Self care is important. The act of showing kindness and appreciation for yourself by engaging in an activity that you find soothing or relaxing is a wonderful thing. Often we put pressure on ourselves to be productive and work at full capacity at all times, especially during the pandemic. I know I felt the huge push to learn a new skill or get more done now that I’ve been stuck at home for a full year. Having self compassion means accepting and even embracing our limitations so that we can show ourselves more kindness. Currently, that means accepting that I cannot work at more than 100% capacity during a pandemic just because I spend more time at home than I used to. However, when we’re talking about burnout at work, self care isn’t enough.
I love my job so it’s easy to fall into the trap of not recognizing burnout. I’m a social worker and psychotherapist who also does some consulting work for not for profit organizations. I’m lucky enough to work for myself which has allowed me a lot of freedom and flexibility that I never had when I worked a traditional full-time job. I have a pretty ideal situation where I get to choose not only my own hours, but also who I work with, what I do for them, and how much I want to get paid. Perfect, right? Absolutely! At least, that’s what I tell myself. My job is awesome and it’s exactly what I want to be doing so I have no reason at all to complain about the long hours, the emotional load of taking on other people’s stress, or the uncertainty about how much work I will have next month. Compared to 13 years ago when I lived literally on the street, I have nothing to complain about. That attitude took me on a fast track to burnout. The truth is that those situations are not comparable. My difficulties in my job right now are just as legitimate as my experience with homelessness even though one appears to be on an entirely different level than the other. Both are situations where I needed help.
This year, I had a hard time recognizing in myself that I was burnt out and needed some help. The normal strategies of taking a pause to make a cup of tea or doing some yoga in the morning didn’t seem to be helping anymore but as I got further into trying to keep up with my workload, I became less aware of what was happening in myself. I’m super lucky that I married into a really wonderful family though. My partner knew even before I was ready to admit it that I wasn’t coping well at work. He took the action that I wasn’t able to take and reached out to my mother-in-law to see what kind of help he could get for me. My mother-in-law generously volunteered the family cottage as a way for me to get away from work for just a little while and consciously spend some time on taking care of myself. So, I packed a bag, my yoga mat, and enough food for a few days to head off for some much needed self care. And it was wonderful. But as soon as I got back home, really nothing had changed. I still had an intense and emotionally heavy workload that I had to return to.
I had a Zoom meeting with the Executive Director of one of my largest consulting clients the week I got back home to negotiate a new contract as last year’s contract had concluded. The first thing she said to me once we got on the call was “Are you okay? Because you don’t look okay”. Instantly I broke down in tears and admitted that I was not okay. I was burnt out, run down, and not able to perform at the same capacity that I had usually been able to meet. She responded with kind words and empathy, relating her own life experiences to what I was currently going through. She emphasized that it was okay to need support and that both she and her organization could help provide that support. I just had to tell her what I needed and at what capacity I could work. Let me stress that during this conversation, I wasn’t even this woman’s employee anymore. We had not yet signed a contract for the next year. She easily could have seen the burnt out mess that I was and decided to cut me loose. Instead, she offered encouragement and real, practical support. The kind of support that is needed from an employer to ensure health and wellness. This support goes beyond the concept of self care and removed the burden from me to “take care of myself” in circumstances that didn’t allow for that to happen. In my opinion, this approach should be the default response for any employer who becomes aware that their employee is experiencing burn out.
Self care is great but it isn’t enough. It’s important to be able to lean on others and know that you will get the support you need in return. Even though I’m a social worker and a therapist who works with clients everyday to support their mental health, I found it difficult to acknowledge that I needed help and to accept the support of others but once I did, I was able to make it through a tough time. I am a better worker and a happier person because of that decision!
Melanie Matthews is a registered social worker and psychotherapist living and working in Toronto, ON. She is passionate about causes she supports, including advocating for mental health supports. Outside of her work, Melanie also spends her time spreading knowledge and awareness of social work and mental health treatment through her podcast, the Social Work Social. On this podcast she interviews social workers and mental health professionals to share information and stories. Her life experiences as a trauma survivor have helped shape her into the strong and compassionate person she is today.