While job growth in the healthcare and human services sectors continues to grow at a rapid pace, there also continues to be a consistently high rate of employee turnover. One million nurses are expected to turnover in the next 15 years, and direct support professionals in intellectual and developmental disability services have an average annual turnover rate of 49 percent.
There are several factors playing into this high rate of turnover; one is the high level of on-the-job stress that direct-care staff face on a sometimes-daily basis. Burnout is common in these professions, driving many talented health and human service workers away from the field.
As a social worker and former behavioral health technician, the solution to burnout, often touted by fellow direct support workers, supervisors and college professors, boiled down to two words: self-care. A quick Google search of “self-care” will pull up countless trite recommendations: go to a yoga class, eat a healthy meal, get a massage, get a manicure, get acupuncture, watch a good TV show, etc.
While these are all perfectly nice recommendations, they don’t work for everyone. Do all of us enjoy yoga? (No.) Can we all afford regular massages? (Nope.) Is sitting on the couch watching hours of TV healthy for all of us? (Definitely not.)
It’s time to go beyond the idea that self-care is simply binging on Netflix for hours each night or going to that yoga class occasionally. Self-care is as much a mindset as it is a specific activity or routine. And when practiced effectively, it can change you and your staff’s lives for the better.
Self-care is as much a mindset as it is a specific activity or routine
It’s All About Boundaries
Spoiler alert: Everything you read from this point forward will most likely have something to do with boundaries. Keeping healthy boundaries is a skill that can be difficult to master for those in the helping profession. For many of us, we are used to dropping everything to rush to the aid of someone we perceive as more “needy” than we are. However, continually rushing to help others can throw our lives off-balance; who’s rushing to our aid when we need it? Are we neglecting our own needs to better meet the needs of others? This is much, much easier said than done. However, I truly believe this is the foundation of good self-care.
Learn How to Say “No”
Speaking of boundaries, I had little to none when I was a college student. My last semester of college, I was completing the requirements of my psychology degree, interning at a local county health department, completing a practicum at a community health clinic and was the psychology club’s president. Needless to say, my plate was a little full. It wasn’t so much that others were piling the work onto me – I was piling it onto myself. I saw many, many unmet needs on campus and in the community, and I saw myself as the person who could help fulfill those needs.
Then one day, a friend approached me to ask if I would like to be part of a new peer education team to teach students on campus about alcohol and substance use prevention. It sounded like an amazing opportunity and it was certainly something I would enjoy doing. However, something clicked for me in that moment. I could not save everyone, nor could I stretch myself so thin and expect to reach every point in my busy life with the level of care each area deserved. I decided to say “no, thank you” to that opportunity. Something about that moment was freeing for me; I did not have to accept every opportunity to save others at the expense of losing myself.
Learn When to Say “Yes”
The opposite of saying “no” is, obviously, saying “yes.” How does this seemingly simple distinction work? I’ll give you another example from my college years, but this time we fast-forward to my first semester of graduate school. I was beginning my Masters in Social Work program, and as expected, my workload was overwhelming. However, this time I was living across the country, with no family close by and very few friends. One night, a group of students was going to attend a concert and someone invited me to come along. I had initially declined, deciding instead to stay in to work on a paper. However, I realized that night how incredibly lonely I was; I was homesick, overwhelmed with this large life change I had just made and unhappy being alone.
Even though that paper was due soon, I changed my mind and opted to go to the concert. It was an uncomfortable choice. The paper was looming over me, and I did not know the group of fellow students very well. However, it benefited me for the better. I got to know my classmates on a deeper level, I had a nice evening outside of my apartment and I got to enjoy a fun event in my new home state. In that moment, it made more sense to stretch myself for my own well-being rather than to say “no.” Be aware of the moments when a “no” might be an excuse to stay inside your box, while a “yes” can be a chance to release yourself from chains you’ve created.
Fill Your Cup
Remember that laundry list of self-care activities? While some items on that list are beneficial, the list itself can be overwhelming to choose from. When choosing activities for self-care, you need to determine which activities fill your cup. These are the activities that make you physically, emotionally and spiritually feel full and good. For some of us, this might include an activity like yoga. For others, it might be cooking. Or kayaking. Or playing a multi-player role-playing game. For myself, it’s singing in my church choir. In those rehearsals, that hour is mine. I’m so focused on the notes and staying in tune with my fellow singers, that my mind has no room for other worries to creep in. That’s the type of activity that truly made me feel full, after work, school and life often left me feeling empty.
Know Yourself (and Your Limits)
Self-awareness is key to self-care. If you can recognize when you’re reaching the end of your rope, you’re much more likely to create better boundaries, say no, say yes and practice filling your cup. It can also help you determine when you need to reach out and seek help, whether that’s talking to a friend, supervisor or therapist. Admitting you need help is a much better alternative to holding in tension until you “snap.”
Recognizing your breaking point involves first recognizing your best self. Think about it: What are you like when you’re at your best? Are you funny, light-hearted, optimistic? Now think about your traits when you are feeling at your most burnt-out. Maybe you fail to see humor in anything, feel burdened or feel hopeless. These indicators can leak into your work environment; maybe you become short-tempered with your co-workers or even the individuals you serve. Keeping this in mind can help you prevent “going over the edge,” where you risk making mistakes, providing poor care, or (in the worst of cases), taking your anger out on someone emotionally or physically.
All of us in the health and human services field can find nuggets to apply to our own lives and help create more balance and satisfaction in our professional and personal lives. This is not meant to be a prescription or a “be-all-end-all” for life satisfaction; it is simply a good reminder to us all and suggestions for things to try.
That said, I leave those of you in leadership and supervisor roles with a challenge:
How can you role-model improved self-care, strengthen boundaries and help fill the cup of those you manage?
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