What if self-care, but at work?

A bouquet of fall flowers, seen from above against alight gray background

In the U.S., many of us just had a long weekend, thanks to our forebears in the labor movement. Are you feeling refreshed? Did you engage in some self-care activities? Are you feeling some dread about letting that go now that we’re back at work? Today we’re going to dig in on what that care looks like in the context of work.

The kind of self-care that I’m talking about is understanding what you need to be at a base level of “all right” – at the very least, a neutral state where you may not feel your absolute best, but you can handle pretty much anything that’s likely to need your attention – and then doing what it takes to stay at or above that base level as much of the time as possible.

There are two dangerous paths to avoid when thinking about self-care in the context of work. One is path laid out by the industry constructed around the trendy idea of self-care, made up of companies who want to sell the idea (mostly to women) that you can buy a face mask and check off “self-care” on your to-do list. Limiting your concept of self-care to that idea can lead to some extremely un-caring behavior, as we saw in an exposé on the company culture at the luggage company Away last winter:

As the holidays approached, the team had to work around the clock to keep up with customer demand. In December, [a customer support rep] was wrapping up work at 1AM when she saw a Slack message from [her manager]. “Okay everyone! Take a photo with your computer in bed when you get home. Here’s mine!” She was sitting in bed wearing a face mask, still working.

Here’s one important factor in why this doesn’t work: As a manager, your reports will not believe you if you simply tell them that self-care is important and then proceed to ignore your own basic needs. You have to model it and show them that it’s both acceptable and necessary to prioritize their health.

The other dangerous path is assuming that self-care has to happen on an employee’s “own” time, that every second of a day needs to be dedicated to meeting the needs of the company in a visible way or else. Encouraging your reports to take (paid) time off from work is critical; understanding  what they need to do through the course of a regular workday to keep at the base level of “all right” is just as important. In particular, if the work that you do requires a lot of emotional energy – which it often does for mission-driven organizations, since most folks are there because they care deeply about the work – it’s important to recognize that people will often need a quick reset during the day to recharge that energy.

Maintenance and recovery anchors

I like the phrases Jeff Toister uses in his book Service Failure to describe what those things are: maintenance and recovery anchors. The idea behind a maintenance anchor is that it’s something that you do consistently and relatively frequently (at least weekly) that keeps you at a pretty solid level pretty much of the time. Examples might be:

  • Shower and get dressed every day, even when working remotely.
  • Exercise regularly (with goals).
  • Eat well.
  • Drink enough water.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Make your bed in the morning (no, really).
  • Spend (socially distant!) time with people you care about.
  • Read things that aren’t the internet.
  • Write in a journal or draw in a sketchbook.

Recovery anchors are things you don’t necessarily do every day or every week, but they are things you turn to if you need to reset. You should expect your employees – and yourself! – to need to do some of these shorter-term things during the course of the workday. Maybe there’s been a difficult interaction with a customer or a colleague; maybe you’re deeply concerned about something happening in the world outside of work; maybe there are kids at home pulling your attention away from the screen. Some recovery anchors might help you shake it off quickly; some might take more time and give you a chance to make deeper repairs. Here are a few examples:

  • Make a playlist of songs that make you feel better, and listen to it on headphones.
  • Double-check: have you eaten in the last four hours? Are you hydrated? Have you showered in the last 48 hours? If not, do those things immediately. (If you can’t shower immediately, wash your face.)
  • If you’re able, engage in some kind of physical activity: do some planks, pushups, or jumping jacks, take a walk, have a five-minute dance party.
  • Look at puppy GIFs.
  • Take your PTO.
  • Identify whether your most pressing need is to process or to problem-solve; talk to someone who can help you do that: a friend, a trusted colleague, a therapist.
  • Deep-clean your living/working space.

I recommend actually writing a physical list of your maintenance and recovery anchors, because when you really need to reset, you’ll have a ready set of instructions and won’t have to come up with ideas from scratch.

As a manager, I like to encourage my team members to keep this list handy as well. I don’t need to know what’s on each person’s list – if I sense that stress is building to a point where it’s going to negatively impact the person’s work, I can ask them to pick something from the list and take five minutes to do that thing.

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