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.

Recognizing remote overwork and burnout

A joshua tree is growing bent over sideways in the foreground of a desert landscape.

Like most managers, I’ve spent time staring down some major burnout. At one point, I was directly managing 15 people who worked shifts that covered more than 100 hours per week. I felt that in order to be a good manager, I needed to be available to everyone at all times… but that wasn’t translating the way I expected. I was working all the time, but we weren’t meeting our goals by just about any metric. I knew I needed to make some significant changes to the way the team and I operated, if we were all going to continue doing this work for much longer.

I wasn’t alone in struggling to find the right balance of what to work on, when, and how much. There are those who insist that nothing can be accomplished in less than 80 hours per week; others posit that you only get a few hours of productive time per day and it’s pointless for knowledge workers to spend more than that trying to get things done. In our current environment of shelter-in-place orders, there are even more variables at play: who has to spend their time caring for kids or other loved ones? Who is navigating personal grief? Who has to manage deep anxiety without the in-person help of their usual therapist? How, and when, does the attention required for work fight through the ambient stress of one’s household and the internet?

Often, those extolling the virtues of long hours (or, now, turning quarantine into an opportunity to build a side hustle) have viewed that time as a proxy for dedication and commitment. Dedication and commitment are, in turn, considered morally virtuous. This is a trap that mission-driven organizations are especially prone to: look at all the time I dedicated to the cause, all the sacrifices I made, often for little or no money! I must be a good person. In fact, I must be a better person than my colleague who stopped working at 5 sharp every day.

It sounds absurd when I put it that way, but many of us have felt it; it’s often easy to see when other people have fallen into the overwork trap, but it’s harder to identify from inside.

How do we know if we’re in the trap?

Think about what this looks like when you see it in your friends: In work that involves communication – whether that’s writing grants, creating marketing copy, or answering customer service questions – we can see others start to lose the cohesiveness of their thoughts when they’re overworked. We can see others tend to lose empathy when they’re tired or hungry, and how that makes it harder to connect with the people they work with, which in turn makes them less effective and can even damage their relationships. In work that requires attention to detail, we can see when someone’s pushing past the point where focus comes easily, and we anticipate how much extra work they’re about to create for themselves.

In remote environments, it becomes even more critical to be able to identify these red flags in yourself – you can’t rely on your colleagues seeing it in your face or your posture. It’s a lot easier to dismiss each other’s effort, assume ill intent, or simply ignore each other when we aren’t physically present together. Identifying the signs that we’re in the trap becomes essential to maintaining the team’s trust in the long term.

Okay, so then how do we get out?

Pulling ourselves out of the overwork trap isn’t easy. When we’ve connected the idea of our value as a person to the idea that we spend most of our waking hours “working,” reducing that working time can carry a lot of guilt. Back when I was managing that 15-person team, I had to be able to see for myself that the work I produced in fewer hours – with a focus on outcomes, not inputs – was better and more useful than what I was doing before. It wasn’t until then I was able to shake the sense that I “should” be working in a moment when I knew I wasn’t focused enough. It took me too long to recognize that by simply trying to be available all the time, I was preventing myself from giving my team my best at any time.

To get out of that pattern, I had to make it my job to ensure that they would have the resources they needed to keep things running smoothly if I shut off my phone to watch a movie or cook a nice dinner with a friend, if (in the Before Times) I went camping in the mountains for a weekend, or even took (gasp) an actual vacation. I had to come to terms with the fact that if my team struggled when they were on their own, the thing standing in their way wasn’t my lack of constant availability, but a lack of clarity in how they were supposed to be doing their jobs – and creating that clarity was my responsibility. Providing more of that clarity, in the form of documentation, clear evaluation rubrics, and structures for improvement, removed the whole system’s apparent reliance on one key node (me) and made it a much more sustainable operation in general. In future posts we’ll go deeper into what it looks like to create clarity for your team; for right now, let’s just do a quick check: are you hydrated?