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:
- Why burnout happens and how it can be detected,
- The cycle of caring and the concept of the Self-Care Action Plan,
- How we can sustain our professional selves through our work, and
- How we can nurture the many facets of the personal self, including the physical self
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.