I started in the human services 29 years ago. 29 summers. 29 winters. A lot have changed in me, and in that time, and a lot has changed in the world. When I started my career, there was no talk of self-care and we instead spoke of the possibility of being productive 16 hours a day, 6 maybe 7 days per week. Holidays were for the retired. Our mission was to make real and lasting change for as long as we could. The world needed us. We helped save lives.
Burnout was present but seldom talked about. You would hear folks talk of others as no longer being able to hack it anymore or that they sold out and left the field. Perhaps they never really cared? Perhaps they just weren’t strong enough or they never “really” had “it” to begin with. I’ve worked through the pain many a time as my boss considered anyone taking time off as being a sign that they were soft or did not care. I remember one boss calling me when I was sick in bed with a triple infection that was resistant to antibiotics and telling me how she thought I was a team player but was not so sure anymore and that when I was done taking my “mental health day” that there was a hospital full of patients that needed my care. I dutifully returned to work as soon as I was no longer contagious but far before I was actually healthy. Later, major surgery that called for multiple weeks of recovery found me back to work on the third business day after surgery much to the chagrin of the surgeon. Like a 1980’s badass movie guy our mantra was “I ain’t got time to bleed.”
In my career I have looked down the barrel of a loaded gun; pointed at me by an unstable individual whom I was able to talk down and continued work like nothing had happened. It never even occurred to me that I could take some personal time to unwind, clear my head and re-focus. We just were not taught that this was important. So when being released from a dark elevator that had been stuck for an hour or two, I did no reflection, took no time to collect myself and instead got back on a working elevator (so I would not develop a fear) and got off on my floor and ran several more groups that day. Not even trauma, the death of a colleague stopped the day. If we collapsed? Well we would delay long enough (maybe) to see an MD but don’t expect to see me out afterwards. I’ll be back after the appointment.
Vacation days piled up unused and were simply lost when we changed jobs. We didn’t even get the cash for them. It was how it worked. It was how we were taught. It was how it was…
IT WAS WRONG.
So here I am looking at 30 years in the field and instead of teaching folks how I was taught I emphasize the need for self-care, reasonable hours and setting limits, boundaries and taking time to recharge. Slowly, I even started following these guidelines myself. You see, a burnt out helper is not much help. Leaving the profession may help you find something that pays better financially but leaving what you once loved can often leave an emptiness. Balance is key.
You’ve all read about self-care. Hopefully your graduate program even had some training in this area. You know that the following can increase your career longevity:
- Not working excessive hours
- Stepping away from your desk during breaks to clear your head
- Working on art during breaks and rest times
- Building in rest times within your work day
- Setting limits to hours and days of work
- Mindfulness and meditation exercises regularly
- Vacation regularly
- Maintaining balance
- Exploring outside interests
- Learning to say “no”
- Pacing yourself
- Finding inner peace and acceptance
- Being realistic.
Can an old dog learn to practice self-care after almost 3 decades of working 6-7 days, 60-100 hours per week? The answer is yes but with some difficulty. In my case I took a professional inventory and cut out things that I felt were no longer a priority, no longer a must. Though I loved them I stopped attending national and international conferences (I have been a presenter at many and enjoyed it) and diverted the money that I had spent on them to things that I could do with my family. I also dropped many unused memberships. I looked at the writing that I had done and reduced it to the minimum and also started taking weekends off. You see, there will always be a great deal of work to do and that will never change. You will not get it all done if you work 100 hours a week or 40 but the closer to 40 you can do the fresher you just may be.
Using the diverted money, the money that once went to conferences allowed me to invest more in myself, my hobbies and my family. Soon I found myself working on classic cars again, buying a truck to help with work around the farm and taking vacations with my family, renting houses on the water in both the USA and Canada. My wife and I also started taking weekend trips to places within an hour or two of home. We loved to explore and experience life between sessions. On one such trip we found an older country cottage near a waterfall that we fell in love with and eventually purchased. The sound of the falls helps relax you to sleep and soothes you when you are awake. It was new to the market after having been held up in probate for a few years. It was overgrown and unattractive but it had great bones and even greater potential. As we cut the overgrowth and removed the carpeting and other remnants of the old owner we helped the cottage find a new life and a new focus much the same as the cottage was doing for us. At about an hour from home it was far enough for us to be able to reinvent ourselves as a happy couple that wanted to relax and enjoy art, yet it was close enough that we could go almost anytime we wanted to. We started remodeling the day we closed on the property. Paint, new flooring, fixtures and furniture made all the difference. Adding art materials and leaving work-relatred items (including computers) behind helped make our cottage a true oasis. Though we did much of the work ourselves, we took breaks to enjoy a swim, a conversation with neighbors from down the road or simply listen to a song. Playing checkers was a real treat, far from the city on a road where we could not see our closest neighbor and not even a street light to distract us from what nature had to offer…
In time, we found that time need not dictate your every action. The world does not revolve on the 50 minute hour, though we still love our jobs; maybe more so since we started taking breaks.
No matter how you were taught, there is an ability to adjust, to change, to retool. Find the balance between too much work and too much play and embrace it. Challenge yourself as you expand your horizon. Perhaps one day you too will find that cottage or cabin in the woods that fills your heart. May you find a name for it that suits you. As for me and mine, well we went with “Psychs du Soleil” (shrinks in the sun). May you find balance. May you find peace.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA