As health professionals, our strong focus tends to be on the wellbeing of others. If we are to have a long career in our professions, we need to swing that focus regularly and routinely to ourselves as well.

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As health professionals, our strong focus tends to be on the wellbeing of others. If we are to have a long career in our professions, we need to swing that focus regularly and routinely to ourselves as well. It is also an ethical imperative for us to look after ourselves so that we can look after our clients or patients.

We all know this: but how many of us regularly put time into protecting and nurturing our own health and wellbeing? I know when my personal wellbeing fuel is higher, I feel it in what I am able to give to my clients and work – but not just work, also to my family, friends, and life. When I am more relaxed, I enjoy tasks more and I tend to do a better job, which gets reflected in things like more creativity, some ripper ideas, sparkier innovation in my problem-solving, and more accurate insight more quickly in my therapeutic assessments and interventions. I smile and laugh more easily. It also comes out in what I receive from life!

This is all very good in theory, but how do we ensure our own wellbeing is a focus and make this work on a day-to-day basis?

After feeling quite depleted due to tension and stress connected to work over the past couple of years, this year I decided I needed to consciously address my wellbeing as a person and health practitioner with thoughtful intent.

 

Kindness to self through moving my mood more (and that of my colleagues!)

Like a lot of health professionals, a lot of my work happens sitting down.

I’m not a gym goer, nor a runner, and I didn’t get the sporty genes in my family (actually, except for table tennis which I really adore!). But I do love a walk, especially in nature, and particularly in company as I don’t even realise then how far I have walked. Given all the recent research evidence about the importance of regular, moderate physical activity to protect, promote, and intervene with mood, one idea I have integrated to move my mood and ensure I am less sedentary is walking supervision sessions and walking one-on-one meetings with colleagues.

As an avid meeting note taker, this was initially a huge mental challenge to overcome. How was I going to do a meeting without being able to take my copious, extensive, quasi-verbatim notes (oh, I’m rather sad I know!)? However, my colleagues were very keen to exercise more. So, I went with their wish and we experimented. The outcome was very interesting. Instead of doing an hour meeting sitting across from each other, we walked. We walked in parks, along wetlands, we took in nature, we got our heart rates up. Was I distracted by this? No. Did the meetings get off topic? No. Were there benefits? Yes, MANY!

It was interesting. What I found was that a bit like driving in a car with a teenager without eye contact, the supervision topics touched on valuable areas we might not necessarily touch on face to face opposite each other in a stuffy, staid office. There was more energy in the sessions – and we all discussed that we looked forward to them more as well! As for the notes, a terrific outcome occurred. We agreed to walk for 45 minutes and then to return for 15 minutes to write up the key points we had discussed (dot points, yes, dot points!), an action plan to follow up on with assigned tasks, and we both signed off on it. This was actually very liberating. I started to realise I didn’t need seven pages of notes – a concise page was actually indeed sufficient (and much easier and less time-consuming to re-read later!). Who would have thought? An added bonus was the environment benefited – we were using less paper!

We got the bug! We also agreed as a team to eat lunch for half our lunchtime together once a week and then to walk the other half. This worked beautifully like a rotating-seats sort of dinner table because it is easy to mingle, move, and weave on a walk and catch up with each person. My team were happier, we were moving more, we were connecting, and our wellbeing felt strengthened.

 

Mood-moving with my mates

So I have the mood-movin’ bug!

Another kind act to combat my sedentary professional life is that now instead of usually catching up with friends for a cup of tea or a meal, I am catching up with them far more often for a ‘walk and talk’. This has been a lovely way to catch up. It also takes the pressure off a lot of preparation and planning. We send out a text and say ‘I’m going to be at the park at 9am tomorrow morning for a walk – anyone keen to join, come along’. We have found when it usually can take weeks to find a date for dinner, most of us are free for a walk with very little notice. The spontaneity feels great, the walk is pleasurable, the excitement when someone has a group story that is so important that we all have to stop our separate conversations for is wonderful as we walk up hills, take in the green, and move our moods. We have all said how great we feel after these catch ups. It is interesting too that we are now seeing each other more – because it is easier – it doesn’t involve cooking or booking a restaurant, just turning up for a walk!

I am also finding I sleep better when I’ve done a walk. It’s good.

 

Thoughtful attention as to what sparks me

While there are many work tasks I have to do in a day, taking notice of and recognising which work tasks ignite me has made a difference, which are high demand/low demand, and how I can use these to suit my energy. I try to do high-demand, igniting tasks at the start of my day when my energy is better or during any time between clients so that there is some enjoyment and stimulation to get past any start-of-the-day inertia (e.g. I like phone calls). I now save up and do my less demanding tasks that require less thought (e.g. data entry; appointment reminders; filing) for when I am tired at the end of the day. This is working well.

 

Balancing the mix of ingredients in my work

There was lecturer at uni, Dr Love, who in my undergraduate said, mix it up, if you work in direct client service, you will be able to keep doing it and keep giving to it over many, many years if you have some work days where you do something different in psychology. He lived what he preached and did a couple of days of therapy and a few days of lecturing and research. He considered he’d struck a great balance for himself. And I thought he looked a very calm, content man.

His sage advice has helped me enormously over the years as a general rule as I have mixed it up quite a bit during most years (at many times with non-psychology work, too). But for the first time in many years I am now doing 2 days in private practice (instead of 4) and 3 days in psychology education (instead of 1) and my energy for therapeutic work is noticeably better sustained by this balance. It’s been a kind move in self-care.

 

Our self-care is an ethical imperative

Indeed, we are bound to put our oxygen masks on first so we can care for our patients and clients. We can kindle self-kindness by noticing what our personal stress-signature looks like and catch the early signs and triggers so we can do something about these. For example, an early sign for me is that I can forget to drink water when I am stressed and I get very thirsty. This is a little sign I need to take stock and think about my needs. If I haven’t picked up a novel before I go to sleep, this is another sign for me that my wellbeing is not being prioritised (because I love a story before bed to switch off from my day).

Seeking support and advice from others as needed is also very important for self-care. A consult with a trusted colleague about a client can make all the difference to my wellbeing (and stress levels!). A chat with my supports (personal, professional, and my own health professionals) can also make the world of difference (particularly if I make the time to talk early!). Identifying and regularly using strategies that promote and protect our wellbeing in our personal lives and in our professions are important steps for ensuring our self care.

So how can you kindle a bit more self-kindness and self-care in your life?

What are your early signs that your wellbeing is starting to slip? And what do you do when you notice this?

Who are the trusted people you can count on for professional advice when needed? Who are your key supports? If your workplace has an Employee Assistance Program, have you looked at what they offer? Could you use any EAP services to promote and protect your wellbeing to self-nurture and prevent burnout?

What wellbeing strategies do you use in your personal life and at work to look after yourself?

I’d love to hear your pearls and gems!

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Dr. Sarah Barker

Dr Sarah Barker directs Enrich Health and Psychology and is a bilingual Senior Clinical Psychologist; Training Facilitator and Counselling Service Manager. She has15+ years’ experience in the public health, NGO and private sector in enriching wellbeing in people and organisations with diverse needs, applying evidence-based psychological science. Sarah seeks to understand people’s and organisations’ experiences to gain insight into behaviour, teaming with them to create changes they seek.

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