Why self-care, squad care and social justice have to be a part of your rest strategy.
Coined by Dr. Stacey Chimimba Ault in early 2020, Restful Leadership is a relatively new concept in the world of leadership and management. Restful Leadership is an antiracist, trauma informed and human centered approach to being well at work. It prioritizes the well-being of individuals and centers the importance of rest in order to rejuvenate, and recover from stress and exhaustion. Restful leadership recognizes that, especially for QTBIPOC (Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous & People of Color) folks, work can be traumatizing and stressful and that individuals need to take care of themselves to be effective leaders. Most importantly, Restful Leadership is not just about individual self-care, but also about eliminating racism, white supremacy culture, workplace trauma, and worker exploitation. By reframing burnout as worker exploitation, restful leadership recognizes that the systems in which we work often place unreasonable demands on individuals (especially Black women).
Audre Lorde's 1981 essay "The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism" is a powerful example of how workplace trauma and exploitation affect historically marginalized folks, specifically Black women. Lorde writes about the anger that Black women feel as a response to the intersection of racism and sexism in their lives, including in their workplaces. She describes how Black women are often expected to carry the burden of emotional labor in their workplaces, which can lead to burnout and exploitation. Our parent organization The Race and Gender Equity (RAGE) Project was born out of this anger. As Lorde writes:
"Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change."
It is important to recognize, anger is a powerful tool in transformational and liberatory work. It is also heavy and can be exhausting to carry.
Kimberle Crenshaw's concept of intersectionality (1991) highlights how multiple forms of oppression, such as racism and sexism, intersect and compound to create unique experiences of discrimination and exploitation for individuals who hold multiple marginalized identities. This concept is particularly relevant to the workplace, where individuals who hold multiple marginalized identities face unique challenges and obstacles that are not experienced by others. The Restful Leadership framework uses an intersectional lens to examine and promote workplace wellbeing.
In the Restful Leadership framework, the elements of self care, squad care and social justice work together to create an holistic approach to leadership that takes into account the well-being of individuals, their communities, and the wider world.
image of assorted plants inside an office
Self Care is a critical component of Restful Leadership. Burnout is at a record high. It affects many workers, especially those in high-stress, emotionally laborious industries like healthcare, social work, and education. Burnout can lead to physical and mental health problems, decreased job satisfaction, and decreased productivity. Restful Leadership works reframe burnout as worker exploitation, recognizing that the systems in which we work often place unreasonable demands on individuals without providing adequate support. Restful Leadership coach, Dr. Addie with Unleashed You shares how one of her students uses the term burned-through to describe the negative impact the system has on one's wellbeing.
By prioritizing self-care, Restful Leadership can help individuals avoid burnout and stay healthy and productive. Self care practices that restful leaders use include using their PTO, taking breaks, setting boundaries, and engaging in activities that bring joy and fulfillment. Many leaders create rituals and routines that allow them to listen to their bodies, exercise, go outside, eat a nutritious meal away from their desk, and close their eyes for a 20 minute nap when they are tired. When leaders prioritize their own self-care, they set an example for their teams and create a culture of care that benefits everyone.
Squad care is another important element of Restful Leadership. It recognizes that individuals are not just independent agents, but are connected to others in their communities and networks. In particular, squad care draws on the history of community care in black feminist thought, which emphasizes the importance of collective action and support.
As Melissa Harris-Perry argues in her article "Squad Care Is the New Self-Care" in Elle magazine (2019) squad care includes building supportive relationships with colleagues, friends, and family, and working together to support each other in times of need. This can include providing emotional support, helping with practical tasks, and advocating for each other in the workplace. Community care in the workplace allows people to recognize how their access, or lack thereof, to rest impacts others. Several Black female leaders we work with describe wanting to prioritize rest for their staff, however, share concerns that other people resting results in more work for them. Squad care recognizes the importance of working together to ensure everyone access the rest they need. And, by prioritizing squad care, restful leaders can create (and model) a culture of mutual support that benefits everyone.
Finally, social justice is a key component of restful leadership. This recognizes that leadership is not just about individual success, but about creating a better world for everyone. Social justice includes working towards liberation and equity and advocating for the rights of historically marginalized communities.
By incorporating social justice, and collective action into Restful Leadership, leaders can become agents of transformative change. Creating space to reimagine, dismantle and rebuild is paramount in modeling social justice in the workplace. Leaders can advocate or create policies that support historically and systemically marginalized communities and workers; work to dismantle systemic oppression, increase pay transparency and sustainable workflows; and work to advance inside:outside change making strategies. All of these examples promote a more rest-filled environment.
Restful leadership has the potential to be a powerful tool for promoting well-being and creating more equitable workplaces. However, it's important to recognize that not all rest practices are created equal. In particular, if restful leadership is not centered on the experiences and needs of those who have been historically marginalized, then it risks perpetuating existing inequities. Think equity over equality here.
Black and Indigenous women (including trans women, disabled women, queer folk, youth & elders) often face unique challenges and stressors in the workplace, such as discrimination, microaggressions, and lack of support. Restful Leadership that doesn't take into account diverse identities and experiences can end up prioritizing the needs of those who are already in positions of power and privilege.
To ensure that restful leadership is truly equitable, it's essential to center the needs of those who have been historically marginalized. It means recognizing the intersectional nature of marginalization and creating rest practices that are responsive to the specific needs of different groups, and that are designed with input from those communities and workers.
While restful leadership can be a powerful tool for promoting well-being and creating more equitable workplaces, it's important to ensure that it centers the experiences and needs of those who have been historically marginalized, excluded, and exploited. By incorporating an intersectional approach and recognizing the unique challenges and stressors faced by different groups, Restful Leadership can become a tool for promoting greater equity and justice in the workplace.
Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299.
Lorde, A. (1981). The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism. In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (pp. 124-133). Crossing Press
Harris-Perry, M. (2019, January 30). Why We Need 'Squad Care' Not Self-Care. Elle. Retrieved from https://www.elle.com/life-love/a25913121/squad-care-melissa-harris-perry/