Are you ready to get real about self-care and work? When most people hear self-care they are thinking about their personal lives, not their work lives. Of our waking hours, 35% is spent at work each week. I don’t know about you but making that 35% the best it can be is important! How often does your work day affect the rest of your day? I know it is not possible to have all good days, so I will settle with more good days and self-care is going to break in the path.
In order to dive deep into self-care, we need to talk a little about mental health. Mental health is a downplayed and a sigma filled issue in today’s society, but it factors in immensely to how you take care of yourself. So let’s slash some stigmas about mental health and figure out how to be our most productive selves.
I didn’t really understand self-care or the need for it when I was in college, but I could have benefitted from it immensely. As I made my way into the workforce, I became depressed and full of anxiety. I wasn’t listening to myself, to my inner voice telling me “you are not okay.” Now I know that voice, and I can hear it even in a whisper. It took a while to lower the volume and understand what I needed beyond basic necessity.
Before we started here I want to note that I am not a mental health professional, I am not writing this post to give mental health advice. This is my personal perspective on self-care and how it can be used for anyone battling work-related stress. For the purposes of this article I am going to mainly be talking about work anxiety and stress because most of the population is going to deal with that, by no means am I playing down any other mental health illnesses in which self-care is extremely important for.
What is self-care?
Self-care is anything you deliberately do to take care of your mental, emotional and physical health. Many times we hear self-care targeted as just mental health, but when we talk about health we should be including mental, emotional and physical. Together they make a tripod of our wellbeing, and you wouldn’t put a camera on a tripod with only two of the three working legs… would you?
Most of the time we think we are taking care of ourselves, but unless we understand everything a person needs to be fulfilled we are missing part of the bigger picture. The best way I can describe this is to think of parents. The often work extra, stay late, do overtime, miss events, and go to bed late along with a myriad of other things for their kids. They don’t take time for themselves because they aren’t thinking about themselves as one of the people that need to be cared for.
Who Should Practice Self-Care
The short answer- everyone, the long answer-everyone and their co-worker. I have never met a person who did not get stressed about something in life. Some people have a larger tolerance than others but still, stress is part of the human experience. When work stress starts to manifest it has implications on all aspects of your life. Everyone has ways to blow off steam, but are they healthy and contributing to building a better self?
About 50% of people who suffer from stress and anxiety say that it impacts their workplace performance, relationships with co-workers, the quality of their work and their relationships with superiors. If it doesn’t affect you at work then it probably will at home, over 75% of this group said it affects their personal life, including relationships with spouses and loved ones.
There isn’t a single person that can’t benefit from self-care because it can be anything that makes you a better person. It can be overcoming an issue, confronting your past, eating a healthy meal, going for a walk, exercising or painting. Saying no to things is self-care. Staying home all weekend to recharge is self-care. Going out to dinner with your best friend is self-care.
Many people have mental health conditions, ranging from anxiety, depression, and OCD to developmental disorders like ADHD and ASD. If you fall into any one of these categories self-care should be at the top of your self-improvement list. You don’t need a medical diagnosis to feel good about practicing self-care either, workplace stress and anxiety affect all employees at some point in their career, learn to take care of it before it takes over.
What Do You Need?
Everyone knows you need food, water and shelter to survive physically, but what about emotionally? According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, there are 5 items that make up your entire well being and they are in the shape of a pyramid. The items on the top of the pyramid cannot be built without a solid base, so you can’t get to self-actualization if you don’t feel you are in a safe environment. Why is this important? If you don’t know what you need you cannot work toward the goal of improving, and in order to improve your overall well being going in a specific order matters.
Physiological – Ability to afford groceries, housing, clothing, and utilities.
Safety – security of employment, resources, family, and health.
Social – Love and belonging, relationships with friends and family.
Esteem – Emotional well being, with 9 different attributes.
Self-Actualization- motivation, drive and the eagerness to succeed.
Let’s dive into emotional needs. Once we know what our emotional health entails, we can take self-care steps to improve it. The items below are littered throughout the pyramid above, emotional health impacts every area of our lives.
- Security – a safe place and environment in which you can live without experiencing fear that would otherwise keep you from developing to your full potential.
- Volition – having the will and power to make decisions in your life.
- Attention – the ability to receive and give to those you care about.
- Emotional connection – emotional fulfillment comes from feeling connected to other people, experiencing friendship, intimacy, and acceptance.
- Community – having social connections and having the feeling of belonging to a community.
- Privacy – alone time, space to reflect on our experiences and learn from them.
- Status – to feel valued in a group of friends, peers or colleagues.
- Achievement – self-worth stems from your achievements and the feeling that you are accomplishing something.
- Meaning – believing in something greater than yourself, that there is a purpose to life and you are at peace with it.
Looking back at college, or living at home you probably had most of these emotional needs met. Once you are thrust out into the work-force it can be hard to figure these out, especially if you moved locations for your job.
I struggled with status, achievement, community, and attention. It is hard to make new deep connections with people. Finding friends is difficult, it takes effort and persistence. At the same time, jobs often start some sort of onboarding where you are expected to learn a great deal of information in a short amount of time. You are going to make mistakes, and the impact of how it is handled can really affect how you view achievement.
Looking back I can pinpoint the areas in which I struggled most. I have made strides in filling in these gaps and learning when I need to take time to for me.
For a lot of people, self-care isn’t something they come across because they have an interest, it is usually because something is wrong and they realize they need to be taking better care of themselves. By the time you get to this point though, you might need more than self-care to right yourself. I would know, I learned the hard way.
Learn a lesson from my struggle – listen to your body. You’ve probably heard this before, but have you really thought about what it means?
- Do you eat a nutritious diet that allows your body to take care of its self?
- When you are thirsty do you drink water?
- When you are tired do you go to sleep?
- When you are uncomfortable in an environment do you leave?
- When you are stressed at work do you talk to your boss or ask for advice?
- Do you have a hobby that is a passion and release for stress?
- Do you have a support system that you can check in with anytime?
When we are in tune with ourselves we can better engage with the world around us. When we are out of tune, the world tends to look like a big scary mess. For me, that is a cue when I need to examine my life a little more closely.
Taking the time and energy to deeply examine your life is not easy, it is also usually not fun either. Avoidance of things that bother us is natural, but remember when we are uncomfortable it is usually because we are growing.
Why Should You Practice Self-Care
You probably want more in life than just survive, right? You want to THRIVE. Your emotional health is imperative to be successful throughout your career. How do you think you will perform at work if you aren’t taking the time to take care of yourself? The answer is not well, eventually, all the “stuff” you need to work on will bubble over. Your emotional health doesn’t care if you are at work when it decides to break down.
This can be hard! My own self-care practice started with saying NO to things. I often found myself in situations where I was tired and exhausted, but surrounded by people and I would have been so much happier at home, alone! I am an introvert at my core, I like seeing people and being social but I absolutely need my alone time to recharge.
Self-care can also be easy. It’s allowing yourself to do the things that bring you joy, peace, and happiness. It could be drawing, painting, knitting, doing yoga, saying no to a social event, saying yes to a Netflix weekend, exercising, listening to your favorite podcast, getting coffee with a friend or going for a walk.
Now let’s take it a step further and determine what we can do to improve each aspect of emotional health. Think of these items as your basic self-care list.
Security – Do you feel safe and secure in your environment at work and home?
If you don’t what would make you feel safer? As a young woman in a new place right out of college this was a big one for me. Even though I was safe, I didn’t always feel safe. It impacted my sleep, which impacted everything else.
If you don’t feel safe at work:
- Is there a specific person or situation that makes you uncomfortable? Talk to your boss or HR about it.
- Ask a co-worker or someone you trust to walk you to and from your car.
- Consider looking for a different position, you should never work in a place where safety is not a given.
Side Note: I had to go to HR about someone at work once. It was uncomfortable, but they took care of it so I didn’t have to worry about it.
If you are worried about the security of your job or position.
- Show interest in the future of the company, ask your boss about coming up with a development plan for your career.
- Actively seek out items that will improve your workplace, people who take initiative are always valued.
- An example of this could be creating a template document for new employees or interns.
- Work on your communication skills.
- Install a special lock, deadbolt or security system. They are becoming more and more affordable.
- Put a fake camera on your door.
- Make a secret code with a trusted neighbor or friend. Like texting them every day when you get home or before you go to bed.
Volition – having the will and power to make decisions in your life.
To me, this means not only having the power to make decisions but to also feel confident in what decide. This applies to work and at home. At work you are a professional of some sort, so you probably make decisions based on your knowledge, training or experience. If you don’t have a lot of experience volition can be very difficult. Here is what you can do:
- Fake it until you make it. Believe in yourself!
- Find a mentor, mentors are great! They can help lead you in the right direction when you are having a difficult time with a project or task.
- Ask your co-workers what their favorite on the job resources are, you could be missing out on valuable information.
- Whenever possible use math, statistics, and numbers to prove points and make decisions. Math doesn’t lie and it doesn’t have opinions either. It also gives you firm ground to stand on.
- Focus on things that you have the ability to change by yourself, you are capable of anything.
- Follow through on promises you make to yourself, whether it is going to the gym, doing the dishes or organizing your closet, just do it!
Attention – Are you talking to the people that are important to you? Calling and texting friends every couple days?
- Set up a weekly chat on your drive home with a friend, parent or family member
- Do a monthly coffee date with a mentor
- Have a night out with close friends or a significant other
Emotional connection – emotional fulfillment comes from feeling connected to other people, experiencing friendship, intimacy, and acceptance.
Emotional connections in our personal lives are important, but people often overlook the importance of making these connections in the workplace. Having people you can trust and rely on at work makes doing your job easier. It can be hard to foster these types of relationships in the workplace, so remember they don’t need to be deep just honest. I have a few suggestions to try:
- Send out an email to see if anyone wants to do Friday lunches.
- If you are working on a new project, ask for input from a co-worker.
- Strike up a conversation about the weekend or a relevant work topic by the coffee pot, keep progressing to learn more about them.
- If there is a largely young crowd see if they want to go to happy hour after work on Friday.
- Talk to people! Instead of sending more emails when someone is confused go see them.
Community – having social connections and the feeling of belonging to a community.
This one can be hard in general. Not feeling like you have a place to fit in is rough! I have felt like this both at work and in my personal life in the past, and so I have some ideas to try!
- Get involved! Many work environments have events you can be part of. Anything from fundraisers, professional development clubs, charity events, volunteering at the food bank and sports leagues. This is a great way to meet other members of the company and get to know them on a different level.
- With the permission of HR, see if you can start your own club – like a monthly book club.
- Chances are you are part of a community (think the one you pay taxes to), so check out local events. Depending on where you live they might even have intermural sports teams you can sign up for.
- Check out the local animal or food shelter and volunteer, giving back always makes you feel good.
- Join an online community you are passionate about.
- Do you work in a challenging field for your gender? Start a support group for people in your degree.
Side Note: I just did this! There are few women I am acquaintances with who are all engineers, we all went to the same conference about women and work. On the way out, I was thinking about how much I enjoyed it but that I also wanted to talk more about it and hear other peoples ideas and thoughts. So I asked the girls if they would want to get together and do just that. They said yes!
Privacy – Do you have a quiet space to get work done and reflect on your day?
Need some space? This is important at home and at work, but it can be hard to get.
- Schedule a conference room for the afternoon for just yourself! This is one of the best ways to reduce being interrupted. If no one can find you, they can’t bother you.
- Do you do most of your work on the computer? Ask if you can work home a few afternoons a week, make a mention of having a dedicated space free of distractions to make it viable.
- Set a time – if you have interns or people who come to you for advice or answers schedule a time they can meet with you each day unless an emergency comes up. This will give you a few undisturbed hours each day.
Home: If you want some alone time you don’t necessarily have to have it at home if you know you will be continuously interrupted. Head to a coffee shop or the local library. They usually have free wifi!
Status – to feel valued in a group of friends, peers or colleagues.
This one is tricky because it has more to do with how other people value you as a person. In order to be valued, you generally have to have something to give. So, in general, be a good person, help others and be compassionate.
Achievement – Make your self-work work for you by accomplishing tasks and goals.
- Are your goals attainable? If you feel they aren’t then you probably are not very motivated to work towards them. Talk to your boss! Ask what the priorities are and get those important things done, so you can check them off the list.
- Break down large tasks into small tasks that are 1 to 2 steps, check those little things off as you go!
- Ask for feedback, if you don’t know if you are doing a good job it can make you doubt yourself.
Home: the Same thing, break down your tasks into manageable chunks and get moving.
Meaning – Are you at peace with your life, yourself and your place in the world?
In your life you are what you choose to be, this comes down to your values and why you think those values are important. This is incredibly difficult for some people, and throughout your life, you may go back and forth on what the greater meaning is. You are going to have to dive really deep into this one, but here are few ideas to get you started.
- Figure out what is important to you and why
- Try meditation – there are a lot of great apps for this.
- Try mindfulness, check it out here.
- Do some yoga – it combines meditation and mindfulness, it also benefits mental health.
- If you are religious consider all the religions out there and why you are picking to practice this specific one.
These are very specific emotional self-care items, but as I said before unless we know what we are missing it is really hard to fix a hole in your emotional wellbeing. Take an opportunity to evaluate your life and determine how you feel about it.
So now what? I hope you feel empowered! Especially if there are some items you found you could improve on, and know that you do not have to do it alone. There are many types of mental health professionals out there that can provide counseling and advice to get you where you need to be. Checking an item off this list is an enormous task, but it is one that can be completed when you are honest with yourself. Just like any other organ in the body, the brain works best when we give it what it needs. And like in any other medical case going to your family doctor is a great place to start.
Nope, not done. Self-care is near and dear to my heart, and we still have a little bit to talk about. I think we have a pretty good handle on emotional health, but physical and mental health key into self-care as well. Many activities can benefit multiple or even all the areas of the wellbeing tripod. For example, joining a softball team. You are exercising your body and also building up your sense of community and interpersonal relationships. And on top of that exercising is good for your mental health too, this article explains why.
On your journey to self-care start small! See what works for you and what you like doing. Here are some additional examples of self-care. It really can be anything.
- Go get a massage
- Start journaling
- Do a random act of kindness for someone
- Go to a support group
- Pack a healthy lunch
- Go to a movie by yourself
- Read a new book
- Give minimalism a try by reducing clutter
- Buy a new toy and play with your pet
Now say you get to a point in life where you are pretty happy, all your emotional needs are met and you are generally doing well, should you still be practicing self-care?
Yes! Unless you plan on becoming stagnant and complacent. You worked hard to build a solid base to stand on, it takes courage and strength to define yourself, but your definition is always going to be changing. With more work, it will become more eloquent and defined, reaching deeper but also wider.