Your self-care may be holding you back and making people around you hate your guts


meditation-473753_960_720On Friday I attended the Seattle chapter’s monthly ED Happy Hour. A bunch of EDs showed up and for four hours we all drank and laughed and stuffed our faces with sushi and discussed “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and its parallels to nonprofit work. It was awesome, as usual, to get to hang out with my brilliant colleagues. At 9pm, as the group disbanded, we found out an ED was planning to head back to her office for a couple more hours of work. “What’s wrong with you?!” we hissed, pelting her with edamame shells, “Go home to your family!”

The majority of us in this sector, probably 90%, work ridiculous hours at very stressful jobs, and we really do need to take better care of ourselves, and our organizations as well as society need to do more to create supportive conditions—fair wages, adequate benefits, sufficient family leave and vacation time, a culture of learning and camaraderie, a working printer, two-ply toilet paper, etc.—so it’s not just our individual responsibility to ward off burnout.

There are plenty of thoughtful articles on these topics, such as this one by Beth Kanter called “How Can Nonprofits Switch from Scarcity to Abundance Mindsets When It Comes to Self-Care?” and this one by Mary Cahalane called “Your work or a life: A painful choice no one should have to make,” and this one by B. Loewe calling for “An End to Self-Care” (in favor of a more holistic “community care.”) I’ve also touched on this topic a few times, such as “7 self-care tips for nonprofit professionals” and “The courage for mediocrity: Why we nonprofit professionals need to give ourselves a break.

This post today, though, is to bring some balance. In some ways, maybe because we talk so much about it, that self-care has become somewhat of a punchline to various jokes: “Hey, are you attending that breakfast gala of one of our partner organizations?” “Nope! Self-care!” “Hey, I heard you were asked to lead the diversity and inclusion committee?” “I declined. Self-care!” “Did you drink my bottle of Mike’s hard lemonade that I was saving for lunch?!” “Yup! Self-care!”

In the past few years, I’ve been seeing more and more examples of people taking self-care too far, using it as an excuse to avoid doing stuff, and thus irritating their coworkers and also affecting their individual professional development. Maybe because burnout is a serious problem in our sector, some unicorns—especially the newer professionals—are trying hard to inoculate themselves from that happening to them. That’s understandable; the grizzled faces of sector veterans, haunted by years of gala planning and grant rejections, are not all that reassuring.

But there needs to be a thoughtful balance. I recommend everyone, especially professionals starting out on their career, to think through these questions when it comes to self-care and work-life balance:

How is your self-care affecting your work? If your self-care habits, the things that bring you energy, do not translate into your doing a better job at your job, or worse, preventing you from actually doing stuff and doing it well, then this is a problem. Usually it’s the reverse: those who take yoga classes and go on long walks and take enough vacation time tend to have more energy and higher morale, and this usually leads to higher quality work, so we should all think about increasing these activities. But I’ve also seen the opposite, where work-life balance philosophies and habits are used to avoid work, such as attending evening committees and weekend community events, or to avoid dealing with serious challenges at the office, or to avoid dealing with the fact that we are not very organized and are poor managers of time and tasks. If your work is to build community, then there must be flexibility in your schedule and energy allocation to be able to accommodate these community-centric activities and develop relationships, and this takes skills to manage.

How is your self-care affecting your team? Again, most of the time, the entire team benefits when everyone is taking care of themselves. Resentment builds, though, when it seems the individual is more concerned about their own sanity and work over that of the entire group: “Dammit, John’s missing the gala planning meeting due to hot yoga again?!” Another example is colleagues who work from home as part of their self-care strategies. Sometimes the office is distracting, and some of us can be more productive by working at home. But this needs to be balanced with the fact that most of us rely on one another to do our work. If I’m at home, sure, I can get my own work done faster (usually, unless Judge Judy is on), but it might also mean that it’s harder for people to reach me for information that they need to do their work. In addition to our individual responsibilities, there are group responsibilities and shared burdens and a sense of “we’re all in this together,” such as dealing with unexpected visitors, technology failures, etc. There was one time when my office was infested with rats, and many people decided to work from home; that’s great for them, but the rest of us had to deal with the rats, and that was not fun at all. Luckily the rats were eventually driven out by the cockroaches (#nonprofitratproblems).  

How is your self-care affecting your career? Earlier in my professional development, I attended a 7am monthly community meeting. It was torturous, since I am a night owl. A few times, I called in self-care, and stayed in bed. But through these meetings, I met mentors and strengthened relationships and learned skills critical to my professional growth. There have been many seemingly awful committees and projects that I nearly backed out for self-care reasons that have turned out to be instrumental for my work and career. These then became essential components of what brings me energy. Now I am mentoring others, and I’ve noticed there seems to be an increase in the perspective of “I can’t tackle that, my plate is way too full.” That’s fine, and probably even wise most of the time, but there is a risk of your missing out on the connections, skills, and credibility that will advance your long-term career goals. Some of the most successful professionals I know are the ones who see everything as an opportunity to learn, not as a burden that runs counter to their work-life balance. In the long-term, being able to achieve your career goals will probably make you happier than feeling like you’ve successfully protected your time and energy from unwanted intrusion.

Overall, this is a hardworking sector, full of dedicated professionals who pour their time and heart into making the community better. If anything, we all need to do more self-care, while we simultaneously improve work conditions and systems. Social justice is a long game; we have to take care of ourselves. 

But like the Force in Star Wars, there is a good side and a bad side. My friend who decided to work two extra hours at 9pm on a Friday night is setting a bad example for her staff and for the rest of us, and will continue to get cursed and hissed at during ED Happy Hour. On the other hand, some of us need to think through whether our philosophy around work-life balance and self-care is negatively affecting our work, making our coworkers resent us and bringing the team down, and jeopardizing our long-term professional goals. We need to consider how our short-term self-care is affecting our organization’s mission as well as our long-term self-fulfillment. 

Now, if anyone needs me, I’ll be in the supply closet, where I keep a mini-bar. 

Dammit, I think I already used that ending line for the post last week. 

Oh well. 


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