Simon Copland reminds us of the long history of social movement struggles for the right to rest – and why activists need to take our own advice.
This week I’m doing something that has made me anxious for months – I’m going on holidays. I will be turning my phone off, putting the out-of-office onto my email, and not thinking or looking about work or my activism for the entire time.
I am extremely excited and terribly anxious! For four weeks I’ll be missing out on important campaign actions and trainings and I’ll be letting my team, and our movement be one person down as I galavant around the world. I don’t think I should have to feel this anxiety, but it’s a feeling that the work culture in many social movements seems to actively foster.
After years working in social movements I have recently become acutely aware of our work culture. Working in party politics over the past six years I at times worked ridiculous hours – sometimes from six in the morning to ten or eleven at night. Now, working in the climate movement, I often receive emails at 2 or 3 am in the morning, and all across the weekend. I end up on phone link ups and meetings on every night of the week, and then campaign actions and trainings on the weekend as well. And whether it is my comrades working in unions or political parties, campaigning on asylum seekers or climate, I know many, many people who would literally work seven days away.
And it makes sense. The work we do is important and it is urgent. Whether it is saving the climate or getting rid of mandatory detention for asylum seekers, every day we don’t make progress is another day these tragedies continue. And I can see why so many of us are obsessed with working more and more. Every minute we don’t we don’t work, it can feel like we are letting the movement, and our future, down. It can feel like we are wasting time whilst urgent issues are left to flounder.
However, I think as progressive activists and movements we need to start to champion a different culture. We need to work on a culture that not only cherishes the very important work we do, but also the rest we need as well – the days off, the time spent with friends, and the holidays – the beautiful, enjoyable holidays.
Let’s get over the most obvious reason first. I could find many studies to back me up, but I think it is pretty obvious to say that rest and recuperation is essential for productivity. Without my sport, my beers with friends, and my occasional afternoons, days, weekends, weeks or even months off I know I would be completely useless at being a change maker in this world. Rest is our chance to recharge when we are tired – a chance to get ourselves ready to face the world once again.
But it’s not just about that. Rest isn’t just something we do to make us more productive for when we can back to the desk. Rest is also our right. And it is a right that progressive movements have been fighting for for decades.
The union movement has been a key instigator in demanding a focus on work-life balance; instituting the weekend, fighting for annual and sick leave and demanding a 38 hour working week. Our environmental movements have often focused on reducing our consumption and production cultures – directly linked to work. Our economic and social justice movements have spoken against using Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as our sole mechanism of a nation’s success, and have challenged the growth agenda.
Each of these are challenges to the work culture that dominates our society. Our movements, in many ways, are built on a recognition that rest is our right. A recognition that we are here on this planet to enjoy our lives – to do so with some basic values to underpin that – but to definitely enjoy our lives.
But unfortunately this isn’t a culture our movements support very well. We don’t have much of a culture of supporting and championing rest, recuperation and enjoyment. We often almost talk solely about our work, or even worse only meet and socialise in work. We don’t question those who work too long hours, and we don’t question ourselves when we ask people to do hours we shouldn’t be supporting. We demand a work-life balance for our society, but not for ourselves.
And unfortunately this can have shocking consequences. I am often stunned at how many people regularly suffer from severe burn out – often to the point where we never see them in our movements again. The ongoing work culture is simply not sustainable – at some point people need a break. What’s worse though is that we often seem to just accept burn out as inevitable. We treat people who have burnt out as if it was ‘just their turn’; not something that should upset and shock us. Our work culture has become so engrained that we are just accepting that it will eventually get us all.
If we want to have truly sustainable movements we cannot let that continue. We not only need our rest, but we have a right to it as well. It is part of us not only being happy activists, but effective ones too.
So I’m going to enjoy my holiday. I’m going to switch off from my work and enjoy some traveling. And I’m going to come back feeling even more energised to get back into it again. Rest is our right. As movements we need to remember that.