I talk a lot about self-care, a concept that means taking time to do the things that you haven’t been able to do, often because of stressful circumstances. From many articles, tweets, and blog posts, I’ve learned about many things I can do – taking baths and walks, sleeping in, booking that much delayed doctor’s appointment, spending time with friends you haven’t seen in a while, and so forth. The goal is to learn to listen to myself when it’s time to say “NO” and/or “STOP” to my work, making the balance between work and personal life easier to manage.
But working in non-profits and doing frontline work makes this harder. Self-care can seem like a box to check off the to-do list. The culture of non-profit organizations is doing a lot with very little, and always doing more. This looks like increasing quotas, tight deadlines, unexpected larger workload/new projects, and fragile supports and systems to deal with it all. It looks like the asking of questions about new projects and opportunities without asking if there is time and mental capacity to do it; the saying “you don’t have to” while saying “you have to”. By the time we realize we’re in this culture, we’re already trained to see ourselves as secondary to our work.
There is a tremendous amount of emotional labour frontline workers do that doesn’t allow for us to press the pause button, and so self-care becomes a struggle to do and keep doing.
A long time ago, I made a promise to myself: don’t bring work home. When I do, I end up staying up into tomorrow, ignoring the things I originally planned to do, and not feeding the passions I have outside of work. So I made this promise, but I have broken it many times. It is hard with deadlines and high stress levels that cause your brain to be on all the time. On some days I’ve told my brain to shut up at 11pm, then again at 2am, then again at 4am, only to wake up in a few hours to go back to my work space and work, work, work.
It doesn’t help that some colleagues around me ignore self-care like I do; we end up enabling each other’s habits. We send emails after work, glued to the screen as if we were still at work. We check them on our off days because we’re “bored”, which is code for overly committed. We stay later than we should in order to finish tasks and projects all in one go as opposed to five. Most importantly, we feel like there is never enough time.
Of course there are many people, things, and places that can help facilitate a process of practicing self-care. I’ve put glitter jars on my desk, stress balls in my filing cabinet, and brought markers to draw on my break. I’ve created many of these things with the young girls I work with, the Village Bloggurls, in order to pass the message along that self-care matters. But my actual work space when I’m not working with them does not allow me to even use those things.
My space is super small and squished, which means constantly moving things on and off my desk. Trainings and/or meetings fall at the odd hours/lunch hour, and if they are occurring somewhere besides my office, it means eating my lunch early only to be hungry when I come back. Or I don’t really take a break and just eat at my desk while working. And anyone who plans and facilitates workshops can attest to many hours of thinking over every possible detail much longer than we are paid for, which means that thinking happens in all spaces we go into. Moving away from your desk is so much harder than it seems.
You just want to get the work done so you a) don’t have to take it home and b) don’t have to worry about it amongst the 549387 other things you already worry about. But it hardly ever works out that way. Firstly, you end up taking the work home in a bag you’ve been told many times is too heavy (with work stuff). Then, you start ignoring things and feeling low on energy. You ignore eating the food you spent much time preparing and eat junk instead; Your skin becomes paler and drier than any Winter could make it; You get sick more often; You fall asleep on every bus, while you’re driving, while you sit at your desk, etc. You forget what enjoyment looks like; And because you’re so tired, you can’t focus nor function. Your body works overtime to accommodate the brain’s command to “keep going”.
There have been seasons where I was super sick, lost my voice, had swollen feet, and running on 2 hours of sleep but still came to work. This is often seen as a mark of dedication and something to be proud of. But I can’t help but wonder if we have to be in such fragile conditions to do our best.
When we all don’t practice self-care and don’t talk to each other about it, the cycle continues. Weighing the pros and cons of taking a day off here or a vacation there is really asking whether our well-being is important enough. It’s an awful reality that doesn’t have to exist if we can change the culture in little steps.
Self-care is a work in progress. I don’t practice it all the time, and sometimes I forget that I am a person that needs it. Sometimes I don’t deal with my stress and feelings, and become very unresponsive and zoned out (this is how I respond to stressful situations; others have different responses and that’s okay!). But I make sure that I encourage myself for the steps I take toward self-care being a part of my regular routine. While I don’t have all the answers, I have “work-in-progress” tips on practicing self-care at work to share:
1. Restructure breaks: Let’s be real: I don’t actually take breaks most days because in my “work work work” brain it doesn’t make sense. Instead, I’ll add something that involves colour and creation into my to-do list, like drawing out a calendar, doodling ideas (emphasis on “doodle”), and colouring in a print-out. Activities like this keep my brain focused in a way that helps me think clearly in terms of what needs to be done and when it needs to be done (hint: not all in one day).
2. Make a list of things to do for the week, then cross out/circle the ones you won’t do today: I find this helpful in two ways: 1) I feel like I’ve done it already (momentary bliss) and b) I tend not to think about it as a “right now” thing. It’s kind of like a “not to-do list”. Doing my lists like this helps me hold myself responsible to my own boundaries. I cannot do everything at once, and that’s okay.
3. Pep talks in between tasks: It sounds very weird, but I find it helpful to talk/whisper to myself about what I’ve done, what I’m going to do next, and remind myself of what I’m not going to do. Asking “are you okay?” is also something I do to really be honest with myself. I get lost in my brain a lot and feel the pressure to do more and more and more even when the pressure isn’t there (the non-profit culture is!). Speaking with myself in encouraging ways really makes a difference in how much I strength I have to say “NO” and stick to it.
See more of Jean's work at www.jeanboampong.com