I’m going to start with a quick disclaimer that I’m certainly not an expert on this topic but it’s something I have been thinking about for a while, especially after listening to some discussions on the recent online seminar Healing Solidarity.
Self-care as a preventative to burnout is something I wanted to look at as, despite being at the start of my career, I have heard many stories of people burning out in the development sector with some saying it is an expectation that you will experience a burnout at some point in your professional life! This isn’t surprising when people need to balance work, study, relationships and family, health and exercise and relaxation and that’s before you add the additional stresses of development work, where situations are often unsecure, lives are at risk and the pressure to make a difference quickly is often immense.
Burnout and self-care are not new topics but have become increasingly used buzzwords not just in the development sector but throughout society in general. Society is becoming increasingly interconnected and the fear of doing too much often fights the pressure to constantly do more. Whether it be pressure in the workplace to continue working outside of hours, societal or family pressure to succeed professionally or a personal passion or even guilt driving people to do more, it is increasingly common to hear of people burning out both physically and mentally.
Burnout isn’t just feeling tired occasionally, according to experts it is a long term syndrome leading to physical, mental and social exhaustion. Here in Sweden it is an official medical diagnosis. Though it can happen to anyone, it often occurs in professions with the goal to serve and help society. There is no quick fix to burning out and it can take months or even years to get back on track, so prevention is better than cure in this case! Self-care alone isn’t going to prevent a burnout and a more holistic look at organisational care also needs to occur, but it can be a useful tool to lower the risk of burning out.
What is self-care, and can ICTs help?
I found Temsen’s definition quite interesting as it states “Self-care are the activities that improve your life whether that be emotionally, physically, socially or spiritually.” The most interesting part for me was the idea that these activities weren’t always enjoyable. Self-care can also include necessities such as paying the bills or seeing a doctor. This goes against many stereotypical ideas of self-care being a luxurious experience involving spas and yoga retreats.
As organisations increasingly become global, the importance of support networks even if the people aren’t able to meet in person, has led to ICTs becoming more integrated into various forms of everyday practices. Often from a self-care perspective, technology is seen as the thing you need to disconnect from; go offline for an afternoon, a day, a week is common advice. But this connectedness is also playing a role in the promotion of self-care and putting pressure on organisations to consider alternatives to prevent burnouts.
An example of using ICTs to promote change was the online Healing Solidarity conference I mentioned earlier. The entirely online seminars often focused on self-care and were delivered through a Zoom chat that was then shared on Youtube. This seminar highlighted a positive way that ICTs can be used to bring a range of global opinions to an equally global audience. An additional interesting aspect was the use of Facebook as a discussion forum to compliment the seminars. This form of networking is an important way to change organisational cultures and provide a support network for those who need it. The discussion that most stuck out to me was a group discussion with members from FRIDA, the young feminist fund.
FRIDA is a global movement with no central office and therefore relies heavily on communications technology to create relationships with their colleagues. Throughout the discussion the participants highlighted their desire to put self-care at the forefront of their work to prevent burning out. There were simple strategies suggested such as remembering to check in and make sure your colleagues are doing ok, being respectful of others need for rest and taking the work email off their phones. Pigni also adds that it is often the small things, showing empathy or noticing when someone needs a break that can make a difference to organisational culture and an individual’s sense of happiness.
In relation to the importance of happiness one of the most interesting suggestions most from the FRIDA seminar was the idea the organisation is currently in the process of creating a Happiness Manifesto! The idea that happiness is an important aspect of success is often one that is left behind though it is important prevent burnout.
What can we actually do?
Self-care looks different for everyone but here are my top 4 suggestions for preventing feelings of burnout through self-care.
Make time for things that make you happy: whether it be getting out into nature, reading trashy romance or running marathons, make sure you have time to do the things that make you truly happy outside of the workplace. Even if it is just for small periods of time. Having an hours break to yourself can make a big difference.
Connect with people: Spend time with people outside of your sector/profession but also cultivate informal relationships with work colleagues. Having a good support network is important and being able to talk about work is great but it is also necessary to connect with others to remind you that your project/work is not everything.
Be aware: Are negative feelings piling up? What is causing you to feel drained or tired, and what can you do about it?
Learn to say no! This one connects quite closely to being aware. It can be hard when you are passionate or have a work culture where you are expected to be doing many tasks at once but knowing your limitations and saying no when you need to is a difficult necessity.