Resisting a Rest: How Urgency Culture Polices our Work

November 30, 2022

Full disclosure: this blog was supposed to be published last week. The stress had been building from the pressure I was putting on myself to complete my draft, while also being on the road this past month facilitating our storytelling workshops across the province. It was 9pm and I was tucked into a booth at a café in Antigonish staring at my computer screen, willing sentences to leap out of the messy ideas and bullet points. I had just driven two and a half hours. The session wasn’t until the next morning, but I needed to get work done. Finally, I took a pause. I realized I’m writing a piece on ‘Urgency Culture’ while the self-imposed urgency was creating a mountain of overwhelm (and, yes, I can laugh at the irony). This is just one example, but why does this keep showing up in our work even when we’re conscious of it?

Urgency Culture Serves and Protects

Colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy are all interconnected and our relationship with work is a product of oppression. Capitalism is rooted in dehumanizing and exploiting people for profit. We’ve been taught that we need to justify our existence with output, that we’re only valued if we’re producing – leading to urgency and grind culture, the mentality that we must always be filling our space with work to achieve capitalist accolades. I think of urgency culture as the “less conscious hustle culture” – a state of urgency applied to our day-to-day. But the result is nearly identical – we’re constantly in motion, always feeling behind, and in a state of overwhelm. 

Transformational work takes time and energy. How do you challenge the status quo when you’re just trying to keep your head above water? Urgency culture is sinister in the way that it wreaks havoc on rest and keeps us in the overwhelm, allowing the status quo (white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism) to thrive. These systems are dependent on the belief that we are our labour – that our work defines us. Maintaining the unsustainable pace of capitalism is intended to distract us from the urgent decolonizing and liberating work.  

Urgency culture often shows up in the impact space, and is just one symptom of capitalism and white supremacy culture, Below are some of the ways that urgency can show up in our work and how we can combat it. 

Urgency and Paternalism

In the Community Impact Sector there’s often an urgency to provide proof of production – which perpetuates the power dynamic between funders and the sector as well as within organizations. Funders who have economic power may have vastly different lived experiences and priorities than the communities they intend to serve. Urgency culture favours funder priorities, removing the time for relational work and needs assessments and instead jumping on activities that provide measurable results but may not be in the best interest of those being served. In a sector where there’s more equity-deserving people on the front lines versus in management positions, we need to ask who is setting the priorities and how is applying urgency to funder relationships affecting community health and what work is supported?  

The Promise of Next Time

Relational work and collaboration take time, and urgency culture is the antithesis of inclusion. It’s often the justification for efficiency, falling back to hierarchical decision-making without ethical consultation of those affected. It provides control and reinforces traditional management models with the top-down dictation of work. When urgency is applied, the result often is decisions being made unilaterally at the top without the consent, advice, and buy-in of the community and team on the ground. And it’s an excuse that we’re used to accepting. We speak the language of urgency. We accept production, quantity over quality, for the promised next time. Next time we’ll invite those communities. Next time we’ll include you in the conversation about your work. Next time we’ll consider accessibility needs.  

Burnout Accelerator: If Everything is on Fire, Nothing is on Fire

If no one has told you this yet, allow me: You’re not bad at prioritizing – you’re burnt out. We’re shapeshifters, pulled in many directions. We’re in a constant state of overlapping tasks and competing priorities as we push one thing out the door to immediately leap into the next. When do we stop to take a breath? This constant reactive state is overwhelming, leading to mental exhaustion and decision-fatigue. Remember the Pixar movie “The Incredibles” (2004)? In one scene, the villain says, “When everyone is super, no one will be” – okay, he was gearing up for a big evil scheme, but my point here is that if we make everything super (urgent), then nothing is. Urgency soon loses its significance if we learn to live with the constant state of fire. A lot of the work we do in the Community Impact Sector, especially the work on the ground, is urgent – but how do we separate the urgent from the artificial so we can better take care of ourselves and others?  

A two-panel image. First panel is a blue cartoon dog sitting with a cup of coffee in a living room that's on fire. The second panel is a close up of the blue dog surrounded by fire with the speech bubble that says, "This is fine."

Reinforces Ableism

Multi-tasker. Works well under pressure. Thrives in a fast paced environment. Urgency culture greatly privileges able-bodied, neurotypical, people who fit in or can more readily assimilate to colonial ways of working. By design, capitalism is an ableist, individualistic and hierarchical system that bases success on ability. Whether we are labeled “unproductive” or not is due to the perceived value of our labour. But with unrealistic expectations of production, capitalism is made unnecessarily difficult for disabled, chronically ill, and neurodiverse people. And with fast decision-making, quick turnarounds, and the stamina to continuously work attributed to good leadersthose forced to navigate (or barred entry from) inaccessible workplaces and those who process the world differently are disproportionately penalized.   

Privileges of White-led Organizations

In the same vein of quick turnarounds and ability to produce, urgency culture within the sector privileges organizations with greater resources and capacity to act. We know that Black and Indigenous-led and serving organizations are underfunded, stretched thin, and lacking the resources that white-led organizations are given. Thinking about the traditional funding system: tight deadlines, strenuous applications, stringent reporting – the organizations that are greater resourced have an advantage in securing funding and additional opportunities. This can often lead to white saviorism in the sector: organizations creating solutions for communities where they don’t have the lived experiences, know-how, or trusted relationships. 

Challenging the Status Quo

So where does urgency culture come from and who does it benefit? We’re told that we can win the game if we just work harder, put in more time, and strive for more. But what if we just… don’t? What if we consciously choose ourselves and our community. What if, despite what colonialism has deeply engrained in us, we choose our humanity.

Resisting Urgency culture

Combating urgency culture is both an individual and collective practice. I am incredibly fortunate to be part of an organization that is committed to finding new ways of working. IONS is by no means an expert (in fact in September’s blog, Annika Voltan writes about how external pressures and colonial ways of working forced us to stop and slow down) but we are willing to try. This isn’t small work. It takes time, energy, and each other. I can write a whole piece about it, but I’m still unlearning and practicing, but I’ve pulled together some considerations for resisting urgency culture.

      • Self-leadership. Take a pause when you start to feel the pressure of the day-to-day. Some cues are: “I have so much I need to get done”, “I don’t have time for that,” or “How do I do it all?” Reflect on where the pressure is coming from. How are you contributing to urgency culture in yourself and others? If something is a priority for you, is it for everyone else? Who is this going to affect if you don’t get it done? Challenge your own deadlines and expectations. Perhaps recalibrate and adjust your plan. Be gentle on yourself and your team.
         
      • Support from leaders. This mindset needs to be shared by leadership. This means that leaders are willing to slow down; they see boundary setting as healthy. They understand that things often take longer than anticipated, that everyone works at different paces, and they’re willing to collaborate to create accomodating work plans that are based on lived experiences and accessibility needs.
         
      • Stop glorifying busyness. This reinforces urgency culture, unhealthy work-life balance, and implies that those who aren’t “hustling” aren’t being productive. Not holding space for and encouraging conversations about the busyness has created a noticeable, healthy shift in our team culture.
         
      • Collective Practice. It takes a village. What is the organizational definition of urgency and what requires an urgent response? This is developed together with input at all levels and experiences and then practiced. Practice calling out urgency creep and pausing to determine the options and whether it requires escalation.
         
      • Rest Intentionally. How are we redefining productivity to include spaciousness, rest and reflection? How do we go slow to just go slow? Rest is a revolutionary, and one of the most powerful explanations I have heard came from this podcast “No More Grind: How to Finally Rest” featuring Tricia Hershey of the Nap Ministry. Some ways that IONS is intentionally prioritizing rest is with the 4-day Work Week and self-reflective, journalling days throughout the year.
         
      • Purposeful Work. Take the time to revisit organizational and personal values. What are you committed to? How is work selected and implemented – is it with a JEDDI lens? Is the work driven by purpose, or is it funder-driven? This could mean developing collaborative proposals, pushing back on the “quantity over quality” activities, or even saying no to some funding.
         
      • Inclusive decision-making. Exclusionary and rushed decisions can actually take more time in the long run as unseen issues or intrapersonal challenges may arise. At IONS, we’ve been restructuring how we work together toward peer support and accountability over hierarchy. We’ve been exploring practices like consent-based decision making, the advise process, and Brave New Work.

Our work is important – our livelihoods are important, but when you feel urgency in your day-to-day, show yourself grace, take a breath and ask yourself: Is this The Work?

Housing people is urgent. Bodily autonomy is urgent. Climate action is urgent. Decolonization, Black liberation, racial justice, disability justice are urgent. Taking care of each other and our planet is urgent. Dismantling oppressive systems is urgent.   

When we are exhausted and burnt out, we lack our gift to imagine, ideate, and create. It’s harder to reimagine new ways of working and being together. The constant state of busyness keeps us from dreaming and dismantling. Rest is resistance and slowing down is truly a radical, anti-capitalist practice.

Written by:

Lydia Phillip

Communications Manager

Lydia oversees IONS’ external communications, branding, social media, and website development. She creates content and contributes to IONS’ work through championing the sector through her power in writing and storytelling. 

10 Comments

  1. 30% of the people do 70% of the work – how does this fit. This seems true in most organizations, some people do not do as much as others.

    • I think it depends on what we’re defining as work or what labour is valued. There’s lots of invisible and undervalued work, and I agree that there is often a disproportionate amount of labour in the workforce. Thanks for the reflection Q! – Lydia

  2. This is a wonderful piece. We need more of this insightful and truthful education/information. Thank you Lydia.

    • I’m so glad it resonated! Thank you for the kind words. – Lydia

  3. I love this blog, but I’m not certain that “Maintaining the unsustainable pace of capitalism is intended to distract us from the urgent decolonizing and liberating work.”….. I don’t know that capitalism has the means to set this type of intension at all…….I think maybe we ourselves are so distracted by capitalism and what it requires of us, that we run out of time and miss our own intension-setting opportunities around ways to interrupt and change our current systems created by colonization, and then we don’t feel liberated and have no energy left for this liberating work….just my thoughts on this. Loved reading your blog. Keep going!

    • Hi Belinda, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and the kind words! I would definitely reccommend the podcast linked in the blog “No More Grind” featuring Tricia Hershey. They did a really beautiful job of speaking to the intention of capitalism as a system, one of my favourite podcast episodes. – Lydia

  4. A great message, well written. Thank-you Lydia. Erica Shea, CEO of New Dawn in Sydney, recently commented that their four day work week pilot was a success in part by taking out the busyness and focusing on the impactful, and I think that is consistent with IONS’ experience.

    • Thanks so much, Andre! Yes, the four-day work week has definitely been helpful in the process of priotizing rest. – Lydia

    • Thanks so much, Tyler! Glad to hear you’re sharing it around! – Lydia