What is collective care?

four women wearing head scarves and high visability jackets sit in a circle, each reaching a hand into the centre  | collective care | Tempo Therapy and Consulting

23 Aug 2023

For too long there has been a focus on self care when we work in systems with groups of people, in community. We know that community, authentic connection and support are essential for our survival: the pandemic taught us just how vital we are for each other, and polyvagal theory confirms that the need to come together for safety and support is built into our neurobiology. So what is collective care? What does it mean? Why is it so important? Take a look below to find out more.

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Connectedness is protective in the face of adversity.

Bruce D. Perry

I’m not sure when or how I first came across the term collective care.

I do know that my initial thoughts about its intention were influenced by my experiences of supportive colleagues and teams, and were aligned with:

  • ideas of connection, collegiality and peer support
  • community and belonging,
  • feeling validated, appreciated, supported in my work,
  • rigorous discussion with peers, and
  • nourishment, care and fun within the workplace.

As someone who struggles with the individualistic focus of the idea of 'self care', the concept of collective care offers a welcome and more holistic approach to how we can care for ourselves and each other in relation to the ups and downs of helping work.

In many ways, the idea of collective care sits alongside self care as it supports, nourishes, and upholds us individually, as well as through a lens of accountability and peer support.

If anything, beyond general peer support, I had probably thought of collective care as a political stance against the commodification of 'self care':

  • in opposition to its commercialisation,
  • in opposition to the way that self care locates the problem in the individual,
  • in support of a collective approach to wellbeing, given that systems in which we work involve groups of people, and
  • wanting to embrace ideals of communities of practice and community supports.

What does collective care mean?

It is only very recently that I looked into a definition of collective care.

I was unaware that the concept of collective care emerged from principles and practices of social justice and activism.

For example, Act Build Change describe collective care as

  • ‘a communal responsibility for people’s emotional health and wellbeing within groups or organisations’,

whilst social justice advocates Mehreen and Gray-Donald state:

  • 'Collective care refers to seeing members’ well-being – particularly their emotional health – as a shared responsibility of the group rather than the lone task of an individual'.

Mehreen and Gray-Donald go on to add:

'It means that a group commits to addressing interlocking oppressions and reasons for deteriorating well-being within the group while also combatting oppression in society at large. It places an emphasis on joint accountability, with the aim of collective empowerment'.

How does the idea of collective care relate to healthcare?

Counsellor, supervisor and activist, Vikki Reynolds, incorporates ideas of social justice, solidarity, resistance and 'collective ethics' into her stance of collective care for counsellors working with people who are dying on death row or in the community from opioid abuse:

'I am inspired by questions not so much of resisting "burnout", but of how we can act in solidarity to keep the spirit of our collective ethics alive in our work and lives*: How can we be connected with this aliveness? How do we hold onto our collective ethics more fully?' (*bold added by author).

This approach:

  • invites workers to stand together with a focus on client care, ethics and accountability at the centre,
  • acknowledges the role that moral distress plays in the workplace,
  • incorporates ideas of belonging, solidarity and resistance as a way to hold to each other and to hold onto hope in a real way, and
  • acknowledges the whole lives of healthcare workers, rather than only focusing on coping or productivity at work.

When counsellors are able to work in accord with their ethical stance then sustainability becomes possible.

Vikki Reynolds

How can we conceptualise collective care for healthcare workers?

We need to hold ourselves and our clients and patients at the centre of our work. This is not easy to do (from both sides of the relationship!) in work with human beings who are glorious, messy, wonderful and complicated.

Having a group of peers who get the work, the good, the bad and the ugly, is essential. We know this - health teams everywhere turn to each other for support every day. We also know that overwhelmed and toxic systems, and plain old personality clashes, teams can also be places that lack trust, safety and care for each other.

We need new ways to conceptualise support for healthcare workers that go beyond current approaches.

Ideas of collective care can help us to conceptualise a different type of peer support; one that offers and invites:

  • A fierce strength in ethics and accountability
  • A gentleness in care and nurturing
  • A wildness in standing up and expressing what is required

For more, see Conceptualising a practice of collective care in health work.

The problem of staying alive and healthy in the work currently gets constructed as a very individual project. Yet the issues are social and require collective actions and collective accountability.

Vikki Reynolds

Related Resources

Header image: Ahmed on unsplash