Self-care at work
The best analogy I have read (by Fort Gary women’s resource centre) likens self-care to when you are on a flight and the oxygen mask drops in front of you – the first rule is to put on your own mask before assisting others – it’s only when we first help ourselves, that we can effectively be of help to others.
There are many definitions out there as to what constitutes self-care – my favourite is this one:
“Self-care refers to activities and practices that we can engage in on a regular basis to reduce stress and maintain and enhance our short- and longer-term health and well-being. It’s necessary for your effectiveness and success in honouring your professional and personal commitments” (University at Buffalo, State University of New York, school of social work).
Applying good self-care techniques are essential to dealing with and minimizing stress and preventing burnout in our careers. Being able to set boundaries, practice assertiveness and say no when necessary are all helpful in giving you back control of your workload and in reducing stress (which is now recognised as a hazard under the Health and Safety in Employment Act too!). Whilst I’ve focused largely on the professional aspects of self-care below, our working lives don’t exist in a void. Effective self-care benefits from having a holistic approach.
So here are my top tips for self-care at work:
#1. Set Boundaries
If you are constantly interrupted via emails, setting boundaries may include things such as turning the notification feature off and only checking emails at regular, predetermined intervals. Leaving you to focus on the work at hand without distraction.
If it’s interruptions from people coming to your desk or into your office, this can be a bit trickier. If you have your own office, shutting the door for a period of time each day to focus on a particular project can help. Eventually people will get used to the idea that when your door is shut it means you are unavailable. If people knock, say you’ll contact them in an hour (or anytime frame you set, and make sure you follow through with this, as they’ll be less tempted to re-disturb you in the future). The more you repeat this routine the easier it gets. For those without an office door, the option of wearing headphones—preferably a good noise-cancelling pair –might be an alternative.
Also, while we’re talking about boundaries, do be strict with yourself about taking regular breaks during the day and leaving the office on time.
#2. Practice Assertiveness
This is easier said than done, especially if you are usually the ‘go to’ person for help. Many people working in the do-good field are those of a naturally helpful disposition. This can end up doing us more harm than good in the long-term – overloading us and making us less productive overall. Practice assertiveness with small things to start with and rehearse having those tricky conversations with a trusted friend.
Having a list of your priorities for the day will also make it easier as you know what has to be done and it gives you ‘ammunition’ as to why you can’t take on additional tasks. It does get easier with time but initially requires constant practice to become more comfortable stating your case.
There may be professional development courses (such as assertiveness training) that you could attend if this is an area you struggle with or feel needs fine tuning.
Particularly if you are in a more strategic role – you can’t (and shouldn’t) do everything yourself – delegate tasks to your team as appropriate and free yourself up for what really needs your time and attention.
#4. Get Support
Having a professional mentor can be a great asset when it comes to self-care too. This may be someone either in your own field or in a different area entirely. The most important thing in a mentor is having someone who you can relate to and who is understanding and encouraging. This offers opportunities to discuss how they have dealt with similar matters and you can ask for guidance and support (and even practice scenarios with them).
#5. Outside work
Professional aspects of self-care can be complemented outside of work by making sure you get frequent physical exercise and relaxation, get enough sleep, and take time for yourself on a regular basis.
Turning your work phone /mail off after hours can help. Having an adequate break from work each evening is likely to leave you more energized and enthusiastic the following day.
What else can you do?
Creating a self-care planner may be helpful (a quick google search for ‘self-care template/worksheet” will turn up various options). Using a planner can assess which areas need attention and how you can best address them. Writing it down can be a great way to keep focused and helps you commit to the process.
The potential benefits of good self-care are manifold. These include improved mental health and productivity. The American Psychological Association suggest it decreases stress and depression and enhances both psychological and physical health and well being. This is likely to impact positively not only on yourself but also on those you interact with including colleagues, family and friends.
The best part (according to Christine McKeea of BE Institute in Australia) is that you are 100% accountable for your self-care – so ultimately it really is up to you!