Tips on taking care of yourself
Doing good can be a tough job sometimes – so if you’re going to avoid burning out, you’ll need to take care of yourself.
You might be supporting young people with addictions, former refugees with post-traumatic stress disorder, rehabilitating neglected animals, lobbying for urgent action on poverty or climate change, but that doesn’t mean that taking time to have a drink with a friend, go for a bush walk, sleep in, or hang out with your family doing nothing isn’t equally important.
If you’re tired and stressed you’re actually not very useful to those teenagers/sinking islands/puppies, so recognising when you need a break and giving yourself time to do it is a really important skill.
Take time out
It sounds obvious, but take a break. Everything feels very urgent, I know, but even marathon runners have days off training and we all need to re-energise. Don’t work when you’re not at work, take the lunch breaks you’re allowed to while you’re at work, take sick days when you’re sick, take the leave you’re legally entitled to.
Have boundaries and an off-switch
If you’re motivated by making your community, environment, world the best it can be, it can be very difficult to switch off.
It can be hard to not reply to those texts or emails that really are important, hard to not keep reading stuff online, always looking for news and ideas, hard to stop thinking about what’s coming up and what you haven’t done or could do.
But to avoid burnout, it’s important to set firm boundaries and let people know where they are.
For example, a youth worker might let the kids he works with know that he won’t respond to texts on weekends unless it’s an emergency; a counsellor might let her clients know she won’t accept social media requests from them; a chief executive might let their employees know they won’t answer emails in the evenings.
Have a self-care plan
Before you really need it, think about what helps you when you’re having a rough time of it. Is it long runs, loud music, quiet drinks with friends, sleeping in, tramping, time with family, having a technology detox, getting a massage, meditating, going to a counsellor, going to the gym, going to Fiji? What is going to revive you, physically and spiritually? Whatever it is that restores you, it can be sensible to make sure you’re also doing it in small doses often rather than waiting until it all gets too much and needing to work back from a bad point.
Focus on the good stuff
When you’re going through a tough time at work, it can be hard to remember why you’re in it. Be kind to your future self by writing down the good stuff that happens as it happens – moments of victory, stuff that’s inspired you, positive feedback people have given you on your work. Refer to that list when you’re struggling and use it to try to get you back into a positive frame of mind.
Find mentors or peers who you can have frank talks with about some of the challenges you’re facing, who can guide you when you’re feeling a bit lost, and sometimes just give you a pat on the shoulder and tell you you’re doing a good job. Sometimes they’ll be your managers, sometimes colleagues, sometimes people outside the organisation, sometimes even outside the sector – find people you trust and admire to chat to.
Particularly if you’re working in an emotionally tough job like social work or counselling, it’s worth asking your employer if they’ll pay for an external supervisor. Even if you have a great manager, an external supervisor can be an objective person who supports you in your role, helps to build your skills and challenges you when you need it. If there’s no money for an external supervisor, think about creating a peer supervision group – people in similar jobs who you can get together with and talk about what’s going well and what you can support each other on.
Take time to reflect
If you’re doing everything right and still struggling to stay afloat, it might be time to reflect on whether you are in the right role.
You might be having a dramatic impact on the people or issue you’re working on, but that doesn’t always translate to good feelings. Depending on the work, your working conditions, your temperament, you might be more or less suited to the role. Ask yourself if you’re feeling energised by the successes you’re having, or drained by how hard you’re having to work to get there.
If it’s the latter, it might be worth asking yourself if you’re in the right position – it might be the right content, the wrong task, or the right task, the wrong organisation. Keep an open mind and be honest with yourself.