How to care for yourself while working to make change happen

Published: 7 August 2019

A pond in a park on a sunny day.
If you want to help others, you have to be able to look after yourself. 

Susie Hay, practising psychotherapist and Head of Research, Evaluation and Analysis at domestic abuse charity SafeLives, knows the unique pressures of working in social change. And she’s on a mission to encourage more of us to take care of our own wellbeing.

When you work in this world, the idea of self-care is almost seen as a weakness,” she explains. People think they have to be resilient, robust and crack on, or maybe they’re just not cut out for the work.”

Some of this desire to achieve’ is simply human nature, she says. But the problem is when our drive and ambition make us afraid to show any form of fragility (or just human-ness”).

Above and beyond

Working in social change can be complex, challenging and stressful,” Susie explains, especially as you’re dealing with things like [personal] passion and wanting to use charity money effectively.” 

In this environment, people are often encouraged – or expected – to go above and beyond’. But there’s frequently little attention given to whether it’s damaging them, and the idea of self-care is regarded as a luxury or self-indulgence.

Sound familiar?

It’s an increasingly common story – with a predictable ending. Sickness, staff turnover and work-related stress have become a serious problem in cause-related sectors. In May 2019, a survey of Unite members revealed a growing epidemic’ of stress-related illness and mental health issues among people employed by charities and NGOs. 

In a survey of 238 third sector organisations, 80 per cent of workers reported stress in the last 12 months. Some 42 per cent of workers said that their job was not good for their mental health. 

In social change, the idea of self-care is often seen as a luxury or self-indulgence.”

So what’s going on? And what is it about working towards social change that makes people particularly susceptible?

Anybody can experience burnout in any profession – from a supermarket delivery driver to an accountant to a social worker,” says Susie. But what’s unique about people who work in social change, and other humanitarian sectors, she adds, is that they’re exposed to the trauma and suffering of others.

You’re taking something very dark and trying to influence change to make people’s lives better. And the problem is this exposure to the darkness makes you much more vulnerable to vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue.”

What’s worse, she adds, you don’t just risk a short-term burnout. When you work with perpetrators of distressing behaviour, for example, it can actually change your personality – it can alter your thinking, your spirituality and the way you view the world. So you have to be very careful.”

Micro matters

How do you recognise when there’s a problem?

Recently, Susie delivered a workshop to the team behind the Impact Incubator’s Drive project – which works with perpetrators of domestic abuse. Here, she talked about the micro-symptoms’ that people often experience when they’re struggling. 

Are there days when you go home and all you want to do is have a glass of wine? Do you get days when you feel much more sensitive, and everything that people say feels like a criticism? Do you find yourself working through lunch all the time? Is your phone never off?

Are there days when you go home and all you want to do is have a glass of wine?”

When you ask these questions, she says, you find that many people – who may not have thought much about self-care before – quickly relate to what you’re saying. They start to recognise that certain kinds of negative behaviour have become normalised.

It’s always the little threads that make up a much bigger tapestry,” she explains. 

Her go-to analogy is a paint pot: Let’s say your pot usually fills up to 80 per cent and then drains off a little bit. These micro-symptoms mean your paint is always close to the top. So it’s much harder for you to recover and build resilience. And then, when the pot finally overflows, you can’t get the paint back in!

Whereas if you’re in an open culture at work, where [vulnerability] isn’t seen as a weakness, it’s different. Someone might say I’m really aware that you haven’t taken lunch this week’. Or you look really tired, is everything all right?’ 

If it’s seen as productive and proactive to look after yourself and each other, then your paint pot isn’t so full all the time – and it’s less likely to overflow. And you’ve got people to help you put the paint back in if it does.”

Being proactive

One problem, Susie says, is that lots of organisations wait until there’s an incident before dealing with it. 

Usually a threshold is crossed – someone has a breakdown, they’re off long-term sick, or thinking about suicide or self harm. This sends ripples of shock [across an organisation] and then there’s a reactive process to deal with it. What we need is a cultural change so that people become pro-active and avoid these situations. We have to develop a work culture where it’s okay to have off days, where people keep an eye out for each other, and where you can talk – not just about the impact of the work, but the impact that the work has on you.”

How can organisations put this into practice?

You have to lead by example,” says Susie. I manage a team of 20 people, and I’ve walked into the office at 7pm before and said Why are you here? Go home now.’

It’s very easy, she explains, for managers to ramp up pressure on people about what’s expected in certain timeframes, or set milestones that need to be achieved. But unless leaders take self-care seriously, and are realistic with planning projects, they’re increasing the likelihood of people in their team struggling.

A practical solution here is to build external wellbeing support into the structure of social change projects. But Susie’s closing piece of advice is something much simpler – which comes back to the individual. 

What I’ve found from delivering training is that people almost need permission to self-care,” she says. They need to know, for example, that it’s not a weakness if they take time off or put lunches in their calendar. These aren’t failings, they’re an act of courage to acknowledge their own limitations or impress their boundaries. 

When you tell people that, you’re basically saying It’s alright to be human.’”

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