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Self-care for those who care – a voice from a wellbeing worker

Kirsty Macleod is a mental health social worker who cares passionately about wellbeing of workers in this sector. Here she shares her unique perspective on self-care for those who are caring for others during these exceptional and uncertain times.

As workers in the health and wellbeing sector, whether frontline or providing an integral part of supporting statutory services from home, many of us have had to adapt rapidly in response to COVID-19 e.g. providing remote support; re-prioritising care based on an ever higher threshold of need, reducing face to face contacts, using social distancing measures to deliver personal care and only seeing clients in emergencies. For others, a combination of these service delivery methods are now being used depending on the sector.

Its usual in work with people to have the potential for raising painful or ethically challenging issues. For example, when we work with someone whose issues have a resemblance to our own, either in the past or present. Our training, clinical guidelines and supervision (if we are lucky enough to receive it) can be helpful to navigate these challenges. But, what if our work with others becomes focused on our common experience either directly or indirectly as in the case of Coronavirus?  This critical situation and its far reaching impact on our own lives, our colleagues, employers and those that we support in our job roles raises particular complexities in maintaining our own wellbeing.  Boundaries between that of our work and those we support can seem slight, and there are less opportunities for reprieve from the associated worries and impacts of the virus.

Here I have tried to summarise some of the main strategies that can be used to bolster our resilience. Masses of information exists at the moment on self-care and wellbeing. However, much like the information on Coronavirus, it can be inconsistent, feel pressurising and be overwhelming. In light of this, I have omitted some of the common self-care tips regarding the importance of routine, physical exercise and stress management with the view to focus on strategies for those involved in the caring professions:

Using professional support – Although it may be difficult to maintain clinical supervision now, try to make this a priority. It’s an opportunity where a trained, objective person holds space for you to speak, digest and reflect on issues that you may have encountered through your work and how things outside of work may be impacting on you.  If you’re not able to continue with this or maybe didn’t have it in place previously, consider discussing this with your line manager. They may consider introducing group supervision or de-briefing sessions as an alternative. Managerial supervision and employee assistant programmes could also be valuable means of this type of support.

Peer support – professional supervision is helpful but isn’t always practical or available so peer support is a way of enabling you and your colleagues to have a dedicated space and time to digest and reflect on how things are going as well as enabling you to have the opportunity to feel less isolated. This can be difficult given the diversity of experiences you and your colleagues may have. The current situation lends itself to experiencing a roller coaster of emotions and coping responses and it’s important to be mindful that these may be experienced at very different moments by you and your colleagues.. A word of caution though, peer support can take up substantial time resource in the initial stages. For some ideas check this link – https://content.iriss.org.uk/peersupport/pdf/peer-support-booklet.pdf. Also consider ‘lighter’ ways of supporting one another. For example, having social contact through an online pub quiz or Zoom tea breaks or doing an online fitness or mindfulness class at the same time as one another.

Self-compassion – The work of caring professions can at times feel undervalued and disrespected. There is a lot of positive press, justifiably, about NHS and care home workers but there are many other professions that are providing vital support for people such as social workers and mental health practitioners that do not receive the same focus. Self-compassion can be a powerful tool for providing ourselves with kindness and recognising our own experiences as valid. Giving yourself permission to be imperfect and allowing yourself to have ‘off’ days are examples of these.

Digital strategy- There is a constant stream of news updates, social media notifications and invitations to take part in virtual and personal meetings. Some of these are essential for work and it is important to keep connected with others socially but try to establish a strategy for your digital engagement. For example, set aside specific time for social browsing for the end of your day after; review your device alerts and apps to show you the information most relevant to you, being mindful of obtaining information from reliable sources. Try to balance Zoom catch ups with friends with other self-care activities and maintain the same boundaries you would in ‘real life’. It’s unlikely you would meet up with a series of friends back to back so try to avoid this with virtual interactions too.

Creativity – these activities can take many forms, for example doodling, writing, painting, colouring, collaging, photography, crafts, knitting etc.  Any activity that focuses our minds and gives us creative stimulation distracts us but can also reduce feelings of anxiety and stress and provide a different outlet to process our thoughts and feelings.  

In summary, try to acknowledge the extremely valuable but demanding work you are doing and be kind to yourself. Try to think flexibly about the self-care strategies you employ, what works for you one day may not the next and resting and recharging in a way that works for you is just as legitimate as exercising and keeping a routine.

Over the next few months, ThriveWise will be sharing different perspectives and reflections on resilience and wellbeing and we welcome your comments and suggestions as to things you may like to see