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The Helping Professionals Interview Series (Part 4): Are lifelong messages of putting others first central to ignoring our own needs?
The riddle of helper wellbeing is summarised in a text from an old friend (not a health or education professional) after she had seen Parts 1 and the infographic of Part 2 of 'The Helping Professionals Interview Series :
"I keep looking at your graphic and thinking how it’s a combination of each point".
"If you mix one thing from overwhelm and lack of time then you’re stuffed".
"If it’s just one bullet point from ‘lack of leadership’ and ‘exhaustion’ then it’s impossible".
"I’m sorry. I’m just still really feeling how hard it is to look after yourself if any combo is in place”
The chicken and the egg.
We've all felt it before.
But to see it written in four separate text messages like four lonely points of doom left me feeling quite desolate.
You see, we all know what we need to do in order to be healthy, well and happy, care for ourselves, and manage stress and overwhelm. After all, every day we spruik the importance of:
- getting plenty of sleep, water and nutritious food
- connecting with friends and family
- getting enough exercise and time outdoors
- doing the things we love outside of work
- ensuring we have quiet, downtime
The problem is putting it into action, particularly when we have these roadblocks:
- system overwhelm,
- inadequate management and / or organisational support,
- lack of time, AND
- feel stressed, burnt out and exhausted.
In the short term we can't do anything about system overwhelm, or inadequate organisational or management support.
And, theoretically, we do have agency over our time and doing something to support ourselves when we are starting to feel exhausted and overwhelmed.
But again and again, it is clear that it can be incredibly difficult to take any action, especially when we as educators and health professionals generally struggle to admit we need help anyway.
I’m definitely one of those people who don’t like to bug anyone else. I don’t like to ask for help. I think that I shouldn’t need to... it's my issue ... it’s sign of weakness to ask for help. That’s just how I was brought up.
What are the messages we receive?
Participants in the interviews I undertook at the end of last year all commented on the strong messages they had received throughout their childhood and during their professional training, in putting others first.
As discussed in Part 3 of 'The Helping Professionals Interview Series', these messages are born of capitalism, privilege and Human Giver Syndrome - indeed, becoming the model 'human giver'.
I’m not used to looking for support. I was trained in a time when you didn’t get it ... it didn’t matter what happened. It wasn't the culture to get support. Even as students if we were involved with babies dying ... there was no support offered. It was just between the nurses.
I grew up with mindset that you have to put on a brave face, contain yourself, perform your best and that you can’t let anyone know if things are hard.
I was trained in a Catholic hospital when it was all about being selfless ... you shouldn’t put yourself first. It's hard to say no to other people who you think might have a greater need.
Whilst it is important to care for others and be respectful, somehow doing this has become conflated with:
- not looking after ourselves, and
- working until we become sick, burnout or leave our chosen profession.
Many interviewees shared that messages received in childhood and in training are compounded by work environments that amplified this attitude; workplace cultures and systems that:
- breed a sense of competition
- are unequal
- encourage pushing through, ‘soldiering on’, ‘being strong’
- create a fear of losing face or being seen as weak
- don't acknowledge contributions from workers
- don't acknowledge difficulties
- block attempts to seek support
- hold outdated approaches to supporting mental health of staff
Personally it took me a long time to know how important it was to look after myself. In earlier years, I just soldiered on and had to be strong and get through it. Over the years, I started to realise that there are things that need to be done to help you, whether its at work, or managing and coping more generally. There's also an element of competition: not letting the side down and keeping up the front, as you don’t want to get a reputation as a a trouble maker.
Whilst there has been a significant upsurge in the recognition of the need for systemic, cultural and personal supports for health care workers and educators since the onset of COVID-19, it is still difficult for workers to reach out for support, particularly if they are already struggling.
It's the old boiling frog analogy: you don't realise just how hot the water is until it's too late.
Community and collective care are essential ingredients here. Teachers and health professionals have long depended on their teams for support, understanding and fun with people who really get it.
However, with high levels of burnout and staff turnover, family and friends need to consciously step in to check on the helpers around them:
- For those who work in this space, make sure you prioritise spending time with family, friends and colleagues who love you, enjoy you and will know when you're no travelling so well.
- For friends and families, check in on your loved ones who work in the helping professions.
Originally I didn’t want to go out and seek help. It’s hard because you’re not really sure how to I guess. My mum booked my appointment because I wasn’t even in the right place to be able to contact the psychologist.
Once again, I'd like to thank all of the helping professionals who generously gave their time to talk with me at the end of last year.
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) handnhandAU@gmail.com
- Beyond Blue 1300 224 636
- Emergency Services 000
Alternatively, please feel free to be in touch here.
Please note: all quotes were used with permission.
Towards the end of last year, I met with a number of health and education professionals in an informal process to discuss how they manage their own wellbeing. We discussed what gets in the way of them maintaining their own self-care, and finding external help. Part one of this five-part blog series shares the key blockages to seeking support as experienced by these helping professionals.
When so many of our challenges are a result of pressures from work and (rather topically) society in general – reference to ‘self care’ can seem to be a dismissal at best. What of the larger systems and social mechanisms at play? How can we look after ourselves and each other? Social buffering and ideas about connection and empathy give us some clues.
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