Recently on Twitter and Facebook I’ve seen more articles on taking care of ourselves and the practice of “self-care” in academe, which makes a lot of sense at a time of year when (in the Northern hemisphere) the combination of colder weather, anxiety and exhaustion at the end of the semester—and the potential added stress of the holiday season—means that many academics and students are feeling worn out and in need of a break.
But when I see these articles and blog posts that take up the concept of self-care, I can’t help also thinking of (and comparing to) the articles from business publications that frame some of the same activities in a completely different way: from the viewpoint of employers, where our wellness is too easily seen as valuable only if it leads to improved productivity and an increase to the bottom line. These latter “advice” pieces are also regularly shared on social media.
In this post I’m going to look at the issue of how those very different “framings” overlap and intersect: what’s the connection between self-care and the “care work” that is done every day, often invisibly and without compensation? How does all this care work happen in the context of managerial governance with its imperative to productivity—and in a competitive academic culture? Is it also possible that “wellness” and related practices can work more in the interests of employers than employees, transferring the responsibility to change problems in the workplace and its culture?
For a start, care is work, as an entire body of academic research can attest; this work is also gendered, disproportionately performed by women. Women are already engaging in this “extra” work both in professional settings and in their personal lives, because it’s what’s expected of them. Tina Barnes-Powell and Gayle Letherby write that “[b]oth in the wider community and in the communities of higher education (whether provided by women or men), ‘care’ is feminized and undervalued.” Care work is often invisible and informal work, present and necessary but largely unacknowledged in everyday life.
For scholars who hail from groups traditionally marginalized in academe, (mutual) care is even more crucial, since working in the institution so often feels more like trying to work against it—both for themselves and for their students. That accumulation of daily experiences is a process of sedimentation, a psychological, emotional and physical burden generated by the structural gaps those scholars are expected to work to fill in themselves. If “diversity work” is also care work—work that can’t be done by committee or accomplished with a policy—it is beyond the logic of institutional rewards.
The concept self care used in this context has its roots in Black feminist thought, exemplified in the well-known words of Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” As Sara Ahmed explains in her post on “Self-care as warfare”, this is radical because it involves caring for one’s self when the (social) world daily denies one access to that care. The elements of race and gender are key to the analysis, because of the performance of care for others that is expected of Black women, the discrimination they face, and the low value placed on their lives and work: “some of us, Audre Lorde notes were never meant to survive.”
Lorde’s work shows “how structural inequalities are deflected by being made the responsibility of individuals,” and we can see this pattern also in current discourses about workplace stress and mental health. For example, I wrote “Beyond puppies and yoga” to critique the tendency to individualize the “solutions” for the effects of systemic changes to (and problems with) how we live and work, including in academic institutions; in another previous post I discussed how this individualistic framing is reflected and reinforced in media coverage and advice columns about mental health. No amount of tending to the self can adequately compensate for the broader lack of access to mental health resources for those who need them, or indeed for the effects of discrimination and economic inequality on people’s health.
In the media articles we see now, this care for the self is re-articulated through the overarching, individualized logic of productivity. Examples show that a certain level of stress and anxiety is deemed to be fair and “natural,” but that we can manage it ourselves by taking control with advice and adopting appropriate practices. Naps, we’re told, are a good thing because they increase productivity (and sleeping close to your work has never been easier!)—while the debate about how much sleep we “need” rages on, because sleep, of course, is not (in itself) productive. Happiness itself can be calculated as another part of the equation that leads to more productivity. The Onion’s parody of the advice of “wellness experts” only works because we’re so familiar with the content and tone of said advice and the context in which it’s offered.
A useful example of this is the concept of “mindfulness” that is now regularly discussed in business magazines and mainstream media advice columns, having developed as a trend after gaining popularity in Silicon Valley. Zoë Krupka writes that “pasteurised versions of the ancient practice of mindfulness are now big business,” but they are about fixing “not so much what ails you, but what is ailing those who depend on you.” Using mindfulness as a tool to manage stress and increase innovation and productivity doesn’t get at the underlying problem, which is where the stress is coming from, why the work is so stressful, and how much stress people have to deal with (a few more critiques, if you’re interested, here, here, here and here). The strategic application of mindfulness is not a way to address overwork and unhealthy conditions in the workplace, and it places the responsibility for sustaining those conditions directly onto individuals.
These examples show how something that has a great deal of potential to be positive, can be reinterpreted through the lens of economization and enfolded in its logic. Mindfulness really does have benefits; and sleep, healthy food, exercise, and so on, are things we need in order to be healthy, things that improve our lives. It’s more the conflation of our lives and health with the needs of our employers that is potentially a problem, one that’s particularly prevalent in academe, but certainly not only there.
Robin James gets to the heart of this problem by making a distinction between “self-care as surplus-value producing work” or “resilience,” and “guerrilla self-care” (I recommend you read her post on this). The former, argues James, “is not about personal healing: resilient self-care is just another, upgraded way of instrumentalizing the same people” in the service of the same structures that caused them stress in the first place. It’s not “about cultivating what you need, it’s about adapting to dominant notions of success.” Guerrilla self-care, like the “subversive self-care” discussed here by Shanesha Brooks-Tatum, is a means of pushing back against destructive systemic problems as well as alleviating their effects on us.
This is why it’s important that we acknowledge care as work, which is a fundamental element of relationships and organizations, yet exists outside the “value” that matters in a market. The issue with care work, for the self and others, is not that it needs to be done at all but more that some people are expected to do it or compelled to do it—while others can take it for granted that the work will be done for them (by the institution or by other people in their lives). This is also why each of us needs to think through our unique position in relation to these institutions, their histories and their current priorities. Each of us will be able to do different things to contribute in this context. For example, learning to “say no” to extra uncompensated work is a lauded practice, but not everyone is in a position to do this without negative consequences. Those who can, need to make sure the work they say “no” to is not simply downloaded onto others who can’t refuse.
In this context it is radical to resist working on ourselves for the sole purpose of producing value for a “greedy institution,” in a competitive market for stable paid employment. Can care work become radical, resistant, in a system that attributes no value to it yet cannot function without it? Instead of (ironically) individualizing our problems and expecting people to deal with them through technologies of self-management, we need to acknowledge — and keep re-acknowledging — structural problems including those that create stressful, unhealthy workplaces. We also need to de-individualize our means of response so that the burden does not fall, as it has done and still does, on those already most affected by systemic injustices; otherwise we’re merely re-inscribing the things we claim to critique, both to our own detriment and to other people’s.