It seems that everyone is talking about stress these days, just living in our big cities and being employed is stressful. After the US election in 2016 google searches for self-care rose to a five year high. I was surprised to see self-care leaving the domain of the helping professions and becoming part of everyday dialogue. Once a term leaves the realm of a certain profession and becomes part of everyday life it often becomes redefined on the way. We are seeing that happen with self-care it’s scope has been reduced, and it has become synonymous with having a treat. From becoming redefined as a treat it has moved to become a commodity. Self-care is now a term used to tag products on social media, it is now something that you can pay for a little bit of something that you can purchase and that will make you feel better.
The redefinition of self-care as merely a treat has devalued its importance for those of us who work in people focussed professions. There is an important distinction that we need to emphasis between self-care and a treat. I like treats, treats are a great way to distinguish between the weekend and the week. They can help me celebrate, or provide comfort when I am tired, or sad. Treats are useful things, it is nice to be indulgent every now and again, it can make us feel special and can be a way of showing that we value ourselves. In fact, treats may make up part of our self-care practice. But self-care is much bigger and more encompassing than just having a treat now and then.
The history of self-care is vague. As far as I could discover it came to the fore with the growing awareness of burnout and vicarious traumatisation that grew in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Self-care became acknowledged as an essential part of professional practice for those who were working in people helping professions, as a way of preventing burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious traumatisation. These professions (including social work, psychology, counselling, clergy) are characterised by intense interactions that make up the core of the work. People who work in these types of professions need to pay extra care to their physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological well-being. It is this intentional attention to themselves and their own wellbeing that enables them to do their job well. It enables them to fully engage with empathy and compassion to their clients.
It is difficult to define self-care as specific activities because what nurtures one individual may not nurture another. It is clear that a good base of physical well-being underlies well-being and resilience so that is an important foundation of any self-care plan. With that physical base in place, self-care should include regular intentional activity that nurtures our spiritual, emotional and psychological health. It helps build and maintain resilience, in the face of stressful and emotional client interactions. Self-care is an essential part of professional practice for those in people helping professions.
We have to attend to self-care to do our jobs well, it is as essential to our work as attending a staff meeting, or keeping up with our professional development and reading in our field.
I am concerned that as everyone talks about the stress of living and working, it becomes easy to forget that there are occupations that are more stressful than others. We need to affirm and validate the experience of these occupations as stressful and emphasise that self-care is so much more than cooking a healthy meal or having a chocolate brownie as a treat every now and again.
Self-care needs more attention and promotion as an intentional and systematic part of our professional development.
There are other cautions that arise from the development of this culture of self-care as synonymous with treats. The focus on the individual can lead to too much emphasis being placed on individual responsibility for health and wellbeing. Self-care doesn’t have to be all about us, it can include others caring for us, even our colleagues and the organisation that we work for. Research by Maslach and colleagues (2003) have shown that there are many societal and organisational factors that influence the likelihood of burnout. Although individuals have a role to play in looking after themselves organisations need to also acknowledge the role that they play in supporting the health of their workers.
For those of you who are in professions that involve a lot of compassionate engagement with other people it is ok to feel like your work is more stressful than others. Although everyone is experiencing lots of stress at this point of history it is important to acknowledge that your occupation is characterised by stressful interactions. It is an important and essential part of your professional competency to nurture your own self, so that you are better able to engage empathetically and well with your clients. Attending external supervision should be an important part of your self-care plan and a supervisor will help you reflect on and prioritise the things that you need to do to enjoy your work and to stay resilient.