There are certain jobs that carry inherent health risks for the person doing the job. Police officers, fire fighters, construction workers, and military service members are a few jobs that come to mind. But these aren’t the only individuals whose line of work puts them in harm’s way.
Caring professionals like nurses, teachers, social workers and mental health therapists also suffer risks to their well-being because of their work. For caring professionals (also called helping professionals), investing in the physical and emotional health of other people is part of the job description. This is fine when care providers are able to adequately prioritize their own self-care, but that doesn’t always happen in practice.
In previous posts, we’ve explained how insufficient self-care can lead to burnout and why the cycle of caring can make self-care difficult for caring professionals. In this post, we’d like to talk about the professional self—the part of a person that identifies with and is nourished by their work—and how you can sustain your professional self for increased wellness in your work.
We’ll be guided by insights and advice from Ciera Jackson, our Professional Development Specialist here at Cummins.
The Hazards of Professional Practice
The first topic to consider when discussing professional self-care for care providers are the inherent hazards of practice.
“If you’re a first responder, for instance, you probably expect that there is some kind of risk that you are taking when you sign up for that job,” Ciera explains. “You might not consider that if you’re signing up for social services of some kind. You may consider that it’s an emotional job, but you don’t necessarily consider the word ‘hazard’ associated with social services.”
Nevertheless, there are certain risks to professional wellness that a person implicitly accepts when choosing to work in social services. Ciera identifies the following 8 hazards as some of the most significant:
1. The consumer wants a quick solution, but we can only offer slow success
“They want it now,” Ciera explains. “‘I don’t want to be depressed anymore. I don’t want this anxiety anymore. I want my kids back right now.’ They want it now, and we tell them, ‘You have to put in the work.’ A lot of times, that’s not sufficient for them, especially if they’re in the mode of crisis. They just want it to be fixed because they’re hurting. So sometimes, if you’re not careful, you can end up working harder than them, and that’s something that can’t happen.”
2. Sometimes we aren’t the right person for a particular consumer
“Yes, you may have whatever title you hold, but sometimes you’re not the person for them,” Ciera says. An example might be if a consumer has experienced past trauma and is not comfortable working with a male therapist. In situations like these, you shouldn’t insist that a consumer work with you if you know you aren’t a good fit for them. “If you can get them the help they need with a different person, because maybe in some way you’re a trigger to them, then do that,” Ciera advises.
3. The consumer might not be ready for change
Sometimes a consumer might say they’re ready to change in a moment of crisis, only to lose their interest in doing the work later on. Ciera illustrates, “You’re still trying to offer solutions, and they reject the solutions. So you’re spinning your wheels in mud trying to help them, and they don’t want the help anymore. They’re no longer in action phase; they’re back to pre-contemplation. And you’re working harder than them, and that is something that you should not be doing.”
4. Negative feelings are projected onto us
“Sometimes people will say things to you that are not necessarily about you. They may seem like they’re about you, but they’re not about you. Don’t take it personally,” Ciera says.
5. The inability to say ‘no’
As caring professionals, we might feel obligated to grant every request our consumers or co-workers ask of us. But it’s vital for our own wellness that we turn down unreasonable requests that might damage our well-being. Ciera’s succinct advice is, “Set boundaries.”
6. Regulation, oversight and control by external, often unknown others
Ciera explains, “Sometimes there are higher-ups, things that are outside of our control, administration…Things happen that affect us, that affect our consumers, and we don’t necessarily like it, but we have to go with the flow. And sometimes we have to save face even if we don’t like it. That’s just how it is.”
7. Normative failure
None of us enjoy failure, especially when that failure negatively affects the people we’re trying to help. But because we can’t control every factor in our work, some amount of failure will be inevitable. “Some things are going to hit us hard some days, and other days we’re going to have great days,” Ciera says. Our work requires that we find ways to weather the hard days.
8. Practitioner trauma (emotional and physical)
“If there are times when you feel emotionally or physically unsafe with co-workers or with your consumers, say something,” Ciera urges. “Be sure to always be aware of your surroundings, and be sure to always keep documentation updated so supervisors may know where you are or what consumers you are dealing with.”
The Professional Self: Factors that Sustain vs. Factors that Deplete
When we talk about self-care, it’s common to use the metaphor of a full or empty glass. For caring professionals, the job requires us to “pour out of” our own glasses to fill the glasses of our consumers. If our glass ever becomes empty, then we’ll be unable to continue helping our clients, so we need to find people, places and things that “pour into” our glasses as well.
There are some factors that sustain or “fill up” our professional selves, and others that deplete or “empty” our professional selves. According to Ciera, the following factors are among the most impactful:
1. Finely tuned professional boundaries vs. boundaries that allow for excessive other-care and insufficient self-care
Ciera is quick to stress the importance of professional boundaries for caring professionals. “I cannot say this enough: boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. Professional boundaries are huge. You have to know when to turn it off. You have got to know when to check it at the door.”
Ciera likes to illustrate this point by telling a story of what poor professional boundaries look like:
“My sister is in the same field that we are in, and she used to work at a particular company. She had an on-call phone, and she was always supposed to be available to her clients. I will never forget one particular client. He called, and called, and called, and called, and called. We would be at dinner and that phone would go off; we could have Thanksgiving or Christmas, and that phone would go off. That phone would go off at 3 in the morning. It was the company’s stance that she was supposed to be available to him regardless. She needed to drop what she was doing, answer the phone, and see what he needed. And 9 times out of 10, there was never an emergency. Her position with the company was, ‘We need to teach our clients to be self-sufficient. We need to teach our clients to problem-solve in the case of an emergency.’ And their stance was, ‘We hear you, but you still need to see what he wants.’ So essentially, she had to prioritize him versus prioritizing herself, and ultimately she left because it was not feasible. That depleted her.”
2. Good supervisor support vs. Poor supervisor support
A supportive supervisor or manager can make a big difference when work becomes especially stressful. “It’s helpful when you feel like you can trust your supervisor, and when they can give you sound advice,” Ciera says.
By contrast, poor support can make a stressful situation even worse. Ciera says, “When you don’t have that support, then you feel like you’re out there by yourself. You might wonder: if you make a bad call, are they going to turn their backs on you? Are you going to be the one who ‘takes the fall’ for it?”
3. Humor and playfulness vs. Excessive seriousness
Just because our work is serious doesn’t mean there is no room for humor and playfulness. In fact, a little bit of lightheartedness (when appropriate) can help to counterbalance the often traumatic stories and experiences we witness. “When you enjoy going to work, that can keep you there,” Ciera says.
As Ciera explains, an atmosphere of excessive seriousness sometimes comes from the top down. “When you have a manager, a boss, a leader who’s too rigid, when there’s no wiggle room, when it’s their way or the highway, when they can’t hear anybody except themselves, sometimes that drains you.”
4. Constant focus on professional development vs. Little attention to long-term professional development
Few things are worse for the professional self than the feeling that our career has hit a dead end. It’s important that we frequently think about our next career steps and find ways to continue developing as professionals. Ciera illustrates this point with another story from her own life:
“I remember when I first finished undergrad, and I had an interview at a particular office. It was a great interview, or so I thought. The lady told me right then and there, ‘This is great, but I’m not going to hire you.’ I thought, ‘OK, did I not interview well?’ And she said, ‘I’m not going to hire you because this is not what you really want to do.’ She said, ‘I see you going way beyond here. You would be a great asset here, but you’re not going to really be happy here.’ And I can appreciate her saying that. She said, ‘My goal is to develop people, and if I were to develop you…I’m not even going to start you here. I’m not going to waste your time.’ So when you are a leader, or when you are sitting with your boss or team lead, it is important for you to be listening, or for them to be asking things like, ‘What’s next for you?’ They don’t have to do this every session, but you should have periodic check-ins. You also have to begin to ask yourself, ‘What do I want? Where do I want to go?’ “
5. Tolerance of some ambiguous endings and normative failure vs. Inability to accept any ambiguous endings or normative failure
“A lot of people, no matter what job they’re in, don’t get in it to fail,” Ciera says. “But you’re going to have failures. You’re going to have cases you don’t win. You’re going to have consumers who regress, who end up back in the system. Normalize the failures.”
An ability to accept some failures goes hand-in-hand with the idea of being realistic about your work. “In an ideal world, I’m sure we would have lots of things, but what’s realistic in our here and now? What’s realistic for this client? What is baseline for this client? If you’re expecting people to be perfect and make no mistakes, then that is not realistic,” Ciera explains.
6. Attempting positive closure at the time of professional separation vs. Neglecting the importance of positive closure at the time of professional separation
As we discussed in our previous blog, it’s important for the well-being of both providers and consumers that there’s an appropriate sense of closure at the end of a therapeutic relationship. “If you can have a good closure experience, that is something that will definitely help you throughout your professional career,” Ciera explains.
Ciera also provides an example of how lack of closure can be damaging:
“I had an experience where I was leaving a company, and my supervisor was not happy about it. I was trying to give proper notice, but he said, ‘You can just leave today.’ And instead of letting me end with my clients appropriately, he just shut it down. My clients had my phone number, and they were calling me saying, ‘I’m not working with any other provider.’ Because for them, they didn’t get proper closure. So when you can have a good transition, that is something that sustains the client and you as a professional.”
Self-Care Action Plan Step #3: Assessing Your Professional Self-Care
Last time, we introduced the concept of the Self-Care Action Plan and explained how you can get started creating your own plan. Today we’ll continue by explaining how to assess your level of professional self-care.
To begin, ask yourself: How well am I sustaining my professional self? What specifically am I doing to sustain my professional self?
After a little brainstorming, assess your professional self-care by considering:
- Is my work meaningful to me?
- Do I feel a high degree of professional success?
- Am I able to appreciate the small victories of my work?
- Am I thinking long-term about my career?
- Do I have a professional environment where growth is encouraged?
- Do I receive enough support from my peers and guidance from my supervisors?
- Am I able to have fun at work in appropriate moments?
- Do I find ways to keep my work exciting instead of boring?
- Am I setting appropriate boundaries with my clients and co-workers?
- Am I able to accept professional failures when they occur?
Based on your answers to these questions, give yourself a rating from 0–6 for how well you are sustaining your professional self, with 0 being not at all and 6 being very well. If you’d like, you can give yourself a rating for each of these questions, then find your average score.
Once you’ve done this, write down your three strongest and three weakest areas of professional self-care. This will give you an idea of which practices you can count on in difficult times, as well as which practices you can work to improve in the future.