Through November – December in late 2021, I met with seventeen helping professionals from the following areas: nursing, teaching, music therapy, pharmacy, counselling, child and family therapy, social work and service management to discuss how they seek help or look after themselves when they are struggling. This infographic summarises key findings.
The Helping Professionals Interview Series (Part 3): The Misnomer of Self Care
We have a culture of taking people who want to care for, provide, and nurture (others) … a really compassionate person. So why do we blame that person for having that much empathy?
This week has been tough.
With all the omicron news, the stress, anxiety and overwhelm are palpable.
And like many Australians with friends and family testing COVID positive, it is all very close to home.
So too, is the tightness I feel in my chest every time I talk to, see, hear about, and meet overwhelmed healthcare workers and teachers.
And there is the constant flow of articles about overworked, stressed out, and in-the-process-of-resigning healthcare staff who are being asked to isolate for shorter periods of time, and / or to work COVID positive if asymptomatic.
Not to mention educators returning to classrooms full of uncertainty, ever-changing rules and increased chores relating to protective COVID-screening requirements.
Any way you look at it, the amount of pressure on helping professionals right now is huge.
If we're looking at a hierarchy of needs, the notion of 'self care' and it's association with individual responsibility, seems trite at best, and dangerous at worst.
The thing is, self care is a misnomer.
To clarify, taking responsibility for our own wellbeing is essential.
However, if the system is broken, self care is not going to
- provide more funding for organisations
- train and onboard more workers
- reduce workloads or pressure on staff
- generate much-needed, practical systemic supports
- create courageous and compassionate leaders & management or
- produce a supportive team
As Alex Iantaffi and Meg-John Barker talk about in their book, 'Hell Yeah Self Care' (essential reading by the way!), the very notion of self care is problematic, as it individualises a problem that is the result of overloaded and toxic systems.
Individuals not coping is a normal response to extreme pressure over a long period of time.
So often we internalise and individualise systemic problems: I’m not taking care of myself enough; I’m not doing enough self care. When actually what we are trying to do is survive under capitalism in a system that doesn’t allow enough time or resources for us to care for ourselves and one another.
The cumulative burden on women
Women make up over 70% of the education, health care and social assistance workforce, and undertake 50% more than men of the unpaid household chores and caring responsibilities.
When you add to that the emotional and mental load, largely carried by women, and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the current and cumulative burden on women at this time is enormous.
Not only are we trying to survive ever-changing policies and protocols within complex systems whilst also home-schooling our kids, we are trying to do this in the midst of a pandemic.
And the research on the impact of all of this is in:
- 77% of workers experienced burnout in 2020, with numbers expected to increase in 2022, particularly for women.
So, rather than put the impetus on individuals to manage their ‘self care’, lets look at the causal factors here.
Capitalism and privilege
We all are marginalised or oppressed to different degrees.
As a Western, white, cis-gender, middle-class woman, I have enormous privileges.
To name a few:
- I am not living in a war zone
- I have been, and continue to be able to access any healthcare or education I want
- I have access to fresh, nutritious food and clean water
- I can afford to pay for the supports that I need
- I don't have to worry about violence in relation to my skin colour or my sexual orientation
- I have access to good quality childcare
On the other hand, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, I am five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than men, and I earn 14% less than men. Further, in 'The Future Face of Poverty is Female' report I see that my superannuation payout is likely to be 42% less than men.
Human Giver Syndrome
A relatively new concept (to me) worth exploring in relation to this, is that of 'Human Giver Syndrome', coined by Kate Manne in her 2017 book 'Down Girl: the Logic of Misogyny'.
Human Giver Syndrome describes the phenomenon whereby there are two classes of people:
- human givers, who offer themselves, their time, their bodies, their being in order to uphold the needs and desires of the human beings; and
- human beings, who have a right to express and be in their own humanity - that is to focus on themselves.
This is a complex dynamic, whereby the human givers support the needs of the human beings, with a smile, without complaint and whilst looking good. As Kate Manne puts it, it’s an “assymetrical moral support” landscape.
Whilst there are many men who are human givers, it is without doubt women who have held and continue to hold, this role.
I'm not talking about anything new here; but we do need to focus on ways to challenge the broader cultural, structural and financial systems that serve some, and use others.
The levels of burnout and exhaustion within themselves and witnessed amongst colleagues were keenly noted amongst those who participated in these interviews.
Caring for myself is not self indulgence. It is an act of self preservation and that is an act of political warfare.
If you have found the content of this blog to be distressing, or to have touched into something for you, the following services can be contacted for immediate support:
- Lifeline 13 1114
- Hand n Hand Peer Support (for healthcare workers)
- Beyond Blue 1300 224 636
- Emergency Services 000
Alternatively, please feel free to be in touch here.
From the first three parts of 'The Helping Professionals Interview Series' we've heard that teachers and health professionals struggle to reach out for support and care for themselves. Why is this? In this penultimate blog in the series, we hear through the voices of participants that the answer is tied up in societal messages that begin in childhood, and continue on through professional training and within workplace cultures.
The first four blogs in this five-part series have illuminated the significant challenges faced by workers in helping roles in Australia, and the need for change if we are going to sustain a stable and healthy workforce in healthcare and education. The statistics are dire, but there is a way forward. This blog explores how we can nurture hope in healthcare and education through presence and connection.
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Header image: Tiago Bandeira