through and opens up conversations on funders' role in acknowledging it and better supporting field workers)