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What it’s like to be a rookie MP in a workplace that fetishizes exhaustion

By Liberal MP Majid Jowhari      

In the blink of an eye your life is radically changed. You may have limited experience overseeing staff, yet now you need to hire for two offices, all while facing political pressures. It’s sink or swim.

Conservative MP John Brassard, left, and Liberals MPs Bill Blair and Michel Picard were all first elected in 2015. It’s tough for a rookie MP to learn the ropes of the new job while maintaining good health, writes Liberal MP Majid Jowhari. The Hill Times file photograph
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PARLIAMENT HILL—The polls open, you cast your ballot, and for the rest of the day volunteers, friends, and family members do everything they can to distract you as the results pour in, sequestering you from televisions and the radio. In the moment, you can’t help but be frustrated with being “managed.” But looking back, it’s just the first of many times people who work with you and care for you will try their best to think about your mental health and support you through moments of anxiety. You’ll learn not to take it for granted.

In the blink of an eye your life is radically changed. You’re yanked off the campaign trail all the way to Ottawa. You find yourself in the historic House of Commons with more than a hundred of your peers, all in the same boat, nearly half of them strangers. Many of them may have limited experience overseeing employees, but you’re told you have offices to staff, and you need to play every role: from human resources to the financial department to management. You’re pulled between two distinct but inextricable roles: two mandates, two offices; two rhythms, two tempos. But the closest you get to switching gears is the drive home Friday night.

You’re unfamiliar with your new role so you try to find a way to contextualize your efforts using metrics by which you can measure your successes and failures. There aren’t any. You try to set benchmarks for yourself, but they’re all subjective.

The political pressure has already begun and you’re still just finding your footing, trying your best to block out the noise and keep your time and focus dedicated to the people who chose you to represent them.

Your instinct is to lean on your staff, like you did in the campaign, but it’s sink or swim for them, too. If you can look past yourself, you’ll realize that they’re confronted with the same questions. Faced with this ambiguity, you and your staff independently come to the same conclusion: if you’re working more it must mean you’re accomplishing more.

I don’t think anyone would be surprised by the kind of culture these conditions can so easily foster: a workplace clouded by unanswerable questions, that fetishizes exhaustion and encourages staff to take pride in being overworked and under-appreciated. You can’t shake the feeling that you’re alone in this. It seems inconceivable that everyone is going about their day with the same concerns, anxieties, and priorities.

But then someone confides in you after caucus or you share a quick aside in the hall with a friend. As you each learn to be open with one another, to trust your colleagues, and to confide in your staff, it becomes clear that everyone on the Hill is in this together, facing the same pressures and confronting the same questions.

I’m not the first to speak up about the lived experiences of Members of Parliament and staff trying to manage their mental health. The 42nd Parliament is full of champions: Members, Senators, and staff who have chosen to take the lead in breaking the stigma, not just bringing this conversation out of the shadows but advancing it, and bringing a diversity of perspectives into the public eye.

In some ways, now is a time of unprecedented hope. Awareness of mental health is at an all-time high on the Hill and across the country. We are galvanized around the issue. MPs raise the issue in the House, advocate in the public square, form caucuses, and draft legislation. There have been historic investments made federally.

But there is so much more that needs to be done, and if Parliamentarians want to champion mental health, it has to start in their day-to-day, with their staff, with their families, and with themselves. Over the next two weeks, I’m going to share my experiences and what I’ve learned about myself, my mental health, and my relationships with my colleagues here on the Hill as we all learned to navigate this particularly peculiar workplace.

Liberal Member of Parliament Majid Jowhari represents Richmond Hill, Ont. He founded and chaired the Liberal Mental Health Caucus and, later, the Parliamentary Mental Health Caucus. He was named this year’s Parliamentary Mental Health Champion by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health. This is the first of a series of three articles from him on mental health on the Hill.

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