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Why Self-Care is not Enough

I’ve been a strong advocate of self-care over the years, and now that the trend is slowly catching up (even) in the nonprofit sector, I’d like to say why self-care is simply not enough.

First a disclaimer: self-care matters. Any nurturing activity – from mindfulness to yoga, from hiking to baking, from writing to sleeping – plays a role in keeping us healthy physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, relationally. That’s really common sense, and I’m not going to argue against it.

But if we are immersed in a toxic work environment, personal self-care practices – even when connected to a community of like-minded souls –  run the risk of becoming a coping strategy that does not address the root cause of the problem.

Let’s look at this more in detail.

Individual and Organisational Responsibility

I hope social scientists won’t mind if I bring staff care to a political level, and make it into an issue of structure (organisations) and agency (employees). The two play a role in crafting a humane work culture. I have seen aid workers doing their best to keep healthy and balanced, with self-care almost becoming an evening and week-end job, and then going back – day in and day out – into organisations that harassed, bullied and mistreated them.

Self-care places a great deal of responsibility on the individual, and (yet again) lets the organisation off the hook. Asking aid workers to practice self-care, so they can survive in tough work environments, almost implies that beyond paying for a bit of training and counselling, organisations have no other role to play in contributing to the wellbeing of their staff (and hence the world).

Here is where I strongly disagree.

Let’s look at a scenario:

Alice is 32, she works as an outreach officer for the NGO BestWorld*. The organisation works with rural communities on education projects, and has an office in the capital, plus branches in the fieldStaff turnover is constant, pay is low for junior staff and quite generous for senior staff. Several international volunteers take up positions, though their role is often unclear. The split between field offices and the capital could not be more obvious, with ongoing conflicts, misunderstanding and poor communication. There is no forum for mutual learning and reflection, and senior management has already told Alice that ‘we have neither money, nor time to waste on such new age stuff’. In a recent staff meeting, Alice has been told off by her boss for leaving the office ‘early’ to attend her 8pm yoga class. Alice finds herself exhausted and is looking forward to an upcoming yoga retreat to find new balance, and regain energy and motivation.

Now, let’s unpack the situation: Given the scenario, are Alice’s self-care practices going to dramatically shift things? Yes, if self-care gives her the energy and clarity to take a brave step and quit a pretty miserable organisation where staff needs are dismissed as ‘new age stuff’. Yes, if her voice can be heard and something shifts inside the organisation through a process of inner transformation. Otherwise no, self-care becomes for Alice a crutch to endure a hostile environment. It becomes a way to deny the real problem, or a ‘tokenistic practice’ (“we are bringing a stress management expert in for a workshop…”) that wastes money and makes no real difference to a pretty sad and exhausting work culture.

If we practice self-care to cope with an abusive work relation, we perpetuate the cycle of abuse.

When Self-Care Hides the Elephant in the Room

While efforts to raise awareness over the importance of self-care matter, and while I’m not going to give up any of my self-care practices any time soon, we should not miss the forest for the trees. Self-care without a humane, learning and caring work environment, runs the risk of becoming just a fig leaf that hides the elephant in the room (poor management, long working hours, power struggles, lack of trust, etc…).

We’ve seen how work-life balance is a big misconception, with its underlying implication that we can be slaves at work, and then eventually leave the office to get some rest, have fun and do what’s meaningful. When self-care becomes a tool to find that so-called balance to help us put up with a dreadful organisational culture, it may be time to find new ways to address the martyrdom complex that still affects so many in the nonprofit sector, and then go and share our marvellous talents elsewhere.

*I’m not aware of the existence of any nonprofit organisation called BestWorld. This is a made up scenario aimed at illustrating common staff issues that affect the sector.

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Mindfulnext by Alessandra Pigni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.