‘You’ve gotta live it, to give it’ Lisa Chu MD

What is self-care?

Self-Care is a universal concept and need. It’s the individual’s attitude and actions that contribute to the maintenance of their well-being and health. There’s general acceptance that healthy nutrition, sufficient and quality sleep and adequate physical exercise are all core self-care strategies for well-being. Also generally accepted is the need for human connection, a sense of purpose and healthy boundaries. How and to what extent we individually value and positively practice these elements varies greatly. Taking care of ourselves is vital for our physiological and emotional well-being, but ultimately, it’s a personal choice and responsibility.

Personal self-care enables you to be nurtured and thrive to give the best to yourself. Its about the effective care of the self.

How does Professional self-care differ?

Professional self-care is a responsibility of our role. It’s a professional obligation to enable us as practitioners to deliver competent, compassionate and ethical practice. It reflects a “choice and commitment to become actively involved in maintaining one’s effectiveness as a practitioner”. Professional self-care is about the nurturing and preservation of self whilst in the work of caring for others. It’s the use of skills and strategies by practitioners to maintain their own personal, family, emotional and spiritual well-being and their professional capabilities whilst attending to the needs and demands of their clients.

Professional self-care enables you to remain nurtured and thriving so you can give the best to your clients.
It’s about practices to enable the continued and effective use of self in your work.

How do we practice professional self-care?

Self-care is a highly individualised and multi-faceted practice related to how we perceive our value and the actions we take to support ourselves. Professional self-care encompasses the core elements of personal self-care but is done with a specific focus and purpose — staying well whilst delivering quality service. There are additional specialised aspects and techniques of professional self-care that relate to the trauma-based work individuals do. Still, this focus is on the core elements of self-care and how we can utilise and apply these in a professional self-care context. As with all self-care, it relies on the personal belief that you, as an individual, are worthy of the care you need.

In the professional context, it’s vitally important to begin with the expectation that, as a professional, you’re equally worthy of the care and support you show your clients. I would go as far as to say that your self-care is vital for you and your clients’ well-being.

Eating nutritious foods – in professional self-care, this could relate to ensuring you take a sufficient break to have something to eat. Or to prepare a healthy lunch before work or have healthy nutritious foods available to sustain your energy and motivation during the day whilst working. Allowing yourself space and brief time away from the intensity of the work and your desk to eat and digest your food in a calm environment. Ensuring you allow yourself permission and time to eat breakfast and leave work to enjoy meals outside of the pressure work environment. It could include monitoring and managing your use of / intake/dependency on coffee or stimulant foods to mask or suppress emotional needs. (Personal self-care is your choice of ongoing nutrition and food choices. Where you experiment with nutrition and values, take long lunches and savor the food, create a culinary treat, and shop for healthy food options – this is the time to enhance your healthy nutrition to serve you better.)

Sufficient and quality sleep – whilst it’s unlikely you’ll do this in the workplace (unless you have nap pods!), professional self-care requires you to give focus and attention to sleep so you don’t compromise your capacity to work and provide high-quality service to clients. Professional self-care may include creating a ritual to enable you to switch off when you leave work so that you aren’t dwelling on work issues when you try to sleep. Professional self-care is about prioritising the time and supports needed to get adequate quality sleep to enable you to present to work and sustain energy throughout the day to serve clients without depleting your reserve and coping capacity. Sufficient and quality sleep is a professional responsibility, so critical decision-making is not impaired. What you do outside of work time to nurture positive sleep routines all contribute to professional self-care.

Getting adequate exercise – being energised and gaining the positive endorphins from regular exercise, alongside the benefits for physical and mental health, will all contribute to the professional’s capacity to deliver service provision. Professional self-care may relate to ensuring sufficient exercise and movement within your day, getting up and stretching and moving about from a desk role or stretching/re-energising after a long drive before a client interaction. It may also relate to using opportunities to get out of the workplace to take a brisk or slow walk to help regulate emotional well-being. Your professional well-being will reap the rewards from exercise, but it’s unlikely that any significant activity will occur within the working day.

In some situations, there may be workplace flexibility to engage in an exercise session and return to work. Whilst this may be personally beneficial, with professional self-care, the focus is on the overall gains for your professional practice and delivery. Taking a strenuous fitness class during lunch and then being drained and exhausted in the afternoon runs the risk of blurring the benefits of personal self-care with the need for professional self-care. In contrast, a yoga session that reduces stress levels to encounter the afternoon client sessions may have professional self-care benefits. If you are on your feet all day, professional self-care could extend to ensuring you have comfy footwear and taking moments within the day to massage your feet/legs to aid circulation and stretch out your body. Maintaining general exercise levels in your personal time will greatly benefit your overall professional well-being and health.

Human connection – we may be professionally in contact and connecting with others during our working day, but this doesn’t fulfil a need for reciprocal human interaction. Professional self-care encompasses sharing and interacting in a reciprocal relationship during the working day, either with colleagues and professional peers or taking opportunities to connect to significant others. Trying to separate your professional self from your personal self can lead to challenges. You’re still a human in need of support and compassion in your professional role. The mutual interactions we get from being with and allowing others to support us are a core part of professional self-care. Professional self-care in this regard would extend to establishing and prioritising supervision and face-to-face debriefing (formal and informal) with others who understand and can validate your emotions and experiences.

Sense of purpose – we spend around a third of our lives working (roughly), and to thrive, we need to find meaning and purpose in what we do. This doesn’t mean everyone has to be fulfilling their calling through their work, but professional self-care is being able to draw out the purpose, the value and the meaning behind the work and the challenges faced. Professionally we need to be able to take the time to reflect and find the purpose in even the most challenging day. Professional self-care is finding meaning, identifying small wins, and reconciling the effort and impact with the overall benefit. It’s also being able to recognise the limitations and the negative outcomes as part of it all. It’s to maintain compassion in times of struggle and to give that compassion to others and oneself even at your most challenging moments.

Healthy boundaries – Knowing where your professional role and responsibilities stop and your personal life begins is vital in professional self-care. As is sharing these boundaries, so others know them, and holding firm to them so others can also respect them. Healthy boundaries are a vital element of self-care and can cross personal and professional boundaries. The capacity to know when boundaries are needed, establish them and maintain them is core to professional and personal self-care.

Emotional regulation – the more awareness we gain about our needs and capacity for emotional regulation, the better equipped we will be for personal and professional self-care. In the workplace, however, the capacity to quickly tune in and regulate our emotions in often challenging and confronting situations is essential. Professional self-care is allowing oneself the space and integrity to recognise your emotional needs and responses and act to support yourself within the professional context. Using in-the-moment tools and practice to regulate emotion, essential oils, breath work, mantras, and grounding techniques are all part of professional self-care. Professional self-care requires you to give the time and have the skills and support to process the emotional impact of the work you experience and to separate your emotional responses from the intense emotional experiences of the clients. Knowing when you need to take a time-out break to re-ground and gain balance in your emotional regulation is critical. As is the willingness to see, or take notice when others identify, your need for additional professional support or prolonged time away from work to preserve your well-being.

Do I need to up my personal or professional self-care (or both)?

Take a moment to consider where you can benefit from greater consistency, practice or awareness about your self-care. Then reflect on whether this is predominately in the personal domain or specifically in the professional sphere.

Professional self-care cannot make up for deficiencies in personal self-care. It’s about continuing and maintaining self-care practices during your professional practice to prevent depletion and burnout risks.

Occasionally meditating during your work day may bring a brief period of calm and relief beneficial for your professional practice at that moment. However, it won’t provide the inner calm and self-regulation a regular meditation practice will achieve.

Effective self-care is about the small things we do consistently and flows within the personal and professional realms. It’s also highly individualised and situation-specific, so it needs to be flexible and responsive to your changing human needs and the professional circumstances you face. Most of all, go easy on yourself. Beating yourself up for not doing something only adds to the suffering. Treat yourself with compassion and with the kind, loving nurture you deserve.