Moving Workforce Wellness into Organizational Culture
From Christy da Rosa, MSW, LICSW, Research Assistant, Trauma Informed Oregon
A Tale of Burnout: My Case Study
When I was in my MSW program, one of my assignments was to make a self-care plan to use during our field practicum. It seemed like a filler assignment to me, but I went along with it, adding things like reading, going on walks, and eating well. From time to time, our field instructor asked us if we were using our self-care plans. I confidently said “yes” every time. I had lots to read – my homework covered that. I didn’t have a car, so I got plenty of exercise. And I ate well, at least in instant meals. And since I reported practicing self-care, my field instructor didn’t pursue the conversation further. Instead, she asked me to reflect on social workers I looked up to and what I could model from their practice. What did I admire? Well, the coworkers, supervisors, and directors in my lifetime were fighters. Passionate, driven; so dedicated to their community that they worked during their weekends, answering the phone at any time. They worked late into the night, rarely seeing their families. They cried at funerals no one else attended but them. And they kept going and going, because they felt they were the only ones who could. And when they had administrative tasks, they were done quickly, messily. They challenged leadership when they brought up difficulties reimbursing their time. It was never about the money.
When I entered community mental health as a freshly graduated social worker, I joined an understaffed walk-in clinic intake team. Nine was fully staffed; we were three. There were no other crisis centers or walk-in services outside the emergency department in our location, so we became an untrained, under-resourced crisis team. But I was fully prepared to model the practices of my mentors. My mentors never had resources, so I never asked for any. My mentors never had supervision or check-ins, so I never needed any. I soon found myself getting home at 7 pm and falling asleep at 8 pm. On weekends when I wasn’t catching up on paperwork, I wondered why I was so snappy toward my partner, why I felt so tired, and why I had a constant flow of anxious energy in my veins. I tried reading, but the words blurred together. I had a car; there was no room in my schedule for exercise. And I felt so tired.
About two years in, my team received a supervisor. It felt odd having someone monitor what I was doing, trying to assert mindfulness and grounding exercises when my mind was activated. (I was always activated.) While I went along with some of the self-care activities she implemented, my stance about working during lunch did not waver. My activated mind didn’t know how to sit still, so I quietly continued to dedicate my lunch hour to furiously catching up on paperwork.
One lunch break, dedicated to completing at least one of my 15 late cases, my supervisor came in and paused. She asked, “Are you working during your lunch?” I was, but I assured her that I clocked out. I didn’t plan to leave early or get overtime. She paused again, then stated very clearly, “Christy. If I catch you working during your lunch again, I will lock you out of your office or even the clinic. You cannot work during your lunch.” I was furious and ashamed. Ashamed for letting her down, my clients down, my team down. I told her that I had nothing to do. I was fine working. What would I do for a whole hour? She said it was up to me. Maybe I could take a walk, a self-care activity. I just couldn’t work. And after a few weeks of refusing to do anything to my benefit during my lunch, I realized I was a six-minute drive from home. Lunch hour shifted from uninterrupted paperwork time to outdoor walks with my cat.
I present this story first to offer community workers a chance to reflect. When was the last time you practiced self-care? How often have you seen self-care modeled in your work, your community, or your family? If your answer is, “well. . . maybe not all that often,” do you work in an environment that encourages, values, and integrates self-care in its work culture?
My coworkers were as loyal to their work as I was. Everyone eagerly worked through their lunch. The one person who practiced life/work boundaries, refusing to stay past their shift more than once a week, was shamed for their lack of dedication to our community. And I did have an organization that believed that self-care was important. But the self-care offerings available to us, like an EAP or yoga, were offered outside or in addition to our work. I was too tired to talk to someone from my EAP. I could do yoga for an hour. Or, I could walk a client to the bus stop. Self-care was valued, but not supported.
Challenging Self-Care Assumptions in the Workplace
Through my work at Trauma Informed Oregon, I’ve had the opportunity to talk about self-care with organizations. I’ve noticed some consistent assumptions in these discussions: 1) Self-care is an external or physical act, 2) Self-care takes place in addition to work, and 3) Self-care is an individual responsibility so long as opportunities to engage in self-care are offered. When these assumptions are present, I tend to observe that these organizations’ workforce wellness activities occur outside their staff’s working schedule and physical activities, and staff receive no support to participate. Thereby, some organizations can fall into an odd conundrum of having multiple wellness activities without participants. When there are no participants, then organizations can assume their staff don’t want or need wellness activities. Policies and programming around wellness disappear from the budget.
In a previous blog post last year about teacher well-being, I wrote that research argues that improved design of an organization’s structure and actual administrative support is the strongest predictor of mitigating burnout. The same concept applies to workforce wellness. If self-care is not an integrated, natural part of a working schedule and leadership does not support this integration, self-care will continue to be an isolated reward to overworked staff who will not feel they earned it. Staff cannot be the sole owners of burnout. If organizations desire to increase staff engagement in wellness, they must first consider why staff are not engaging and make a real effort to address these barriers.
- Self-care must be expanded to include support, psychological resources, healing, and internal regulation. An activated staff member cannot access yoga during a crisis intervention, but can access grounding exercises and support from their supervisor.
- Education, training, and opportunities to practice internal forms of self-care and support access must be integrated into organizational structure rather than expecting staff to carve out their own time and space to engage in self-care. Barriers to engaging in self-care must be addressed. For example, if an organization launches a healthy exercise program but requires staff to be in eight Zoom meetings a day, staff have no opportunity to leave their desk. (Exercises offered in the program may also be catered towards able-bodies). Staff must be supported in engaging in diverse self-care activities intertwined with their daily work.
- Self-care must be expanded into workforce wellness. Organizations must take as much responsibility as staff do for how work impacts their staff. Highlighting self-care in newsletters or in EAPs, while well-intentioned, can feel hollow when staff feel guilty engaging in it. Informal check-ins, workload assessments, centering relationships, and staff autonomy must be valued.
Most essentially, embodied workforce wellness needs policy reviews and staff voice in feedback to address reasons for burnout among staff. Organizations can offer all the self-care in the world and continue to see staff burnout unless life/work boundaries are supported, staff can grow in skills and education, and staff are compensated appropriately.
Below is a small list of resources to assess and build self-care in your life. As you reflect on your self-care, consider: Which areas of self-care might you be more active in? In what situations are you most likely to practice self-care? Do these current practices feel fulfilling or restorative? Finally, consider what organizational or systemic structures are in place that help or hinder your self-care practices. I recommend looking at the “Workplace of Professional Self-Care” list under the Self-Care Assessment. How can self-care be better integrated into your work culture?