During the last 39 years I have been curious about health and wellbeing at work, particularly because 18 years ago my own health was suffering due to over work and leading a busy life where I literally drove myself to the ground. As I reflected during that time, I realised I was advocating health and wellbeing at work, and yet, I myself felt unfit, exhausted, overwhelmed, and generally under the weather from 20 years of working in the NHS, and not truly taking care of myself.
How could I advocate health and wellbeing, when my own health was far from 'healthy'? There was no way I could be a role model of health at work, and I realised that what I was advocating came from books I read and ideals and images, rather than any lived experience of being well and healthy at work (and in life).
Around that time I met a wise mentor who reawakened me to the fact that my health was in my hands, and he asked me how I was living my life? As daft as it may seem, it hadn't occurred to me that the quality of my health and wellbeing, in life and in work was based on the way I was living, and that the first steps I could take were to develop self-care, and learn to honour my body in my daily living choices. As I began to do this I realised this was a 'study' and I undertook a Phd study to 'track' my own development of self-care at work, as well as 'tracking' a number of other colleagues who were also curious about self-care at work.
The conclusion from the Phd Study was resounding in that:
Self-care makes a difference to our quality of work
We do actually know how to take care of ourselves, and we know when we aren't taking care of ourselves
Our body is always talking to us, but we don't always listen
It is about deepening our relationship with ourselves
We have not made self-care foundational to our life - we often spend so much time caring for others, we do not offer that same level of care to ourselves
Health and well-being at work do not need to be about going to the gym (although this may support us) but the 'in-between' moments that make a difference.
When we develop self-care our self-worth and self-confidence also develops
Since the Phd was completed (5 years ago) I have worked with over 4,000 staff and teams in the NHS and in other workplaces through workshops, and self-care programmes, and the recurring issues that have come up are:
Time and competing priorities are always stated as the reason why we don't take care of ourselves at work
We are used to caring for others but we are not used to caring for ourselves (unless we have a cold or an illness)
We know how to care for ourselves, we just don't care as much as we could
Self-care makes a difference to our ability to focus, concentrate and be productive at work.
In 2017 I undertook a survey - a 'straw poll' to ask 'how is our self-care at work?' and 57 people responded across health and other sectors. The key findings were:
The majority reported their level of self-care as middling - and it could be better
82% said lack of self-care affects our quality of work e.g. spatial skills, focus, mood, energy levels, and relationships with others
When we push through, keep going, (e.g. presenteeism) particularly if we don't feel well, we feel worse and sometimes it takes much longer to recover from an illness
There are things we do that are not self-caring e.g. we don't hydrate, we eat food that doesn't nourish us, (or we skip meals), we stay up too late e.g. on social media, or we don't go to the toilet when we need sometimes realising hours later we haven't been!
Our body is always talking to us, yet we constantly over-ride it
There are some simple practical things we can do to begin to self-care such as hydration, nourishing food, posture, walking, asking for support.
Recently I undertook at 12-week self-care study with a team in an NHS setting. They chose 6 self-care topics e.g. hydration, food, 'taking a moment', stretching/exercise, body awareness, being kind to self and others and gave each of these a fortnightly focus. What we observed from this was:
When we make self-care a focus we gradually increase self-care.
We have become habitually used to not taking care of ourselves at work - as much as we could
Self-care makes a difference to the quality of our work
There are a range of self-care activities that can support us such as hydration, and focusing on food or posture and that when we do make them a focus we observe that we feel calmer, maintain perspective, are more focused, feel more productive, enjoy the working week, can concentrate more, and our communication and relationships with others improves
Simple reminders support us to re-learn great self-care habits and peel away the not so great habits we have where we over-ride our body.
So what can we learn from self-care so far?
We know self-care makes a difference, we innately all know how to self-care, and we know when we are not self-caring. We know that when we work and we feel 'off our game' we are not as effective or focused or productive as we could be.
Self-care is small changes in daily living, through mini experiments to deepen our relationship with ourselves, find out what works, and what does not work, and constantly refine as there is no perfection. It may simply start by hydrating, which leads to going to the bathroom more often which can lead to more consideration of our posture etc.
Self-care is not mental toughness, or a stiff upper lip, or being stoic. It is willing to be vulnerable, fragile, sensitive, honest, and aware, and to observe ourselves (and not be judgmental).
I also know for myself self-care has changed my life. From being exhausted, overwhelmed, anxious, I now feel healthier than I have ever felt in my entire life. And, I feel I can offer health and wellbeing workshops having learnt more about my own health and wellbeing, and the health and wellbeing of others at work.
Where does this link to quality and productivity?
We often measure quality by what is done and not how it was done. Self-care is a root to quality - as the more we care for ourselves the more care we naturally offer to others. Where we don't take care of ourselves we could ask ourselves 'what kind of quality are we working in?'
What if self-care was one of the greatest initiatives for quality?
As regards productivity - what if some of our daily living choices were a false economy? e.g. when we don't hydrate, or nourish, or check our posture, it actually means it is harder to focus, concentrate and our spatial skills suffer. If we were hydrated, nourished and our posture was supportive our work would flow far more than when we are not. By not hydrating or not going to the bathroom when we need to we are not 'saving time' we are making work more difficult as our body has to work harder to overcome the lack of care it has.
What if self-care was a productivity edge?
What if the key to work and to life is care - care for ourselves, and in that we naturally care for others.
Keep J (2013) Phd Study – Developing Self-care at work. http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/21799/
The False Economies of Productivity at work – where can we find a productivity edge in our modern day workplaces? Jane Keep
The Quality of Coaching is based on the quality of the relationship with ourselves. Jane Keep.
The importance of taking breaks at work – Jane Keep - https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/importance-breaks-place-connect-together-work-jane-keep-
Self-Care at work – how is it going? A straw poll. Jane Keep. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/self-care-work-how-going-straw-poll-jane-keep-/
What if NHS Staff are the greatest Public Health Campaign we could have? Jane Keep
Stiff upper lip or lip quiver – whats that got to do with workplace health? Jane Keep