Self-Care: We’re Talking about it Wrong

As someone in a caregiving profession, I know all about “self-care”.  Other people in caregiving professions and  high stress jobs are frequently reminded that we need to take care of ourselves in order to ensure our long lasting ability to continue to perform our work with ongoing engagement and consistent quality.  In fact, we’re lectured about it constantly, as if some extra yoga and another pedicure will absorb some of the daily stressors we experience in our work and home lives.  It’s true that if you don’t take time out from your normal obligations to do enriching and meaningful activities, your quality of life will suffer.  However, the way our culture has become accustomed to pointing to “self-care” as the primary remedy to all of the stress that has built up in our lives is problematic.

One problem with this over-used prescription is that it is just another way of deferring responsibility to the individual to resolve all of the culture induced distress that has become overwhelming in the first place.  For example, if your primary stressor is your job and/or working conditions, self-care can only go so far in remedying the problem.  If the conditions that you work under do not change, the stress is going to remain.  Certainly you can develop a set of coping skills, habits, and life-enhancing activities that will increase your quality of life outside of your job, but if you keep returning to the same stressful environment day after day, the amount of relief you will experience is limited.  While some of us have choices in the kinds of jobs and career options we pursue, it’s not always practical, feasible or even desirable to just go out and find a new job when the stress levels become unmanageable.

Administrators, managers, and supervisors love to hand out the self-care prescription when employees complain about their workplace stressors.  It’s easy to see why they do this.  This absolves the company of any responsibility to manage the workplace environment in a way that promotes the wellbeing of their employees by offering on-site services to enrich employee health and happiness, ensuring employees have reasonable work expectations and sufficient resources to do their jobs well (including fair compensation), and prioritize employee mental and physical health in their overall business plans.  By telling employees “make sure you’re practicing self-care”, the employee becomes responsible for managing whatever workplace expectations come their way, and if they can’t handle it, it’s their fault for not taking care of themselves.

Another problem with our approach to using self-care as a catch-all recommendation for worker health, is that we tell workers particularly in the caregiving professions that they need to practice self-care “so that you can care for others”.  We also tell this to parents, reminding them that one of their duties is to care for themselves so that they can continue to care for others.  The reason this is problematic is because we again are ignoring the needs of the individual in service to the sacrifices that individual is making for others, whether that be to their workplace, their family, or others.  The assumption is that if you are burnt out and stressed beyond reason, that you cannot then attend properly to the needs of others.  It’s not that the statement itself isn’t true, it’s that this is the wrong way to look at self-care.  Taking care of yourself is something that you deserve independently of your value to your workplace or your family.  You should take care of yourself because you deserve to reap the benefits of enjoying a good quality of life enriched with the things that relax and rejuvenate you.  Will it make you a better caregiver, employee, parent, or colleague?  Probably.  But that’s not the point.  Maybe you like to exercise, meditate, pamper yourself, engage in spiritual practices and reflections, spend time with the people you care about, or give back to your community in meaningful ways.  These are things that you should do because they enrich your quality of life and connection to others, not because you owe it to the people you give other forms of care or service to.  You should go about doing the things that help you to enjoy your life because it is your life and you deserve to enjoy it.

One thing that would be more helpful to most people would be if their employers starting looking at employee mental and physical health as something that they have a stake in too.  Some employers have found creative ways to support their employees beyond providing a general recommendation that employees take care of themselves.  These measures can go from ideas such as bringing in massage therapists or other service providers on site, allowing flexible or work from home schedules, up to profit sharing or co-op models that provide employees with more stake in their own companies.  Such approaches to managing employee mental, physical, and financial health can go a long way towards increasing quality of life without increasing the pressure and burdens on employees to find their own solutions to workplace stressors.  We can all support companies that engage in practices such as these, which reflect a business model that values the employees.  We can also support each other by dropping the “so you can take care of others” part of our encouragement to care for ourselves.  We all have a limited time in which to live our lives, and it can be a great joy and source of personal satisfaction and meaning when we care for others, whether that is our clients, our friends, or our families.  Moreover, we deserve to care for ourselves, as well as to receive the care others have for us, because our lives are independently valuable.  We are not only mothers, fathers, children, caregivers, or employees.  We are individuals deserving of our best quality of life as we see fit, and the steps we take to care for ourselves can and should be done to enhance life for the pure joy of it, not merely to preserve our ability to care for others.

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