In 2022, International Women's Day takes place amidst war in Ukraine, flooding in Queensland and New South Wales, and the third year into the COVID-19 pandemic. With women making over 70% of the education, health care and social assistance workforce, and undertaking 50% more than men of the unpaid household chores and caring responsibilities, the current and cumulative load on women at this time is enormous.
Why collective care is essential for self care
When I first heard the term ‘collective care’ it made so much sense. More and more I have felt that ‘self care’ is a term that has a whiff of blame, an inference that it is our fault if we are struggling.
Of course we need to look after ourselves. But perhaps more importantly, we need to look after each other.
The need for connection and community
COVID-19 has highlighted the need for connection for our individual and collective wellbeing. We are, after all, wired for connection and community. As American psychologist Louis Cozolino puts it:
"We are not the survival of the fittest, we are the survival of the nurtured."
So, what is Cozolino saying?
- We survive when we are cared for and protected.
- We survive when we are helped and encouraged to develop.
- We are not meant to care for ourselves alone.
There is a reason that we have evolved to exist together: we flourish with the support of our people.
Collective care in the workplace
Positive workplaces understand the importance of:
- cultivating supportive communities
- implementing preventative measures and protocols at an organisational level
- formal and informal supports such as good management and leadership, regular supervision and peer support
- encouraging employees to have fun and learn together to create cohesive teams with good morale
We all have positive and negative work experiences. When I think back to difficult situations that I have confronted at work, I know it is the support and care of my team, friends and family that helped me through. I also know that in the times that I haven’t had adequate support, the isolation and burden was hard to bear.
Social buffering is an area of science made famous by Jim Coan and associates with their 2006 study demonstrating that adults undergoing a painful experience found the procedure to be more bearable when they had a trusted, caring partner holding their hand. What is perhaps both surprising and sobering, is the finding that in the absence of a trusted partner, pain was more tolerable when holding hands with a stranger, or being alone, than it was when holding hands with a partner where the relationship was difficult.
A team of neuroscientists led by Nim Tottenham found that this same buffering effect with parents who are responsive and present to their child’s needs. Children who have attentive and attuned parents have greater capacity to respond to situations with flexibility, and are able to concentrate for longer periods of time than their peers with disengaged parents.
What does this mean for collective care?
- Supportive and caring connections with others help us manage stress and improve our ability to respond with flexibility to challenging situations.
- Conversely, we are better off alone or being supported by strangers, than being surrounded by people that we know who are disconnected from our needs.
Ultimately it is the quality of the relationship that matters.
How do we create quality connections that build support and care?
True connection, according to researcher and author Brené Brown, requires us to be able to
- sit with our own discomfort
- be vulnerable with someone who is safe, supportive and empathic
- have real, robust and brave conversations
So that we can be seen.
Empathy is the key.
Empathy is the link that helps us to move from feeling disconnected to connected. Empathy enables us to identify with the feelings and perspectives of another and stay with those feelings. This means being able to sit in joy AND discomfort.
Brené Brown on empathy
In this clip Brown cites Theresa Wiseman’s four qualities of empathy as:
- Being able to see the world through another’s eyes
- Having an attitude of non-judgement
- Recognising emotions in others and
- Communicating understanding of these emotions
In order to be present and sit in our own discomfort, we need to feel safe.
Building authentic connections in relation to our work
For a myriad of reasons, it is not always possible for us to feel safe at work. And feeling unsafe for prolonged periods can lead to poor mental health. However, as we have discussed, turning to others to shift from stress to safety can be of enormous benefit.
For when your workplace or colleagues might be a part of the problem, or are too stressed to be of support, creating networks outside of your organisation are important. Some ways to do this are through:
Colleagues who are friends outside of work
Your professional association
Accessing external supervision
Engaging with external counselling
Connecting to a support group
Talking to family and friends
Connection is ... the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.
Find relief, understanding and support in a small and confidential group of peers.
Within the helping professions we often focus on the more challenging end of the joy - pain spectrum in this work: exhaustion, compassion fatigue, secondary stress and vicarious trauma. This blog series seeks to rectify that, with Part 1 focusing on vicarious resilience, Part 2 unpacking compassion satisfaction, Part 3 looks at suggested changes in terminology and Part 4 addressing the importance of, and risks associated with, connecting with others when in a helping role. Cultivating awareness of both ends of the joy - pain spectrum in the helping professions is essential in supporting worker wellbeing.
Post-traumatic growth is a familiar concept to many. But what about other positive impacts that workers can experience? Vicarious resilience and compassion satisfaction help us to understand the ways that workers in helping or caring roles can be positively impacted, or even transformed, by witnessing the strength and resilience of others. Holding an awareness of both ends of the spectrum - the joy and the pain in the work - may hold the key for a healthy, successful and durable career.
Header image: mentatdgt