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  • Sarah Fritchey

In Justice-Centered Workplaces, Rest Must be a Priority

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

By Sarah Fritchey

May 1, 2021

Toxic workplace cultures can thrive in even the most progressive places. Sometimes mission-driven organizations are breeding grounds for employee overwork and burnout. As staff with care-giving goals look outwardly to serve their communities, their own physical and mental wellbeing may be compromised.

While there is no one-size fits all remedy for organizations seeking a justice-centered culture, leadership must take proactive measures to anticipate and prevent workplace burnout. I offer this five-step roadmap as a starting point for leaders and human resource professionals seeking to normalize rest and downtime within their workplaces.

First, make rest a requirement. Budget time for rest into your staff’s daily, weekly, and monthly work schedules. Set a standard of not taking on new work when you are at (or over) capacity and don’t have the means to bring on additional support. Check in with your employees often, asking them direct open ended questions like “do you feel overwhelmed with tasks that never seem to get done?” Listen to their responses, bring their feedback to your governance meetings, and take action.

Second, mandate rest by making it a policy. Include clear language in your employee handbook around the expectations and processes for requesting time off. Make room for a vision that is tailored to the specific workers in your organization. Consider implementing a self-managed paid time off policy.

Third, communicate this policy clearly to your employees, partners, boards, clients and audiences. Lead by example. Take time to rest, signaling to your employees that prioritizing rest is a marker of success. Ensure that outside parties who work with you understand and uphold your specific policies around rest. Set clear boundaries that protect your workers from overworking.

Fourth, hold yourself accountable for maintaining your policy of rest. Make a plan to review the time logs of your workers each month. If no one is requesting or taking time off, your policy is not working. Actively remind employees that they are violating work policy when they aren’t incorporating down time into their schedules.

Fifth, find like-minded organizations in your community that are also committed to rest. Partner with them to co-edit your employee handbooks, developing policies that understand a variety of rest-based needs. Share resources, knowledge and experiences with mission-aligned organizations who hear about your efforts and want to get involved. Together, you can begin to build a coalition, and as your rest-committed community grows, develop a system for its standardization.

Visionary organizations like W.A.G.E., (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), have models for standardizing workplace equity that can be researched, modified and adopted. Their fee calculator allows any organization to input their annual budget, and output a list of fees they should pay creatives for their labor. A “R.E.S.T.” version could output requirements for time off. Certification could be granted to organizations that demonstrate a long term commitment to rest, perhaps using a version of this five-step model as a basis for evaluation.

Over time, the goal is to ingrain rest and downtime as a discipline and a practice. Naturalized through ritual, this habit will be adopted and normalized by employees at levels of the organization. In the end, studies show that worker morale and productivity will actually increase across the board.

Already, I can feel the tide of neighboring organizations in New Haven making moves in this direction. On a recent panel organized by Adriane Jefferson, the Director of Arts Culture and Tourism for the City of New Haven, three cultural workers pondered what it would look like for their organizations to build budgets from their missions. They speculated, what if the things we spent money on were aligned with our core values and big picture goals? How would work time be spent differently than it is currently being spent? These are the hard questions that we must bring to the table as we define our mission-driven workplaces through a justice lens, remembering that we are simultaneously the inheritors of history and the inventors of our collective futures.

Rest is under theorized in business precisely because it is at odds with our inherited matrixes of productivity and profit. In American industrial history, we can look back to Fordism to see the insidiousness of its roots, which treated workers like human capital, the interchangeable parts of an automobile. We can go back even further to see how the founding of our country was made possible by the invention of a slave economy, which operated on the basis of death and its calculated expense. From Elizabeth Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, we see the ways capitalism continuously reinvents new forms of enslavement, hidden in plain sight, under different names and loopholes in our legal systems.

Worker exploitation thrives when it is silenced, driven by fear-based leadership, and made invisible, out of sight, out of mind. Worker exploitation is further obscured when it is rebranded through deceptive narratives that tout messages of optimism and hope. When we think back to some of America’s most popular worker slogans -- pull yourself up from your bootstraps (c.1834), a penny saved is a penny earned (c.1758), and America is the land of opportunity (an idea baked into the premise and rise of the country’s founding), we must pause and research the contexts in which they were created before taking them up. In the time of their writing, these slogans were explicitly not meant for everyone. They were intended to inspire free whites and immigrants to hustle, assimilate into whiteness, and invest their savings into private property and banks. They did not acknowledge the livelihoods, financial health or social mobility of enslaved, displaced and marginalized people, who, under law, were restricted from owning property, opening a bank account, and voting.

Today, the arts collective The Nap Ministry offers the habit of refusal as a solution for “deprogramming” American workplace culture from our historical inheritance of unregulated compulsory production and human exploitation. Their tag line could not be more clear: REST IS RESISTANCE. Instructing us to stop, they write, “This work is a social justice movement and we have never identified ourselves as being a part of the wellness industry. We are deeply committed to dismantling white supremacy and capitalism by using rest as the foundation for this disruption.” Following their advice, we might all begin to dismantle commonly held concepts of what workplace success looks like.

The truth is: overwork and burnout are characteristics of white supremacy workplace cultures, manifestations of temporal bullying under capitalism. Some symptoms are grounded in production metrics-- the valuing of “quantity over quality” and the understanding of “progress as more.” Other symptoms reside in human behavior -- “working with a sense of urgency”, and “striving for perfection”. If we want to rehumanize and liberate our workplaces, let’s start by making rest and downtime mandatory. And while we’re at it, we might begin to renovate some of those age old sayings. Business cannot continue as usual.

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Sarah Fritchey is the Talent & Operations Manager at The Narrative Project. She works to ensure that the agency’s day-to-day operations are rooted in anti-racist, socially-responsible policy, and expressed in TNP's intentionally defined work culture.

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