5 self-care strategies for health care workers
By Kate Gottlieb, Practice Greenhealth membership engagement manager
At Practice Greenhealth and Health Care Without Harm, we talk a lot about building resilience both in the health care sector and the community. We guide our members on adapting existing infrastructure and community planning to prepare for emerging crises. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I can’t help but think of our health care worker’s social resilience.
Compassionate care can come at a cost. Physicians and nurses feel grief in response to their patients’ suffering — leading to burnout, traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue in addition to physical illnesses. While you cannot eliminate these negative stressors, personal self-care can help mitigate these effects. It is also difficult to care for patients when you are thinking of the needs of your children, not sleeping well, or forgetting to eat. Like a hospital investing in community benefits to improve health outside their walls, investing in your self-care can improve your well-being, longevity, and foster a healthier environment around you.
“As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.” -Maya Angelou
As part of Practice Greenhealth’s member engagement team, I was challenged to make a self-care plan. We focused on the National Wellness Institute’s six dimensions of wellness: physical, social, intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and occupational. The exercise was insightful as I challenged myself to think about how I could improve in each of these areas. My first self-care improvement was replacing my screen time with going outside at least once a day with no phone to free my mind and observe nature. I also want to be more intentional about connecting with others, and at Practice Greenhealth, we have a virtual gathering where I get to play fun games with my colleagues and relate to each other.
Everyone’s self-care plan will be different. While exhausted by your 12-hour shift or never-ending COVID-19 news, you must find strategies that work for you. As a frontline hero, you must take care of yourself so you can be well enough to take care of others. From the emergency department physician to the work-from-home parent, others are depending on you. It’s easy to become consumed by the chaos of the world and neglect your own needs. It’s not selfish to take care of yourself, even when things get busy. Instead, that is when self-care is most needed. I am going to walk you through the process of “putting on your mask before helping others.”
1. Evaluate your coping skills
Identify how you are dealing with your stress or anxiety. Divide your current coping methods into two categories: positive/healthy and negative/not so healthy. Be honest with yourself. Replacing negative behaviors with a positive one is going to give you long-lasting health benefits.
2. Daily self-care needs
Well-being is more than physical activity and nutrition. Write down what you’re currently doing for your psychological, emotional, spiritual, social, financial, and workplace well-being. Think about the areas where you are doing well and areas where you can improve. From there, you can identify positive coping strategies to try.
3. Self-care needs during the pandemic
At a time when you are working in COVID-19 hot zones, with emotions high and routines destroyed, it’s important to have a plan to avoid coping behaviors that can be detrimental to your health. Think about when you are most vulnerable to self-destructive behaviors and establish actions you can take to stay calm, relax, and bounce back.
“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”-Anne Lamott
4. Evaluating your barriers and adapting
Your self-care plan should be evolving, including strategies and tools that help you manage the stress and anxiety that exist in our everyday lives. It’s important to plan to help you overcome the barriers that you may face. If you can’t always leave for a walk, what is your backup plan? Can you listen to a guided meditation in the break room? Avoid the donuts and reach for fruit? Find what works for you to reduce and eliminate your negative coping behaviors.
5. Create your self-care plan and stay accountable
Your self-care plan will be a constant reminder to prioritize yourself. It can be as detailed or as simple as you want. Set your intentions and plan for the day — setting reminders in your work calendar or on your phone is an excellent way to hold yourself accountable. You could also identify an accountability partner to help keep you on track.
Templates to help develop your personal self-care plan:
While studies have shown that most stressors are due to institutional, medicolegal, and political factors beyond health care workers’ control, there are several things you can do to help take the edge off and make the best of stressful situations.
We are all in this together. You are strong, you are resilient, and your self-care is always evolving. We are going to have bad days. Prepare for those, listen to your body and mind, and find positive ways to unwind. You are deeply appreciated and valued for your sacrifice and service.
Kate Gottlieb has a master’s degree in health education, is a certified wellness and health coach, and holds professional certificates as a worksite wellness specialist and program manager.