Working in the Public Health Trenches: Eight Important Self-Care Strategies

Feb 21, 2021 7:30:00 PM

First, let me start by saying thank you. Public Health officials and employees have never worked harder and under more trying circumstances. I know - because I have a front-row seat to some of the challenges you have faced. I have watched my husband, a public health official in Southern California, and his team respond to the COVID-19 global pandemic since January 2020.

More than once, he was awoken by scared and angry voices lashing out at 2 a.m. on a Sunday, and other times he has faced protesters gathered outside his offices, making allegations of corruption or worse. All this while he and his team worked seven days a week for months on end, missing out on family functions and losing sleep.

This has been a challenge like no other for leaders in the public health field – and as such, please know it is completely normal for you and your staff to feel betrayed, baffled, frustrated, angry, hopeless, helpless, and simply sick and tired of all this. While it might be tempting to do so, try not to question what these emotional reactions say about your character or your commitment to your career. These reactions are entirely appropriate and to be expected given what is happening and given what is demanded of each one of you, and your employees, every single day.

Stress related to these recent demands significantly affects mental and physical health for leaders and staff alike. For some, reactions are evident in our family life, when we find ourselves being impatient with loved ones. For others, it rears its head when we are at work and find ourselves with a desire to only get the bare minimum done. Some people may find themselves being reluctant to give their fullest effort, while others may share more of their workload with colleagues because they feel drained. Collectively, we are burned out, stressed and unsure of when the pandemic will be in the rear-view mirror.

Warning Signs

So, as a leader, how do you know when burnout, compassion fatigue, or stress are negatively impacting you or your employees? It is important to pay attention to how those who work in your departments are doing, especially now, so that you can implement some things that may mitigate these reactions and improve resilience and coping.

Common warning signs that may be observed in employees who are struggling include:

  • Increased irritability
  • Decreased productivity
  • Increased apathy
  • Not completing tasks
  • Changes in positive contributions to the team
  • Inability to get along with co-workers
  • Unpredictable behaviors
  • Reports of feeling sad, angry, helpless
  • Dehumanizing comments about others
  • Workplace fraud (timecard fraud)

In addition, when warning signs are left unaddressed and unchecked (and without adequate leadership support) workplace performance issues can become evident, including:

  • On the job substance abuse
  • Complaints from the public
  • Increased turnover and stress claims
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Toxic work environment
  • Workplace harassment
  • Workplace theft

Self-Care and a Culture of Empathy 

So, as a public healthcare leader, what can you do? This is where the importance of encouraging your staff to engage in self-care comes in (and this can be a tough one for those who are usually caring for others). Remind them that taking care of themselves is more than just eating right, sleeping for eight hours, and exercising. While it does include these things, it is also important to have a discussion with your employees about a mindset and culture of empathy.

The idea that may be helpful to share with them is this: the work of caring for others is a labor that goes beyond an exercise of the mind and a checklist of tasks. It is about giving something of themselves and the truth is, when they have nothing left to give, the work they produce changes. A mindset of empathy means being aware of how their emotional well-being impacts their words, their deeds, and how they share time with the people they are serving. In addition, as they engage with strangers during this difficult time, it can be easy to forget the power they have to impact their lives for better or worse. Each time they encounter a member of the public, have them envision themselves in that position. How could someone put them at ease and be of comfort and assistance? How does consciously caring for themselves enable them to better do this? 

Eight Important Self-Care Strategies: 

Understanding the importance of the work that you and your departments do, and the importance of engaging in self-care, is the first critical part of any long-term coping strategy. Additionally, the following are eight self-care strategies that can be implemented by you and your staff on a regular basis to promote emotional well-being and stress reduction.

  1. Breathing exercises
  2. Practicing Mindfulness (the art of being present without worry, judgment or fear)
  3. Taking time for yourself to exercise, mediate or listen to a podcast
  4. Engaging in hobbies
  5. Making time for social activity with family and friends who enrich your life
  6. Replacing the negative things we say to ourselves with positive comments
  7. Creating gratitude lists
  8. Designating time to do one thing you love each day

Give yourself and your staff credit for all that you have accomplished during this incredible time. Public Health departments are providing a lifeline to people who are hurt, scared, angry and lost. It is so much more than a series of tasks; these are the actions of those with servant’s hearts. Remember that in order to perform well over time you and your employees need to engage in self-care activities on a daily basis.

Finally, remind them (and yourself) that self-care is not about a spa day or indulging in expensive shopping sprees. Self-care is about soothing and restoring mind and body, so that each of you can continue to effectively care for others in your community.

Please continue to take care of yourselves and each other.

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