I don’t have time for self-care.
That statement often comes up whenever I speak within organizations about self-care at work.
I empathize with that sentiment. We struggle to keep up with the ever-quickening pace of work. The interconnected nature of our roles can make it feel as if we’re always on the clock, even during our personal time or during our sick days. And the world is changing at a rate we’re not used to.
Companies often bring me in to support employees’ health in the face of workplace stress, with the stated goal of creating a “productive workforce.” I absolutely encourage employees to take advantage of whatever things employers are able to provide, but there is so much more care needed beyond an on-site workshop to support personal wellness and create a healthy work environment.
How are we supposed to practice self-care when we can barely keep our heads above water at work, let alone find that elusive “work-life balance” we’ve all been told so much about?
To answer that question, I’ll first pose another question.
What is self-care?
In my work as the founder and author of Inner Workout, I find that so many people don’t believe self-care is accessible to them because they’re working with an incomplete definition of self-care.
These well-intentioned, but misguided, definitions of self-care often center on buying expensive products, spending luxurious amounts of time, spa days, and following particular formulas of rote healthy habits prescribed by wellness programs in order to do self-care “the right way.” In reality, self-care is so much more than just a trend.
Instead, I offer Inner Workout’s definition of self-care as a refreshing alternative: Simply put, self-care is listening within and responding in the most loving way possible.
This definition has unlocked insights and new possibilities for countless people because it shifts self-care away from being another to-do list and frames it as an ongoing conversation with yourself. Self-care is not a task on your list to check off for mental and physical health. It is a skill you build.
You listen and practice mindfulness. You respond with love using the resources available to you. Your self-care routine doesn’t need to happen in a particular setting or for a certain amount of time in order for it to count as self-care and support your emotional well-being.
The key here is being aligned with your authentic self so that you can recognize what emotional health and well-being look like in your life and work.
Though self-care can happen anywhere, I see people assume self-care has to happen outside of the workplace during their limited free time.
When we use the definition of self-care I offered, the opposite is true. Self-care belongs at work. In fact, the skill of self-care can become a competitive advantage for your career.
Before we go further into self-care tips or practices, let’s take a step back and look at why this matters.
Why is self-care important at work?
Yes, it can seem easier to avoid self-care in the workplace in hopes of maximizing your productivity. However, long term there are some true (measurable!) benefits to creating space.
If you are listening within and responding in the most loving way possible to yourself at work, you will be able to:
- Notice when you’re on the path to burnout and course correct to recharge your energy levels before your stress levels outpace your ability to recover
- Improve mental acuity that will support you in being more productive during your working hours
- Have a clearer understanding of your needs, goals, and values so you can effectively set boundaries
- Handle the unexpected with grace instead of it throwing your whole day off
- Build a life and career that’s aligned with your definition of success
It can be tempting to put your head down and focus solely on the tasks of your job, but by integrating this simple self-care approach and creating a habit where you practice mindfulness, you’re setting the stage for longer-term success, both personally and professionally.
How do you practice self-care in the workplace?
So let’s get to it. There are two types of self-care I encourage everyone in the workplace to develop: proactive and responsive self-care. The first self-care initiatives are habits that you can integrate for your own health and work-life balance and schedule into your day. The second are mental health practices that will allow you to maintain your emotional well-being during times of acute stress, and involve both healthy boundaries and also relaxation techniques to bring your body back into a state of homeostasis.
Proactive self-care in the workplace
Proactive self-care practices are practices you plan ahead of time to guide you toward a desired outcome. It’s vital to intentionally incorporate self-care initiatives into your everyday work routine to support emotional well-being, which not only will help you feel productive, but can even stave off potential health issues.
Here are some ideas many employees have adopted to support their mental and physical health:
- Scheduling time for quarterly reflection to make sure you’re on track with your goals
- Creating a ritual to calm your nerves before presenting
- Blocking off time on your calendar for deep work
- Setting up regular sessions with your mentor or coach who can be part of a larger support system
- Making sure you don’t book meetings over your lunch break and instead use that time to get some fresh air or focus on healthy eating
- Taking some calls as walking meetings or buying a standing desk
- Taking care of yourself and using your sick leave, rather than pushing through to meet coworker asks or deadlines
As you think about what proactive self-care practices you might integrate into your work life, be sure you’re considering both your present and your future selves. Proactive self-care is a powerful way to make life easier and more aligned for our future selves.
Responsive self-care in the workplace
Responsive self-care practices come in handy when life doesn’t go as planned. This is what you turn to when your colleague makes a snide remark, a client decides to change the direction of a project, or you’re just struggling to focus.
The key to responsive practices is to build your metaphorical toolkit of responsive practices before you need them. When I’m practicing responsive self-care, I like to go for practices or relaxation techniques that are short, sweet, and centering so I can do them even during work hours.
Responsive practices don’t get rid of the difficulty, but they do bring you to a place where you’re better able to deal with whatever curveball life threw at you.
Here are some responsive practices you might add to your self-care toolkit:
- Moving your body: Take a walk outside, around your office, or just stretch for a few minutes.
- Write it down: Draft a list or pour your heart out on the page. What’s important is that you get the thoughts out of your head and onto paper.
- Breathe: You don’t need to do any fancy breathwork. Take a few moments to become aware of your breath and watch how that shifts your state of mind.
- Be creative: Sometimes your mind needs a change of pace. Give yourself a beat to write a haiku or doodle before returning to the task at hand.
Practicing self-care doesn’t have to take a lot of time to be effective. Give yourself a few moments of proactive or reactive self-care, and watch it transform your workday.
How do you promote self-care for employees?
If you’re a leader at an organization looking for ways you can support your staff, both for productivity as well as employee engagement, there are certainly a few additional things you can do. Here are some thought starters:
- Set up employee assistance programs that can alleviate the pressure mental health costs can cause.
- Take reports and discussions of employee stress seriously. While it’s not realistic for work to be completely stress-free, if you’re open to feedback you will create an emotionally healthy work environment for your team.
- Create a culture that respects and honors sick leave and paid time off. That means not only encouraging your staff to take it, but also having enough staff and redundancy in your workforce that coworkers can provide coverage for each other, allowing times of true rest.