Living life is hard.
The world, in and of itself, is a frustrating place – never mind having to successfully walk through it.
We’re pulled in a million different directions, trying desperately to fulfill the needs of our employers, our partners, our parents, our friends, our children, and – if we’re lucky enough to remember – ourselves.
But more often than not, we’re also dealing with internal battles or existential crises on top of all of the external forces pressuring us to be productive all the time.
And to make matters worse, loud noises wake us up in the morning, whether it’s garbage trucks, crying babies, or alarm clocks.
It’s no wonder we’re so stressed out all the time.
And for activists and people working in human service professions especially, where we never get a respite from dealing with people face-to-face, burn-out feels inevitable.
But it really doesn’t have to be.
What Is Burn-Out and Why Does It Happen?
Burn-out, especially as it applies to compassion fatigue, is characterized by physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion that causes a decline in your ability to experience joy and feel and care for others.
Burn-out happens when you give more energy and compassion than you receive, and as a result, you lose sight of the light of hope at the end of the tunnel.
And in professions and advocacy work where we expend emotional and physical energy day in and day out, and therefore may experience burn-out easily and often, this loss of hope can be detrimental to both our work flow and our spiritual well-being.
Unfortunately, we also live in a culture that prizes burn-out. It’s a sign of overachieving and perfectionism, two attributes that we (misleadingly) value on a societal level.
Sure-fire ways to achieve burn-out include overloading your schedule, accepting more work than you can handle, overworking, sacrificing basic physical health (eating, sleeping, playing), putting off visits to the doctor, giving up reading for pleasure to read professional journals, and misusing vacation time to attend workshops.
Essentially, the easiest way to achieve burn-out is to lose your work/life balance.
And we tend to reward people for that.
We reward burn-out.
So, oftentimes, when I try to talk to people about the importance of self-care to prevent burn-out, their reaction is along the lines of “But that’s so selfish” or “But I don’t have time for that.”
But here’s the thing: That’s exactly the point.
Why Are We Talking About Self-Care Again?
In case you haven’t noticed, the cybersphere of feminism has been really into self-care lately. It’s growing to be a basic tenet of the current wave.
From the #FemFuture retreat to Because I Am a Woman getting this obnoxious message about how their feminism is too “cutesy” to – ohhh – just about every Everyday Feminism article, feminists are preaching the virtues of self-care.
And, really, this isn’t anything new.
Audre Lorde wrote in 1988, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
And at Everyday Feminism, we believe that people have internalized society’s messages about “not being good enough and deserving to be oppressed, violated, exploited, and discriminated against,” and we strongly want people to “free themselves of these messages and believe in their inherent self-worth.”
And we believe that this starts from the inside-out.
We have to be selfish. We have to make time for self-care.
Because as touchy-feely, pseudo-spiritual, this-sounds-like-something-my-therapist-would-say that it might sound, self-care is revolutionary.
And it starts first with your understanding that you need it, and then with believing that you deserve it.
And if, of all things, you want to prevent burn-out, then self-care is a really perfect place to start.
What Does Self-Care on the Job Look Like?
Self-care exists on three levels: Personal, Professional, and Organizational. And for the best results, you’re going to want to try to achieve happiness on all of these levels.
When we talk about personal self-care, we’re talking about seemingly small things: receiving emotional support from your family and friends, attending therapy if you want to and have the resources for it, practicing basic physical health, allowing yourself leisure and spiritually-oriented activities, having humor in your life.
Although a lot of these sound easy to a lot of people (I, for one, cannot imagine a life where a person can go an entire day without laughing), people who either suffer from low self-worth or who are not valued on a personal level by external motivators might not feel that they have the time or the energy to enjoy some of these simple pleasures.
But this focus on the self in integral to your well-being.
Make time for yourself. You do deserve it.
Personal self-care only goes so far in helping you keep your sanity, though. For those of us working day in and day out at difficult, demanding, or emotionally taxing jobs, it’s also necessary for us to have some support on a professional level.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to go on all-staff retreats (although that most certainly helps) or have lunch-break yoga hours, but it does mean creating an environment at your workplace that makes you feel comfortable and secure.
For instance, when you have supervision meetings with your supervisor, what do you talk about? Your successes? The tasks that your boss needs you to complete? Fair enough. But how often are you talking about your struggles? your feelings? your own personal needs and professional goals?
You need to achieve trust and safety with your supervisor and co-workers in order to create a supportive environment.
And you can do this simply by nurturing an environment where people’s feelings matter – where they can be expressed and held in a safe space. Oftentimes, that takes a lot of honesty (which can be uncomfortable!) on your part. But watch how much can change just by asking, in earnest, how people are doing today.
Most organizations, unfortunately, foster a top-down, completely undemocratic way of running, which is why it’s also important for self-care to exist on an organizational level.
Having agency support is imperative in your quest for resisting burn-out.
Does your agency recognize the need for self-care? Do they honor the necessity to take mental health days? Do they offer you professional support in ways that are meaningful and useful to you? Do they encourage you to take real lunch breaks? Do they stress that you should use your vacation time to relax and rejuvenate?
If not, it might be time to have a chat with the higher-ups.
Organizational structure matters. Hell, you can get a damn degree in it. And if your agency isn’t doing right by its employees, then they need to know!
A work environment where people feel that their personal safety is being taken into account is one where people are more comfortable and also happier.
And those are the kinds of places where burn-out can be prevented.
So Where Do I Start?
Take out a piece of paper and a pen. Go ahead. I’m not going anywhere.
Now, write down a few simple things that you can do when you’re feeling stress creep up on you in a working environment. Sitting at your desk isn’t the place for a bubble bath (or, you know, if it is, more power to you) or a full-body massage, but…
Can you practice breathing exercises? Can you go make a cup of tea? Can you take a walk around the block for some fresh air? Can you take fifteen minutes to draw a funny little card for someone to brighten their day? Can you ask someone for a few minutes of verbal support?
Keep the list next to your desk.
Now, whenever you feel stressed, you can glance at it and remember that you do have options, that there are ways to take care of yourself right now.
Self-care doesn’t have to be a huge, defiant, time-consuming event.
Sometimes it’s just taking care of yourself in the moment.
It’s saying, “Oh. Hey. I’m getting that constricting feeling in my chest that tells me that something is emotionally wrong. I need to deal with this before it gets worse.”
It’s being honest with yourself and recognizing that maybe tonight is a good night to catch up with an old friend at your favorite restaurant or to go home and enjoy baking some cupcakes or to make it to the gym this weekend.
Self-care is as simple as that.
Burn-out is a reality.
But it doesn’t have to be your reality.
By practicing (or introducing) self-care on personal, professional, and organizational levels, you can help prevent and intervene the cycle of compassion fatigue that causes so many people (and their flame of passion) to fizzle out.
So, tell me: How will you practice self-care today?
Melissa A. Fabello, Editor of Everyday Feminism, is a domestic violence prevention and sexuality educator, eating disorder and body image activist, and media literacy vlogger based out of Philadelphia. She enjoys rainy days, Jurassic Park, and the occasional Taylor Swift song and can be found on YouTube andTumblr. She holds a B.S. in English Education from Boston University and an M.Ed. in Human Sexuality from Widener University. She can be reached on Twitter @fyeahmfabello. Read her articles here and book her for speaking engagements here.