Wellness for Care Providers: Putting Wellness Into Action

For caring professionals, looking after the health and wellness of other people is what we do. It’s in our job titles and our lists of daily duties. But it is difficult, personally taxing work that requires us to also keep close tabs on our own physical, mental, and emotional health. It’s impossible for us to help others if we don’t first do what we must to help ourselves.

Our “Wellness for Care Providers” blog series has been all about self-care strategies for people who serve others. In previous entries, we’ve covered:

If you’ve been following along with us through each topic, then the only thing left to do is take what we’ve learned and develop an action plan for your self-care. By assessing your current level of wellness and your strongest and weakest areas of self-care, you can create a specific plan for improving your wellness according to your needs and desires.

In this blog post, we’ll walk you through the completion of your very own Self-Care Action Plan, beginning with a quick review of popular self-care strategies as well as wellness-depleting situations you should strive to avoid in your life.

Top Self-Care Behaviors for Practitioners

When discussing wellness and self-care behaviors, sometimes it can be helpful to know what works best for other people like us. Information and suggestions from other people can help us adopt new behaviors with the confidence that they’ve already been “tried on for size”.

Throughout our wellness series, we’ve often referenced the book The Resilient Practitioner: Burnout Prevention and Self-Care Strategies for Counselors, Therapists, Teachers, and Health Professionals by Thomas Skovholt and Michelle Trotter-Mathison. As part of their research into self-care, the authors reviewed several studies surveying professional psychologists and practitioners. Some of the most effective self-care strategies among those surveyed included:

  1. Maintaining social supports. Humans are social animals, and a little support from family, friends, colleagues and partners can go a long way toward keeping us happy and healthy.
  2. Using humor. Laughter can’t cure every malady, but it can be surprisingly helpful for managing our mental state and putting the little difficulties of life in perspective.
  3. Maintaining self-awareness. Like humor, practicing self-awareness and mindfulness can help take the sting out of negative thoughts and emotions. Remembering that negative situations are not permanent gives us a better chance of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
  4. Taking vacations. We all need a break from work sometimes. If you have the ability to take vacations, do so. If not, try to find other ways to unplug from your work from time to time.
  5. Consulting with others when you need guidance or second opinions. The work of a care provider is stressful, so it’s OK to ask for guidance or advice when you’re unsure what to do in a certain situation. Handing off even a little of the responsibility can do wonders for overwhelm and overwork.
  6. Setting realistic goals. You won’t be able to change everyone’s life. You won’t be able to do everything you want to. Expecting that you will is a recipe for disappointment and shame. Instead, do the best that you can and expect for it to not be enough sometimes.
  7. Maintaining strong personal and professional identities. When you know who you are as a person and as a professional, you’ll better understand what is important to you and what isn’t. This knowledge can help you prioritize demands and feel confident that you acted on the situations that were most critical.
  8. Balancing personal and professional demands. Maintaining good work-life balance can be easier said than done, but it’s important to make the effort. Pay attention to how much energy you’re investing in your personal life versus your professional life. When the balance tips too far in one direction, be unapologetic about re-centering it.
  9. Exercising. We all know exercise is beneficial for both body and mind. Even if you don’t enjoy exercising, any amount can do you good. Try to find activities and times that fit your lifestyle and schedule, and stick with them. The outcomes might surprise you.
  10. Engaging in hobbies and leisure activities. It’s not healthy if we have little in our lives besides work and personal demands. Hobbies and leisure activities are great ways to find enjoyment in life and refresh ourselves when things becomes too stressful or chaotic.
  11. Creating comfortable work environments. For better or worse, we spend a large portion of our lives at work. One way to improve our enjoyment of work is to make our work environments as comfortable as possible. Sometimes this can be as simple as creating a clean, calming, organized workspace for ourselves.

Wellness-Depleting Situations to Avoid

Wellness priorities and practices often vary between individuals, so it’s normal for self-care to look a bit different from person to person. However, according to The Resilient Practitioner, there are some situations that are almost universally harmful to a practitioner’s self-care and well-being. You should be on the lookout for these situations in your personal and professional life and take action to rectify them if at all possible.

Common wellness-depleting situations for practitioners include:

  1. Toxic supervisor and/or colleagues. Poor relationships with our work peers can be extremely draining on our motivation and emotional state. Sometimes, we can compensate for this by increasing self-care in other areas and seeking emotional support from friends and loved ones. In other cases, it may be necessary to change our working situation.
  2. Little fun in life or work. Taking life too seriously all the time can often make it seem joyless and dull. If we find ourselves in this situation, we can work at “manufacturing” fun by actively exercising the humorous and playful parts of ourselves.
  3. Poor understanding of one’s own needs. It’s normal to not always know exactly what we want in life, but it’s important for us to understand what we need in order to feel well. When you feel discontent or imbalanced, pay attention to which parts of yourself are being neglected or pushed too far. Introspection of this kind can help you determine your optimal range of wellness and know what you must do to stay within that range.
  4. Lack of a professional development process. We may lose all joy in our work over time if we’re unable to see a clear path of professional progression. It can be helpful to map out the “big picture” of where we’d like our career to go and then strategize each step we can make toward that goal. This might also be a topic to discuss with a supportive supervisor.
  5. No energy-giving personal life. Even the most fulfilling work in the world can leave us feeling empty if we don’t have a rich personal life to balance it. This is why it’s so important to develop and nurture all the dimensions of the personal self.
  6. An inability to say no to unreasonable requests. As helping professionals, helping others is what we do, sometimes at our own expense. But we must have boundaries in place that prevent us from giving so much that we can no longer care for ourselves. This is where our priority-setting self comes into play.
  7. Vicarious traumatization from work situations. The nature of our work sometimes puts us in traumatizing situations or in close emotional proximity to the trauma of others. Good support from supervisors and colleagues can help prevent this vicarious traumatization from taking a toll, as can following disciplined wellness behaviors.
  8. Giving too much in personal relationships. Again, it can be easy for helping professionals to slip into the habit of giving too much, even in our personal lives. We must work to build relationships where we both give and receive support in order to keep our emotional and loving selves well cared for.
  9. Constant perfectionism in work tasks. Being consistently too demanding of ourselves is a guaranteed recipe for frustration and burnout. We must give ourselves permission to make the occasional mistake, just as we do for the individuals we serve.
  10. Continual unresolved or ambiguous professional losses. When our work with a client doesn’t end as well as we’d hoped, it’s important that we receive proper closure on the situation. A supportive supervisor can make all the difference in the world in this regard. They can help to put the loss in perspective and provide reassurance that we as the practitioner did nothing wrong.
  11. A strong need to be needed. Many who choose to enter the caring professions enjoy the feeling of being needed by others. We must be careful to balance this desire with practices that nurture our self-sufficiency. Remember that you have value as an individual outside of your ability to help others.
  12. Professional success defined solely by client success or appreciation. When our job is to help other people get better, it can be difficult to separate our success from their success—or even from their appreciation of our efforts. To counteract this tendency, it can be helpful to develop the parts of our personal self that are more inwardly focused, such as our solitary and spiritual selves.

Completing Your Self-Care Action Plan

Now let’s complete your personal Self-Care Action Plan so you can put everything you’ve learned into practice.

In previous articles, we’ve explained how to assess your work stress level and self-care/other-care balance, your professional self-care, and your personal self-care. You’ll finish your plan by assessing your overall level of self-care and creating steps for working on areas of weakness.

Step #5: Assess Your Self-Care Strengths and Weaknesses

Using the information you gathered in Steps 1–4, take some time to write an informal assessment of how successfully you are nurturing your own wellness. Focus specifically on which areas of self-care you are excelling at and which can be improved upon.

Honesty is crucial at this step, because you can only develop an effective plan of action if you are honest about where your wellness practices are lacking.

Step #6: Develop Your Plan

Your action plan should focus on no more than two domains of self-care that you would like to improve upon. For each self-care domain you chose, you should write out:

  • A specific goal you would like to achieve, including measurable outcomes and time frames
  • The method by which you will achieve the goal
  • How you will reinforce and maintain your new self-care behaviors

For example, let’s imagine you have lax professional boundaries that are causing you to feel overwhelmed by requests from co-workers and clients. You decide that you would like to develop stricter work boundaries. Your action plan might look like this:

  • Specific Goal: Reduce work-related interactions during non-working hours by 50% over the course of 4 months.
  • Method for Achieving the Goal: Inform all colleagues and clients that you will not answer communications outside of work hours, with exceptions for emergencies. During months 1 and 2, monitor how often you still receive communications outside of work hours, and only respond to those that seem highly important. Monitor colleague and client response to your decreased responsiveness. During months 3 and 4, begin to respond only to communications that appear to be true emergencies. Monitor colleague and client response to determine if you are being too lax with boundaries, too strict, or just right.
  • Reinforcement for New Behavior: To offset any stress associated with disappointing colleagues and clients, set aside 30 minutes each week to journal, specifically ruminating on how your stricter professional boundaries have increased your overall health and wellness.

When choosing your goals, remember to keep realistic expectations. Don’t try to change too much too fast, and remain open to the possibility that you might need to reassess your plan if it doesn’t play out as you had hoped.

This brings us to the end of our series on Wellness for Care Providers!

We could all use a little help sometimes to improve our self-care practices and routines. But for those of us who care for others as a profession, maintaining our own wellness is especially important.

We hope this series gave you some useful ideas to implement into your wellness regimen. If you enjoyed it, we encourage you to share it with a friend who might also find it helpful!


Wellness for Care Providers: The Many Facets of Physical Self-Care

For those of us who work in the caring professions—such as health care, education, emergency services, criminal justice, and social work—our job is to care for the well-being of other people. However, this is difficult to do if we aren’t also managing our own health and wellness. As Cummins’ Professional Development Specialist, Ciera Jackson, likes to say, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

In the previous post of our series on Wellness for Care Providers, we discussed the many dimensions of the personal self and how you can practice personal self-care. However, we left out one dimension of the self that is significant enough to warrant a separate discussion: the physical self.

Physical self-care is essential for overall health and wellness. Not only do we enjoy life more when we are physically healthy, but the health of our physical body also has a direct influence on our mental and emotional health. One of the simplest and most effective ways to improve mental and emotional well-being is to focus on improving our physical well-being.

In this post, we’ll divide the physical self into its core components and share some simple advice for maintaining each one. We’ll be guided once again by Ciera Jackson, who shares her thoughts and suggestions on this topic.

Ciera Jackson, MSW, LCSW, Professional Development Specialist at Cummins Behavioral Health

Nutrition: Providing the Right Fuel for the Body

Physical self-care is all about keeping our bodies as healthy as we can, and a large part of keeping our bodies healthy involves being mindful of what we are putting into them.

It can be helpful to think of food and drink as fuel for the body. Giving our bodies high-quality fuel helps them run more efficiently and can make us feel better all around. By contrast, low-quality fuel creates strain on our bodily systems and can make us feel worse.

“What you put into your body will fuel you,” Ciera says. “If you’re eating McDonald’s Big Macs all the time, you’re probably going to feel like a Big Mac. Versus if you’re putting vegetables, water, and various nuts and berries into your body, you’re probably going to feel like that.”

Maintaining good nutrition is a crucial component of physical self-care. Here are a few pieces of advice to keep in mind when it comes to nutrition:

  • Try to avoid processed foods. These foods typically contain fewer nutrients and more unhealthy additives like salt, sugar and fat than “whole” or unprocessed foods.
  • Don’t skip meals; eat small meals. Eating smaller portions more frequently is better for your body than consuming large amounts of food all at once. Ciera acknowledges that this can be a challenge when we are short on time. “Sometimes as practitioners, especially if you’re in the office and you have patients back to back, it can be hard to get those meals. But if you keep little snacks in your desk, or if you carry a little cooler or something, then maybe you can kind of eat quickly.”
  • Try new foods. Eating the same things every day can cause you to miss out on essential vitamins and nutrients. Experimenting with new foods is an easy way to increase your nutrient variety.
  • Feed your body veggies. Vegetables are perhaps the best type of food you can eat, so you should make an effort to eat as many as you can. “Even if it’s just one vegetable that you like, find one and stick with it,” Ciera encourages.
  • Your body needs water! Beverages like coffee, tea, fruit juice and soda pop are not good substitutes because they may contain added sugars or dehydrating ingredients. Make an effort to drink pure water every day.

Exercise: Keeping the Body Active

The benefits of regular physical activity have been well documented for many years now. Here are just a few of them:

  • Exercise controls weight
  • Exercise combats health conditions and diseases
  • Exercise improves mood
  • Exercise boosts energy
  • Exercise helps with sleep
  • Exercise can help with brain functioning

We all know that exercise is good for our health, so why do many of us have such a hard time doing it?

“Many of us live a fast-paced life,” Ciera says. “We want things quickly. Research has shown that if exercise could come in a pill form, many people would take the pill, hence why there are so many diet pills and ‘lose weight quick’ programs out there. People want to be healthy or lose weight, but it is very difficult for them to do it.”

Of course, a shortage of time can be a legitimate barrier to getting enough exercise, especially when we have responsibilities to family and loved ones on top of our work duties. “We have to be honest with ourselves about when is the most optimal time of day to actually get a workout in,” Ciera advises. “And maybe you have to start small. Maybe you don’t have time during the week, but you can exercise just during the weekend. Maybe you can start with one day of the week and then work your way up. Something is better than nothing.”

Finally, Ciera suggests finding and sticking to a few exercises you enjoy rather than pushing yourself to do exercises you don’t like. “You know what I like when I go to the gym? The battle ropes. Those are fun for me. So you have to find what you like. Maybe it’s strength training, maybe it’s lifting weights, maybe it’s the stationary bike. Whatever it is, find your thing and stick with it,” she says.

Sleep: The Body’s Recovery Period

Our bodies are highly sophisticated biological machines, but they can only run for so long before they need to recuperate. Sleep is our natural recovery period, during which many of our bodily systems are “recharged” for continued use.

Adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night in order to function properly. “When you’re not getting enough sleep, you can be cranky. When you don’t have enough sleep, you’re just not yourself. So, getting a good routine down is important. Just like we do for children, as adults, we should have a sleep routine,” Ciera says.

Keeping a sleep routine helps our bodies prepare to go to sleep each night, which can be beneficial if you struggle to get enough rest during the week. Some activities you can try for your before-bed routine include:

  • Turn off all electronics 30–60 minutes before bed. “For some people, electronics tend to stimulate them,” Ciera says. “So if they’re looking at their phone, then they’re just wired to it. However, for some other people, it’s their way to wind down. It just kind of depends on who you are.”
  • Take a bath or shower. Bathing, especially in warm or hot water, can be soothing and sleep-inducing for some people.
  • Dim the lights. A reduction in light levels is one of the body’s natural cues to prepare for sleep.
  • Use aromatherapy. Some popular examples include candles, oil diffusers, and lotions.
  • Drink hot tea, hot chocolate, or warm milk. Just remember to avoid anything with caffeine or large amounts of sugar.
  • Listen to relaxing music or an audio book.
  • Meditate.
  • Write in a journal.

In addition, it can also be helpful to go to bed at the same time each night and to use your bed only for sleeping and intimacy. These habits can help provide behavioral cues for the body when you are ready to go to sleep.

Hygiene and Medical Checkups: Maintaining Bodily Health

The last major component of physical health involves the normal bodily maintenance and preventative actions we should be taking on a regular basis.

Personal hygiene standards may vary from person to person, and some amount of variance is acceptable. However, the primary utility of hygiene is to prevent illness and injury, so there are certain behaviors that everyone should try to follow.

For example, it is generally advisable to wash your hands before eating, before putting your hands in your mouth or eyes, and after using the restroom. These guidelines are especially true when you are in a public place. “It makes people feel uncomfortable if you’re in a public bathroom and you walk out without washing your hands. It makes people feel uncomfortable when you cough or sneeze, especially in your hand, and you don’t at least hand sanitize. It just does,” Ciera advises.

Beyond other items like regular bathing and dental hygiene, it’s important to schedule the preventative medical, dental and vision checkups recommended by your health care providers. “As people who are in this field, we can be so bad about this,” Ciera says. “We can be upset with our consumers when they miss their appointments, but we can be so poor at doing this ourselves. We will reschedule and reschedule and reschedule our own appointments, or just not schedule our appointments, because it doesn’t fit in our day. It’s not convenient. We might have to take time off. Don’t reschedule them. Don’t put them off to the last minute. It’s OK to take your kids to their appointments, it’s OK to take yourself to your appointments. See about your family, see about yourself. Period.”

Finally, Ciera encourages you not to feel embarrassed or ashamed if you are struggling with your regular hygiene and need help to meet your needs. “I can’t tell you the number of people who have come to me and told me, ‘Hey Ciera, I haven’t showered in a week. I haven’t showered in weeks. And I am struggling,’ “ she says. “These have been social workers. These have been therapists. These are people who have degrees. Sometimes people struggle with depression and other mental health disorders, and it’s nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. But you also have to take care of yourself and understand what is going on. And I do say that with sensitivity, because sometimes we don’t know how to say, ‘I am struggling, and I need help.’ “

Now that we’ve discussed the physical self in detail, you can add your assessment of your physical self-care to your Self-Care Action Plan.

Take a moment to brainstorm and write down some specific ways you are practicing physical self-care on a daily basis. Then, give yourself a rating from 0–6 for how well you are currently nurturing your physical self, with 0 being not at all and 6 being very well.

You’ll use this information to assess your overall wellness and create your action plan, which we’ll cover in our next and final blog in our series on Wellness for Care Providers!

Yoga, meditation