Facts + Insights

Black Women and the Burnout Epidemic: The history of caring (Part 3)

November 18, 2021
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Welcome to the third 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. We suggest you read those before continuing here with part three.

In this post, we’ll dive deeper into the historical context and look at the contemporary cost of caring.

The history of caring

The Mammy Stereotype. Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Picture, Big Rapids, MI.

Black women have been associated with caring roles ever since the enslavement era. Stereotypical tropes such as the “Black Mammy” have shaped society’s view of the role of Black women. The Black Mammy depicts a Black woman who is woefully happy to serve her “master” and put his needs above her own. It was meant to assuage the guilt and tension felt by those who promoted and participated in perpetuating slavery.

Often working in tandem with this is the trope of the “Strong Black Woman,” a superhero who can handle any and all obstacles thrown her way without rest or support.

How these tropes continue to affect ACB women in the workforce today

This perspective of ACB women has pervaded the workforce and has made it so that employers and those in positions of power don’t offer the same support to ACB women as they do to their other employees.  As a result, we often feel overworked and underappreciated. For example, in a study conducted by the Gallup Center on Black Voices, only 33% of Black women felt like a valued member of their work teams, compared to 38% of White women and 42% of White men.

Society has never been able to shake these views. Most ACB women continue to work in the caring sector as pink-collar workers, such as in healthcare as nurses, social workers, and physicians aids, among others. In fact, currently one-third of Black women are employed in service, caring or frontline jobs compared to one-fifth of White women. What’s more, the work of ACB women goes beyond the work environment: they are often also the primary caregivers for their family members and households.

(Non-stop work + Providing around the clock care for others) - (Support + Time for self-care) = Burnout.

Considering this, the life of most of these women equates to something like: (Non-stop work + Providing around the clock care for others) - (Support + Time for self-care) = Burnout. Essentially, inequitable demands placed on ACB women leave them with a greater need for support and self-care while also leaving them with less access to or time for it.

Following in her footsteps: my personal encounters
with (un)caring work

When I think about ACB women and caring work, I can’t help but think of my grandmother.

Birchman, J. (2020). 3 Black women across generations . Hello Giggles.

The stories I remember most about my grandmother are the ones that were told to me about how hard working she was. Working multiple jobs and long hours, and then coming home and taking care of my grandfather and her six children. When she moved to Canada so that she could provide a better life for her children, she left them for two years while she worked cleaning other people’s homes and as a personal support worker.

Even in her physical absence, she was still tasked with caring for her family and putting her own needs last. This form of transnational care is not one that is unique to my family. Based on my own knowledge, I think that most ACB women have sent a barrel or large suitcase home along with some money transferred through a cash transfer service.

How Because She Cares captured this experience of caring

This was a form of caring brought up frequently by the Narrators of Because She Cares, an initiative that utilizes oral and performance-based methods grounded in Africentric worldviews to share the stories of ACB women living with HIV employed in Canadian AIDS Service Organizations (ASOs).

Many of the women were immigrants who also had to leave some of their family members behind to come to Canada for better work and other opportunities. Because She Cares explores this topic under the concept of “caring for others, caring for self” and oftentimes it circled right back to discussions of burnout. “Caring for others” was usually put before “caring for self.”

I take care of my family and myself, too.

In the poem, ‘I take care of my family and myself too’, Joy,* a Because She Cares Narrator, noted, “The money that I make from work? That goes to my family. Maybe I’ll send my son 100. My sister 100 too. Yes. To all of them. Then with what money I have left? I buy my groceries. I pay my bills. If I have some money left, I put it aside. I don’t spend that much money. The ASO has a food bank that I can use. I don’t spend much on entertainment. So, I’m sharing my money, like three times. But I’m sharing it wisely. I am taking care of my family and myself too.

Reflecting on the way that my mom describes my grandma’s state of mind during her final years of living, it can only be described as burnout. This occurred 22 years before COVID, a time when everyone became more familiar with that concept—something that we’ll discuss in our next post in this series.

The cycle of the cost of caring continues today as ACB women deal with the stress of being caregivers around the clock at work, in their communities and at home, with time and resources for self-care continuing to be elusive for them.

What's next?

Stay tuned for the next post in this series, where I’ll be taking a deeper look into some of the impacts that COVID-19 has had on many ACB women. I’ll be looking at the cost of caring for many women employed in health and/or caregiving roles, and also talk about some solutions.

 *Name changed for privacy and confidentiality

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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