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You can’t pour from an empty vessel. Nowhere is this truer than in education and health and social care. Wearing many hats, juggling all those roles and responsibilities, improvising, coping with the unpredictable, always appearing positive—it can feel impossible to manage everything. And tiredness erodes our patience, willpower, self-control, judgement; all essential to effectively support those in our care.
It’s easy to dismiss advice about self-care. It’s just common sense or statements of the blindingly obvious! But then again, this blog post is here for a reason. We need to look after ourselves. The following is a checklist we can all use to find ways to recharge and find balance.
1: Avoid perfectionism
We are in caring professions because we do really care. But we can care just a little too much about doing things perfectly and judge ourselves when inevitably can’t be perfect all the time. We could always do things better. We could always write a better report or plan a better lesson. We could always spend more time running extra activities. We could work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and not get close to perfection.
“Good enough” is often all that is needed with so many of the tasks that fill up our day. We can be someone who is improving incrementally all the time, but also someone who priorities their own needs and not just those they care for.
2: Don’t think about work all the time
It isn’t healthy or constructive for anyone to only think about work. It’s hard, but we can try to set boundaries. Giving set time just to think about work, rather than letting it spill into every part of our lives can help us find a work-life balance.
3: Phone a friend
It’s great to talk about work, but we can find ourselves talking about nothing but our jobs. It’s not healthy. We are more than just our profession.
Keeping in touch with friends and family outside of work can keep us grounded and put work into perspective.
4: Make the most of downtime
Is there anything more enjoyable than losing yourself in the moment and really enjoying something? It might be a particular sport, walking in nature, knitting or craft, or spending time with family and loved ones. Filling our time with the things we like most gives us rich and fulfilling lives.
5: Do nothing
There’s nothing wrong with doing nothing, or doing stuff that doesn’t amount to much. Don’t feel guilty about guilty pleasures. If they allow us to switch off, we should enjoy them. Life’s too short. Time away from work makes us all the more productive when we return to it.
Guilty pleasures may include:
- binge-watching a favourite comedy, drama, or reality TV
- escapist fiction and a good long soak in the bath
- scrolling social media
- computer gaming
- listening to podcasts
- pyjama days and a long lie in
We repeat, don’t feel guilty about guilty pleasures.
6: Practise mindful meditation
We often tell individuals who are distressed to take a deep breath. There are thousands of years of wisdom there. Mindful meditation entails quietening the mind by focusing on, for example, breathing. There are lots of resources and apps out there. Don’t think “that’s not for the likes of me” until you’ve tried it.
7: Get out more
A change is as good as a rest. We can get out into nature or enjoy the wonders of a vibrant town or city.
Many of us find it hard to switch off our thinking, rational minds. So, finding something else to think about can help us have boundaries. People-watch. Enjoy the architecture. Visit an art gallery or exhibition.
8: Incorporate movement into each day
We know life is busy, but we can also be resourceful. Little things can make a big difference. Make the most of the stairs, move about the room, make time for a walk after work. Rather than grind through work when our brains are tired and we’re unproductive, re-energise with exercise and fresh air.
9: Eat well
You are what you eat. Okay, we’ve heard that one. But notice how bad habits creep in when we’re busy. As with exercise, the smallest changes make a huge difference. Forego snacks that lead to sugar spikes followed by lethargy and low moods and enjoy the foods that keep us full of energy for longer.
10: Listen to music
Another great mood-improver is music. It’s something we grow up loving and then… what happens? Who knows, but many lose the habit.
Time to rediscover the joys of music.
11: Get some sleep
Don’t burn the candle at both ends. It helps no one. Read up on sleep hygiene.
Keeping regular hours helps, but we know many professionals have to work shift patterns that don’t run 9-5. The following can help:
- experiment with evening routines which allow you to wind down
- reduce screen use in the hours before sleeping
- avoid caffeinated drinks in the evening
- make sure bedroom spaces are free from stressful clutter and sufficiently cool
For those who can’t go to bed and get up at the same time every day, a consistent bedtime routine is even more important to help our bodies understand it’s time to sleep.
12: Keep a journal
For some, a journal is a place to record time spent eating, sleeping, and exercising. Others use a journal to reflect on the day and find perspective, particularly when things feel challenging. It can help to write down reminders of everything that’s going right; wins and achievements, rather than focusing only on the problems and challenges faced.
To keep us on track, we can write down goals, and small milestones along the way, as well as motivational quotes or key life lessons: things we wish we’d known, but won’t forget in the future – because we’ve written them down.
13: Accommodate the needs of your personality type
Journaling teaches us a little more about ourselves: what increases our energy levels? What depletes them?
The hustle and bustle of life can be particularly exhausting for introverts and neurodivergent individuals. While extroverts are reinvigorated by people and noise and stuff happening around them, introverts need time alone to recharge their batteries. Recognising our own needs can help us plan the things we need to support ourselves.
14: Nurture support networks inside work
Seeking help is not a sign of weakness. It is a professional strength. We can watch out for each other. We’re social beings and can enjoy that sense of belonging. This is a job where we have to support each other as much as we support those in our care.
As well as resources and strategies, we can share worries, and talk about life outside of work. Enjoy a shared sense of purpose and share our passion for our job.
15: Get professional help
If things get too much, don’t delay: seek professional advice.
Signs of unhealthy stress may include:
- ongoing tearfulness
- withdrawing socially
- losing interest in things that used to interest you
- intrusive negative thoughts (on a loop)
Find more information about stress from the NHS here. For urgent support, click here for more advice.
We’re working in the best jobs in the world. But caring and education are also burnout professions. We need to move beyond the idea that self-care is selfish. Self-care = self-preservation. It’s a matter of survival.
We’re no use to anyone if we don’t look after ourselves. It’s like in an aeroplane emergency. Adults are instructed to sort out their own breathing apparatus first. They are then better able to look after dependants.
None of the ideas above are revolutionary, but finding the time is always the challenge. However, it’s worth the effort, both for ourselves and to help us provide the best possible support for those in our care.