Joan van den Brink on how to take care of you, when your job is to take care of others
HR staff are wired to help others in need so you may find it difficult to take care of yourself. You may feel that you are letting people down if you take time out and are not available for the employees. It is about finding a balance between showing empathy for the individuals who come to you for help whilst maintaining objectivity and distance, providing employees with the tools they need to achieve their personal goals (which could be tackling unfairness or injustice in the workplace) and supporting the organisational position. It can feel like a very fine line to walk. It is important to remember that to be effective, you need to take care of yourself. It is the oxygen mask analogy; you should put on your own mask first before helping others. It is essential that you replenish your resources so that you can successfully provide care and support to employees and line managers.
The foundation of you taking care of you is to practise self-compassion. This builds your resilience and frees you to think more constructively about how to support and take care of others in a sustainable way. There are some common myths about self-compassion; it is self-pity, it’s a sign of weakness, it is narcissistic, it leads to complacency. In fact, the opposite is true. Research by Kristin Neff and others has shown that when we show compassion to ourselves, it increases our resilience, empathy, integrity, compassion towards others and productiveness1.
Practise self-compassion. This builds your resilience and frees you to think more constructively
Often you are party to distressing information, which leaves you feeling depleted and helpless to resolve. For example, when someone comes to you with mental health issues or you have a tough conversation, you may ruminate and re-play that scene repeatedly in your head. Your inner critic cuts in telling you that you are bad, other people think less of you, you are useless and so on. By noticing and being curious in the moment about how you are feeling (mindfulness), you can better understand the triggers that give rise to a range of unhelpful emotions and behaviours such as frustration, regret, anger, anxiety, fear, sadness. Mindfulness enables you to accept your feelings without judgement and neither suppress them nor get overtaken by them.
We often feel isolated, that no one is dealing with the problems that we are facing, that our situation is unique. This is not the case. Self-compassion allows you to recognise that you are not the only one (common humanity). Practising self-kindness stops you ruminating on your negative feelings and allows you the grace to treat yourself as you would a close friend or indeed an employee in a similar position.
When you regularly observe self-compassion, you develop habits of self-care that nourish you.
Self-care is more than taking exercise and eating healthily. Self-care is a broad concept that considers the whole person and acts to guard against or manage stress and maintain or enhance wellbeing and overall functioning2. There are several areas to consider to achieve this, such as physical, professional, psychological.
Physical self-care involves looking after your body and ensuring you adopt an overall healthy lifestyle. This includes wholesome eating, exercise, doing the things that you enjoy, getting enough sleep, being in nature and so forth. These activities can be incorporated into your workday and act as a productive pause when you are feeling stressed and tense.
Professional self-care concerns taking care of yourself while at work. It includes creating a workspace to your liking, taking time to connect with colleagues, managing your workload so that you take enough breaks, developing outside interests, and so on. Productive pausing, inserting intentional breaks into your day, is a useful habit that permits you to recharge your batteries. Productive pauses include deep breathing, meditating, taking a short walk, moving away from your workstation, stepping away for refreshments.
Psychological self-care is about taking care of your mind. Activities in this realm might include taking time for personal reflection, noticing your inner thoughts, feelings, and experiences, cultivating self-awareness, and engaging in personal and professional development. It is also about saying ‘no’ to taking on tasks or responsibilities when you do not have the capacity to do them without increasing your stress levels.
Establishing clear boundaries is an important aspect of self-care. HR staff often feel that they must be available for employees and line managers who are struggling and feel guilty when they are not. For example, a recent Wellbeing Partners survey showed that HR staff are working longer hours to cope with the extra workload arising from mental health concerns. This means that they do not get time to rest. Without this, HR staff are in danger of burnout. If you can establish boundaries by limiting the number of hours you are available, for example, by implementing a rota ‘on-call’ system with your colleagues, prioritising existing tasks, switching off when you are away from work, you create space to replenish your resources to take care of others.
Having a support network is also vital, not only for you to discuss cases and get different perspectives, but also to talk through what is going on for you, share your worries and concerns with people who can empathise and show you compassion. This support can comprise supervision sessions, 1:1 counselling, specialist training, line manager support etc.
You are critical in enabling organisations to create the right environment for people within the workforce to realise their full potential. You will greatly benefit if you adopt the self-care practices that nourish and replenish you and others will be beneficiaries in turn.
2. Lisa D. Butler, Kelly A. Mercer, Katie McClain-Meeder, Dana M. Horne and Melissa Dudley, ‘Six Domains of Self-care: Attending to the Whole Person’, Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social Environment (2019) 29:1, pp. 107–124.
Dr Joan van den Brink is an executive coach, management consultant and founder of Araba Consulting