To prevent burnout, health care workers need more self-care — and a life outside work

Self-care benefits us, our patients and the communities we serve. We owe it to ourselves to find hobbies and joyful activities, and to set boundaries with work, social worker Padraic Stanley writes.

SHARE To prevent burnout, health care workers need more self-care — and a life outside work
Practicing self-care is vital for us to be better health care workers, writes social worker Padraic Stanley.

Practicing self-care is vital for us to be better health care workers, writes social worker Padraic Stanley.

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Last week, the government rescinded the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration. As we explore our “new normal,” I want to highlight two lessons that the pandemic taught me: self-care and the importance of finding value beyond work.

I’m disappointed to see the revival of hustle-and-grind culture — a stark change from the early 2022 discussions of boundaries, self-care and work-life balance. My TikTok feed has gone from joyful “GRWM” (“get ready with me”) videos, self-care talks, leveraging for raises and @Saraisthreads’ “Veronica at Work” videos, to interview tips, side hustles and creators commiserating about corporate layoffs.

In my graduate social work class, I always dedicate a module to self-care. Over time, I’ve found countless articles stating that self-care helps health care workers better serve their patients, be more productive at work, take fewer sick days — generally, be more successful by extrinsic, objective measures.

But what about self-care as a way to survive? To maintain joy and meaning? To be fully present with the people that we love?

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As a social worker in health care, I learned the hard way: Self-care is a long-term commitment that requires thoughtfulness and intentionality. I’ve spent the last two years in therapy for burnout recovery, prompting me to ask what meaningful, sustainable and realistic self-care means. For me, it’s not bubble baths, fancy yoga retreats or European vacations. Setting better boundaries, finding purpose, saying “no,” being kinder to myself and prioritizing my mental health are what actually help me.

I decided to ask my students and colleagues about self-care. Many early-career professionals linked burnout with individual faults, like being overly sensitive, lack of exercise or weak boundaries. Meanwhile, more experienced professionals and students identified more structural causes — such as lack of support, being underpaid, workplaces that are understaffed and overwhelmed, and systemic oppression.

The shift in blame, from the individual to the system, was consistent and notable.

Finding value and identity outside work

When I asked about the purpose of self-care, the professionals overwhelmingly said that self-care was to “recharge their batteries” or to “be more present with patients.” The students identified “happiness,” “being more present with loved ones” and “feeling better.” The quality of these responses shows me that the self-care conversation is changing, largely based on lessons of the pandemic.

Practicing self-care is vital for us to be better health care workers, of which there is a major shortage in the U.S. Self-care benefits us, our patients and the communities we serve. But self-care doesn’t need to be anything “extra.” The idea and practice of self-care can inform how you approach work and life.

Our jobs are important parts of our identity, but they’re not the only thing that defines us and may not even be the most important thing. Pursuing hobbies, spending time with loved ones and engaging in activities that bring joy can help you rediscover powerful pleasures and refocus on what’s most important.

A key part of my recovery has been finding value and identity outside of work. I found real joy in picking up a hobby — it turns out, I love woodworking. And the resources to learn this new hobby were right in my back yard. The Chicago Park District offers low-cost classes in a myriad of topics — woodworking, textiles and even sailing on Lake Michigan. Meanwhile the Center on Halsted and other organizations offer social sports leagues, and the Chicago Public Library hosts reading clubs, social clubs and other opportunities.

I’ve also learned that self-care can mean setting boundaries, like turning off my computer after 5 p.m. Treat these as non-negotiable; your well-being is as important as any other work-related obligation. Finally, resist the tempting self-sufficiency so typical of health care workers: Don’t be afraid to seek support. If you think you might be experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue, seek the help of a mental health professional.

As health care workers, we know we owe our patients quality care. We owe it to ourselves to re-think self-care and find value outside of work.

I hope to see you in the field for a long, long time. I also hope to see you at a woodworking class soon.

Padraic Stanley is a social worker and program manager in the Department of Social Work & Community Health at Rush University Medical Center. He is a public voices fellow of The OpEd Project.

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