Self-care is critical right now.
Three years after a change management experience in which I felt like a shunted carriage in Thomas the Tank Engine, I am once again at the mercy of a university restructure. This time I have managerial responsibility for others who are facing redundancy. Supporting them is a good distraction from my own woes, but self care is critical if I am going to maintain health and energy during this time.
In and experimental paper (paywalled)—Self-care for academics: a poetic invitation to reflect and resist— write a poem entitled
Self care: a manifesto
Eat apple pancakes smothered in Nutella.Practice yogaWatch The English PatientTurn off email notificationsWalk…Wind wool around needlesSurvive a spin classGo to the movies in the middle of the dayExist.Write a list of self-care activitiesPublish it in a good journalEncourage your colleagues to reflect on their own self-careResist.
This post is a snapshot of what I am doing to prioritise self-care right now, specific to my context: career stage, available resources, caring responsibilities, working conditions and temperament. It is vital that self-care is not seen as the appropriate response to manage complex systemic problems. Universities are frequently workplaces that undercare for their staff. The solution is not to individualise care. Staff do not need workshops on how to manage their time or adopt mindful practices as the only response to role overload and workplace stress.
In the introduction to Mindfulness in the Academy, Narelle Lemon and Sharon McDonough (2018) write:
[We] question suggestions that academics in any university developing mindfulness and compassion practices should simply ‘cope’ with systemic factors such as the stress of poor resourcing, excessive workloads, or aggressive behaviour from colleagues … We do not solve the systemic problems that exist in higher education as this problem solving cannot be done individually. We write this book from a perspective that encourages us, and readers, to examine how we can look at ourselves as individuals within the environment and how might we disrupt those environments through mindful actions and formal or informal mindfulness practices.
The need for individual self-care in universities makes institutional care imperative.
That said, these are my current self-care practices.
1. Focus on health
This depends on your age and your physical and mental wellbeing and ability. For me, it has meant scheduling preventative health checks (blood pressure, cholesterol, cervical cancer screening, breast check, dental check up, eye test). I am also following up with specialists to manage my specific health conditions (including Hashimoto’s disease, increased risk of glaucoma, and chronic pain managed with an implanted neurostimulator).
I exercise daily with an app that means I can workout at home while the kids get ready for school. My phone counts my daily steps, and I have started to log the food I eat to encourage wholefood choices. I recently sought the advice of a dietician and exercise physiologist to manage having the metabolism of being a peri-menopausal woman. (To put that another way: my six year old’s calorie needs are much higher than mine).
2. Reflect on priorities
Self-care can be uncomfortable work. I have been asking myself some challenging questions:
- Does this matter?
- Is this what I want to do?
- What can I control?
- What do I need to do to look after myself today?
- What would an ideal day look like?
- What is getting in the way?
This year I have been fortunate to work with a coach as part of a professional development program, who has helped me think through these questions. (You may not have these resources available to you, but find out what is on offer. At my university, six coaching or counselling sessions per year are available to all staff, including casuals, and their immediate family members).
I’ve focussed on the things that sustain me and contribute to my wellbeing—spending time with family, outsourcing home tasks (such as online food shopping), going outside and reading for pleasure. I’ve identified what detracts from my wellbeing, and I have set myself specific tasks (which are works in progress):
- Schedule two half-hour slots per week in my work calendar for unstructured time
- Rearrange my morning routine so that I don’t check work emails first thing
- Take a daily iron supplement
- Make time to text friends at least twice a week
- Give my parents a thank you present for taking the kids to daily swimming lessons during school holidays
- Read from my TBR (to-be-read) pile before buying or borrowing new books
3. Get help and support from others
Self-care is not an individual pursuit.
Putting your own needs first, however briefly, means letting go of things you usually control, requesting help, relying on others, saying no to things, knowing work has to be done by someone else, leaving work undone, asking for more time. During a stressful time at work, the company of like-minded souls is more important than ever. And the retreat of time with family and friends, and the nourishment of time alone, are crucial.
4. Enjoy yourself
In the midst of workplace upheaval, I’m looking forward to many things in the coming weeks and months:
- getting a dog
- lunches with old friends
- young adult book club (for adults only). This month we’re reading boarding school books
- seeing collaborative research writing (completed over many, many years) submitted for publication
- visiting a ryokan (Japanese inn) in Sydney without the kids
- going to the beach during January school holidays
- receiving Narelle Lemon’s mindful self-care cards
- the next book(s) on my shelf. I was going to list just one, but who am I kidding? Let’s make it the four I can’t decide between next: The Testaments, The Old Lie, Imaginary Friend, and Girl, Woman, Other
- visiting Japan Supernatural at the NSW Art Gallery
- discovering the Australian bird of the year. Will it be the endangered black-throated finch?
Not too many work tasks made the above list, but I will look for enjoyment there too.