Facts + Insights

Black Women and the Burnout Epidemic: Bridging coping, resilience and “care-full” work (Part 4)

November 25, 2021
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Welcome to the fourth post in our series on Black women and the burnout epidemic. In the previous posts, we first introduced you to the concept of burnout and how it affects African, Caribbean and Black (ACB) women uniquely, then in the second post, I shared more about my personal experiences. In the third post, we considered the historical context and its contemporary implications. We suggest you read those before continuing here with part 4.

Let’s talk about the ‘r’ word. Resilience. I feel that as an ACB woman this word has been weaponized against me to essentially silence the pain that has accompanied some of my experiences in the world, especially in academia and the workforce. I know that I’m not alone. The resilience of ACB women is often correlated with the strong black woman/superwoman trope discussed in part three of this blog series. Society seems to use the term as a way to say that ACB women can easily adapt and recover from any obstacle that comes their way simply because they are resilient. It’s almost like we are being told to “Just be resilient. Just recover. Just adapt. Just survive”, as if it were a simple answer to (what the world views as) our simple problem.

Just be resilient. Just recover. Just adapt. Just survive.

I want to reclaim this word. I strongly believe that in the midst of our trauma, we should aim to move from just coping or handling stressful events and negative experiences to a state of resiliency, which often involves adapting to and recovering from these events.

Because She Cares: Shifting from resilient to “care-full”

I had the opportunity to speak with the founder of Because She Cares (BSC), Lori Chambers, about the original Because She Cares study findings and she had much to say about rectifying some resilience-related terminology. Instead of resilience, throughout her work with Because She Cares, Lori uses the term "care-full," as it pertains to both gathering the necessary resources in support of mental, physical, psychological and social well-being. The use of the term “care-full” also acknowledges the cautionary nature of care-seeking when working in the HIV service sector as people living with AND working in HIV.

Within the original BSC findings, care-full work is defined as "creating a caring work environment, or the processes that create or foster a workplace that cares for ACB women living with HIV."

These processes can be:

  • personal (i.e., self-care);
  • interpersonal (e.g., supportive activities conducted by work colleagues or community members);
  • organizational (e.g., introducing workplace supports or accommodations);
  • institutional (e.g., addressing unconscious biases or discriminatory practices that are embedded or enacted within HIV service work); or
  • structural (e.g., advocating to address structural barriers that impede the health and well-being of ACB women living with HIV who work in AIDS and allied service organizations).

Some common themes that appeared in many of the BSC Narrators’ stories were drawing support from people who had similar experiences as them (e.g., their "sisters" or other racialized women living with HIV who worked in the sector), or creating community care systems amongst people who recognized their unique experiences of HIV-service work as Black racialized women.

Another common narrative thread in Because She Cares was referring to the past “back home,” a time in which the women felt supported in their HIV-related work as people living with HIV. Back home, the women engaged in grassroots activism, served as community mentors, were surrounded by their families (by love or blood), and found purpose in their work—whether that was in or outside of HIV service work. The question that remains is: how can these "back home" forms of care be realized in the current Canadian work context?

In the Narrators’ stories, care-full work emerged in the presence of others; care was collective, interactive and a reciprocal activity. For example:

  • people came together to provide instrumental care for others in the community (e.g., arranging a funeral, collectively caring for someone who is sick, raising funds for people in precarious financial situations);
  • people provided informal forms of mentorship in support of someone's formal employment;
  • people engaged in local and transnational advocacy and activism, and connected with co-conspirators they trust to enact efforts, and;
  • people organized and hosted community meetings to address community concerns (e.g., death of a community leader to collectively grieve, address workplace concerns that have broader implications).

As we learn from the experiences of others, let's move away from terms that put the onus on the individual to adapt to adverse situations or thrive despite them, and let’s instead make a collective effort to ensure that we emphasize the well-being of ACB women. Together we can care-fully craft environments where the mental health of ACB women doesn’t suffer. Instead of feeling burnt out, ACB women feel rejuvenated, charged up, and ready to be the change that our communities need.

In the final post in this series, I’ll discuss the historical contexts of ACB women in the caring role, the contemporary cost of caring, and experiences of burnout during COVID-19. Stay tuned on The Positive Effect.

This blog post was contributed by Teresa Bennett, a REACH Nexus Research Student. Teresa holds an Honours Bachelor of Science (Health Sciences) degree from Wilfrid Laurier University.

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