Why telling people to care for themselves doesn’t work, and what leaders can do instead.

Title text in the middle: How caring leaders might rethink self-care. Below the title text are a series of paper boats, all white, with the second one blue.

-by Timothy (Tim) Grivois-Shah, Ed.D. 

This article is for leaders of caring organizations who work hard to take care of their people. The words and action steps below reflect perspectives and experiences of caring professionals who have generously and kindly shared with me what they have learned about self-care.

I work with caring professionals in education, nonprofits, and government agencies. These teachers, law enforcement officers, and program staff often do work that feeds the soul more than their bank account. Many times, leaders of the caring organizations I work with want to support their team, and they’ll think of all sorts of creative ways to celebrate their staff. I’ve seen managers who handwrite positive notes to their staff, bring food to meetings, and surprise staff with gift cards. If this is something your organization does, don’t stop! It’s important to celebrate your team and to recognize the good that they bring to your organization. Just know that this isn’t self-care. 

Self-care happens from the inside out.

Self-care happens from the inside out. Teresa Durazo, a leader at Gallego Intermediate Fine Arts School says, “I guess I’m not sure what self-care is for most people. For me, it’s looking within and doing whatever it is that I need to do and want to do.” Teresa journals, thinks about how she is feeling, and decides what needs to happen to “feel right with myself.” Sometimes, telling family and loved ones what she needs requires at least a small amount of courage. Nevertheless, she knows that honesty and setting boundaries allows her the time and space she needs to be happy and to be her best self for those she loves, including the students she serves.

I asked Teresa to imagine what she might say to me if I told her that I had a hard week at work, and that I was going to treat myself to a latte for self-care. “Well, I suppose I’d say ‘It’s great that you’re taking some time to treat yourself. What’s going on at work?’” The latte is outside-in. The kind of reflection Teresa would prompt me to do happens from the inside-out. Which is more likely to lead me to discover what I could do to be happier at work? 

Action steps for leaders:

  1. If you recognize that your staff is in need of care, focus on creating safe spaces and times within the workday where individuals can check in with themselves and notice what’s on their mind and on their heart.
  2. When staff need time to attend to issues that are causing stress, be as flexible as possible.
  3. Stop for a moment and check in with yourself. I’ve started to journal, and I often use the Eight Dimensions of Wellness cards to think about opportunities I have to care for myself.

Self-care is life.

Dr. Toni Harrison-Kelly, teacher in Dallas-Forth Worth independent school district and co-founder of School Leadership for Social Justice, says “It’s weird to me that self-care has to have its own term. It’s just life to me.” From Toni’s perspective, the term self-care “feels unnatural and unnecessary.” While Toni often hears colleagues talk about massages, pedicures, and yoga as being self-care activities, none of this has ever felt important to her. Instead, she has a habit of journaling when she feels it necessary. This helps Toni understand how she is feeling and thinking, and what she may want to do differently. Another one of Toni’s life disciplines is to do what it takes to get work done by Saturday so that she can disconnect from work completely on Sunday. Toni knows her approach to life might not work for everyone, particularly for people who truly enjoy yoga and might not want to journal, but for her, what makes her approach to (what other people might call) self-care effective is that it’s not an event—it’s just life.

Some people tell me that they have a weekly appointment to get their lashes done, or that they always make time to exercise in the morning. While the lashes might look nice and the workouts may feel good, why these activities matter is because they aren’t events, but rather the outcome of a habit of making something that matters a way of life. Self-care is life, not an event.

Action steps for leaders:

  1. Stop sharing lists of self-care activities. While these might be helpful for someone who truly has no idea where to start, it’s more effective to create times and places within the workweek for individuals to engage wellness on their own.
  2. Imagine the happiest, most effective version of yourself. How are you spending most of your time? Is there a small step you could take to align what is happening now with what you actually want?
  3. For most caring professionals, their work connects strongly to their identity. Consider how you might help your team spend more time on the aspects of their work that matter most to them and to those you serve.

No one can do anyone else’s self-care.

Even with the best intention, telling someone to take care of themself is not likely to lead to effective self-care. This is because self-care is work, and it is work that only the self can do. This can be hard for leaders of caring organizations, particularly when they see staff engage in behaviors or activities that at first might not make sense. 

Because self-care is work that only the ‘self’ can do, what seems obvious to others might not be obvious to the ‘self.’ More importantly, what others believe someone needs might not even be true for that person. For some people, unplugging from work, family, and social obligations might be healing, while others may need to “re-plug” into their caring communities. The only person who can know for sure is each individual self.

When I lead professional learning on self-care, I now begin the first workshop by explaining what will not happen: 

  • I won’t lead group mindfulness exercises.
  • No one will ask them to do yoga.
  • I won’t tell anyone to eat more fruits and vegetables.

For some people mindfulness, yoga, and a healthy diet are the foundation of their happiness and health. However, self-care is an individual process of learning what the ‘self’ needs and respecting those needs by taking action. Because self-care begins with each individual self, there is no checklist, wellness bingo, or gym incentive program that is likely work for more than a few people.

Action steps for leaders:

  1. Frequently and sincerely ask your team what they need to be happy and effective.
  2. When people tell you what they need, believe them. 
  3. Sometimes, thinking about our organization as though it were one person can help make self-care systemic. If your workplace were one human being, what might this person need to be well?

For leaders of caring organizations, creating space for self-care during the work day has never been more important. Truthfully, self-care has nothing to do with treats or gestures, no matter how well-intentioned. Instead, focus on actions that help you and those you work with pay attention to themselves and express what they need to be happy and healthy.

For those interested in a flexible resource make self-care relevant to each individual on your team, and scalable to everyone in your organization, check out the Eight Dimensions of Wellness cards. They’re on sale until Valentine’s Day, so order a set for yourself and share them with a caring professional in your life!

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