I have worked in healthcare long enough now to see my fair share of burnout and compassion fatigue. It is difficult to watch talented, compassionate caregivers lose their edge, wither back, and harden their shells. Especially since it’s preventable. A few days ago I facetiously posted on my Facebook wall about how doctors had discovered the proverbial fountain of youth in basic diet and exercise, but that the general public rejected it because it didn’t come in a pill. I think it would have been funnier if it wasn’t so true. It is remarkable that even minor changes in these things really are the most effective way to not only prolong life, but to make it better as well.
The same is true with our emotional and spiritual health. Even the smallest adjustments can exponentially improve our wellbeing. Multiple studies have revealed that mindfulness and meditation can help reduce anxiety, tension, and depression, control metabolism, and lower blood pressure. Research also demonstrates that we can improve our attention, memory, conscious perception, awareness, and overall functioning. Virtually all the literature supports the position that peak performers are able to achieve wildly ambitious feats largely because, in addition to working hard, they rest hard. In other words, if your team isn’t a top performer, it might not be because they don’t work hard enough. It very well might be that they haven’t developed or been allowed to practice the skill of respite and self-care.
The crazy thing is that this is not a secret! There are books upon books about this stuff. And it’s not because folks don’t have a methodology either. There is a multibillion dollar industry around how to take good care of yourself. Just try and count the number of blogs, books, DVDs, articles, and audiobooks on the topic. At our hospital the leadership team has offered an entire room specifically for the practice of self-care. They know the cost, both financial and human cost, of burned out Team Members. So, why is it still happening? If it’s not an education or resource problem, what is it?
I think it’s a cultural problem. I think that our poor self-care is merely a symptom. The disease, if you will, is embedded in our ethos. Westerners are largely independent. We take great pride in hard work, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, and blazing the trail. These values have become so important to us that we have social pressure to always be on, giving our all. We simply don’t celebrate rest. We barely celebrate innovation or creativity that make things easier. I’m convinced that if the pulley was invented in the United States today the poor inventor would be run out of town for trying to cut corners. We have very little empathy for struggling persons and we give badges of honor to individuals who martyr themselves and their families under the banner of hard work.
I know because I’ve been there. When I was in grad school the second time, it was not uncommon for my schedule to be full from my 4:30 wake up to my 10:00 bed time. Each week I ran nearly 25 miles, worked more than 40 hours, was at my internship for 10, attended several classes, completed my coursework, stayed engaged with my faith community, and remained a devoted husband and father. It was rigorous to say the least and I am proud of how hard I worked in each of the arenas to which I had committed. Most of the time people would affirm my efforts and applaud all that I was able to dependably accomplish, but every once in a while they would ask how in the world I had that kind of energy. I was always happy to share that it wasn’t magic and it certainly wasn’t that I am any more special than anyone else. I was excited to let them know that it was intentional self-care and boundary setting.
What my peers often overlooked was that my early wake up time was to exercise in a supportive, encouraging community. They might have missed that I kept a regular coffee appointment with a good friend who would attend to my challenges and pray with me before I went to work. They probably didn’t know that I was listening to inspiring, informative audiobooks during my 30 minute commute or taking that time to quiet my mind and pray. Surely they missed my daily commitment to 20 minutes of meditation and scripture reading. I religiously practiced self-care as if my life depended on it because, quite frankly, it did. Everything in my life that was not moving me toward my goals or was preventing them from being realized, was reduced or removed; I didn’t watch TV, I ate well, I took out toxic things, and I invested in relationships that were empowering.
When I tell people about the importance of self-care they kind of chuckle. Some will take it to heart and others will put it into practice in their own lives, but far too many roll their eyes and get back to the grind as quickly as possible. I hope they make it, but I know some of them will not. I don’t think we will have an award for “most well rested” any time soon. For now, the reward will have to remain uncelebrated mental health and longevity. However, I do hope that we can feed into a culture that honors others who honor themselves and make space for self-care. Perhaps we will slowly see a shift where hard work is in balance with hard rest