What Stresses You Out?

April 7, 2013

I think that my job is stressful.  And I think that too many social entrepreneurs are not honest and open about how this stress manifests itself.  For a variety of reasons, the “myth of the social entrepreneur” has emerged, tying itself essentially to the passionate, incredibly hard-working, charismatic individual that will do whatever they can to do work that they consider to be game-changing.  Some of this is accurate.  But there are real costs involved.  I’m interested in exploring these more, and I’m interested in having a more real and open conversation about it.  Yes, we are trying to do good work.  But at the same time, there are backstories that eat at our very being.  We never talk about those stories. Let’s.

But I also want to open a conversation that acknowledges that social entrepreneurs are not the only people that have stress in their lives.  The vast majority of us have received excellent educations, receive the support of tremendous and influential backers, and, candidly, were we to fail, we, personally, would be okay.  The stress that emerges is more about advancing, sustaining, and growing our organizations.  But for many in our world, stress is about literally making ends meet.  I want to be more cognizant of those people, especially when I speak about my stress.  Some needed perspective.

Last week, for a variety of reasons, was challenging.  I was frustrated with some work events, frustrated with some decisions I had made, and exhausted from traveling.  So late on Thursday afternoon, I called my mom from a phone-booth at our office, and had a little bit of a (pretty rare) breakdown. She was supportive, as moms are, but was very concerned about my stress levels.  My dad, showing the tough love that dads master, was concerned as well, but acknowledged that stress would only increase as I got older and responsibilities increased.  He also urged me to recognize that pressure under so many others.  The pressure just to make ends meet.

This is so true.  And so I emailed my good friend, Themba to ask him about his stress.  Those that know me well know that I talk about Themba often, that I admire him and his pursuit for a better life against all odds.  He is a Zimbabwean my age that works as a South African housekeeper. He’s incredibly articulate, intelligent, and hard-working.  His life is one that I think about often.

Below, in Themba’s slightly edited words, is his response to my question “What stresses you out?”   I give his response not to diminish mine, or anyone else’s, but to provide some much needed perspective, that we could all stand to use a little more of:

– Scott

In the last year, my work-load has increased tremendously; I can’t even remember the last time I had a free weekend. If I have a week with a free Sunday free, then I’m lucky.   I work in a big house with a big garden, and I’m responsible for everything around the house except cooking.  I clean the house. I do the washing and ironing. I do the shopping.  I do all of the gardening. I wash the dogs. 

Occasionally I go to my boss’s car wash if it’s busy there- it can be so busy that I won’t have a chance to eat the whole day.  As long as cars come, I must clean them.  The customers cannot wait. I do all of this on a pay normally given to a house maid whose sole responsibility is to do work in the house ONLY.

My main source of stress is the repetitive aspect of my work. Nothing is more energy sapping than doing the same dull routine over and over again. Worst of all, it doesn’t help me learn skills for the future- It just keeps my brain stagnant. 

The work that I do takes a lot of character, just to motivate myself to do the same things over and over again.  Even if I finish cleaning today, tomorrow I work and find myself doing the same thing.  My work does not have a tangible end product that I can look back in a months’ time and say I did that and finished it. I’m always doing the same thing every day. That is very stressful.

Even though my job is not the greatest in the world, I worry every day because people in this line of work are highly disposable.  Without notice, you can wake up tomorrow and have your boss tell you that he can no longer afford to have you work for him anymore. The thought of going back on the street and running after cars looking for work is terrifying.  To survive in South Africa, one needs a sustainable source of income, so keeping whatever job you have is of paramount importance, and that causes a lot of pressure.

As a foreigner in South Africa, which has a frightening rate of violent crime, it’s becoming more and more difficult to freely move around, especially for us Zimbabweans. And we have become one too many to be welcome anymore. The rich blame the many foreigners for crime, and the poor South Africans blame the many foreigners for the lack of jobs, so at every level of South African society, we are seen as problem causers.

The other point of stress is the constant worry about my future well-being. Bad news from Zimbabwe is always a source of stress. My sister says they have spent the past two weeks without water.  No explanation from the city council, no notice, nothing. Water just goes, and nobody is there to tell people what’s happening. 

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