We are weaponizing self-care, especially in workplaces

Self-care is a new buzzword, especially in the workplace. And like most buzzwords, it’s popular for reasons that have nothing to do with its original intent. It’s a word like any other word that can be said without action behind it, effectively rendering it useless.

First, it’s important to state the cause of employee wellness is a good and honorable one. Since employees spend so much of their lives working, more than spending time with family, attention to employee wellness is an absolute necessity. Happy, well, and rested employees create strong organizations and produce good work.

Self-care is a newer term in the history of humanity, as the demands of our busy lives make it easy to forget to slow down. The term “self-care” is that reminder. It’s a reminder to check in with the needs of our mind and body.

Self-care, by its very definition, is chosen by the person needing and doing the care and no one else. It should be whatever fills that person up emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. It can be activities, hobbies, or even just stepping away and being alone for some time. It should never be something that depletes you. By definition, self-care could not be this. Never.

Sometimes self-care can be something others don’t understand or even encourage. It can be enforcing boundaries you create that you need for your mental health. It can be honesty, standing up for yourself, or ending a bad relationship. It can be napping. Sometimes self-care can be cleaning.

I can sometimes feel it deep inside when I need to focus on self-care. I may feel tired, easily angered, irritable, or unfocused. Sometimes I can just feel overwhelmed by the world and the demands of life. The weight of it all starts to get to me.

If I don’t spend time on self-care, I notice the consequences, namely the continuation of feeling crappy and sometimes the worsening of its symptoms. It can end up negatively affecting a person’s desire to work or the health of relationships.

Four principles of self-care:

  • Self-care is individualized. What is self-care to one person is not necessarily self-care to the next person.
  • Self-care is dictated by the person, not others. A person or company cannot tell another person what their self-care is.
  • Self-care should fill you up, not deplete you. It should strengthen and energize a person, not weaken.
  • What self-care looks like can depend on a person’s needs in the moment.
  • Self-care does not have to be understood, but it should be respected.

When thinking about the concept of self-care, it is also important to take into account where a person’s mind is at in the moment and what basic needs are not met. This can determine what self-care is needed.

For example, if a person is not getting any sleep, their body and brain may be in a survival state where the only self-care they can fathom is finally sleeping. Other examples could include needs for food or safety. When our basic needs for safety or sleep are not met, we can’t even fathom how going on that work lunch is supposed to revive our spirit.

How does self-care become a weapon?

Sometimes attempts to help employees and encourage self-care can be ill-informed or even ignore the actual needs of employees. Pop culture has twisted self-care until it is something unrecognizable and this has influence on all aspects of our society. It’s used often as a ploy to sell something that is billed as self-care, something advertised to cure a person of their overwhelming feelings.

When people push self-care on us, our self-care needs are often not taken into account. While we may need safety or comfort in that moment, we’re told to light a candle and try aromatherapy. It’s easy to see how, in this situation, the person likely ends up feeling unheard and even more broken than before.

It’s insulting, really. It can make a person feel like something must be wrong with them if they don’t find something to be self-care. If it is billed as something that will absolutely make them feel better and it doesn’t, this can be upsetting, the opposite goal of self-care.

The biggest issue with the weaponization of self-care is it causes employers to put on blinders to the real, core problems that plague their organizations. The hyper-focus on employee self-care can lead to workplaces refusing to acknowledge systemic issues that lead employees to burnout.

Instead of seeing and fixing the root causes, self-care is pushed as a bandaid. As a bandaid, it never truly heals the wound for the long-term, it only soaks up the blood temporarily. Thus the wound opens again and again. All you end up doing is wasting bandaids and perpetuating a toxic work culture.

Pushing self-care on employees can feel like victim-shaming. It puts the responsibility solely on individual employees who are struggling to care for themselves and feel better. Instead of acknowledging and listening to employees’ struggles, employers simply ask them to “practice self-care” and “take care of themselves.” Employees are expected to do this like any other job function, often with no policies or procedures in place to facilitate true self-care.

I can understand why employers do this. It is incredibly hard to take a step back and have a serious look at what is not being done well. No one wants to feel blamed or acknowledge they did anything wrong. Instead everyone pretends not to see the problem, even though it is clear to everyone, and they keep moving forward, insisting all employees need is a day off or a little bit of self-care.

Self-care is billed as a prescription for everything, except it’s not designed to fix the rooted problem. It was never designed to do this. It’s a balm to soothe the stress of life, not an antibiotic. I once got an email with a headline saying “Feeling overwhelmed? Try self-care.” Self-care as the solution to being overwhelmed diminishes the struggle and yet again puts the onus of change on the individual, rather than any systemic contributors.

Those in caring professions can be hit hardest by this toxic mentality. The very act of helping others pulls from you, as much as we think it doesn’t, which is why self-care is even more critical in the non-profit world. Often, employees’ struggles are blamed on the difficult nature of the job, not on lack of supports.

Employer self-care “no-nos”:

  • Mandated employee bonding events, especially those described as “time for self-care.” These events can leave some employees feeling more exhausted than they were before. Even if the event is not mandated, most employees will feel pressure to attend as not to appear as not a team player.
  • Pushing an ideal of self-care uniformly across all employees. An example of this could be downloading a meditation app on all employees’ phones.
  • Suggesting simple fixes like telling employees they just need to take some time off and they’ll feel better

Employer self-care DOs:

  • Develop policy and procedure that supports true self-care (see the principles of self-care above)
  • Ask your employees what they need to be well
  • Walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk about self-care. Model it. Show a commitment to self-care through your actions, not just words.
  • Listen to your employees struggles and work to improve company culture, structure, organization, communication, etc. Work on the actual problem. Don’t make empty promises.

Am I saying self-care doesn’t help with feeling overwhelmed or stressed? Of course I’m not. Self-care is essential for everyone, especially those managing mental illnesses.

What I am saying is we need to dig deeper and see the impact workplaces can have on employee self-care and wellness. We need to consider the social justice lens and why some employees aren’t able to engage in self-care, due to constantly feeling unheard, overwhelmed with duties, or not being valued. We need our jobs to survive, but we should not have to weigh our survival against ill-informed and detrimental practices that sacrifice our mental health.

For the sake of employees’ mental health every where, we have to stop weaponizing self-care.

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