A Culture of Self-Care


In the last several years, we hear more and more about the necessities of supporting, developing and formalizing personal plans for self-care.  Plans promoting the care of self alongside work, family, daily stressors and strains.  Plans that allow space and time to care for yourself before caring for another human being.

However, the part of the conversation that is often lost is that self-care is being solely framed as an individual responsibility.  In the medical community, movements are sweeping towards developing programs of wellness, self-care, resiliency and burnout prevention.  The problem with the momentum behind these movements, and the translatable piece to any of us in our own lives, is none of our actions occur in a vacuum.   We exist in a kaleidoscoping cultural environment. 

Personally, I have a diligent plan for my own self-care, yet I was reminded again of the surrounding environment a few weeks ago.  I stepped into our home after a challenging day at work.  I was greeted by two screaming children, and a wife stressed from her own long day at work.  Plans, structure, and well intentions go out the window in a moment like this, a moment of heightened stress.   Moments when the needs of the whole supersede the needs of the individual.  This moment reminded me, self-care relies on a cultural environment willing to embrace it.  So, I grabbed the kids and my wife took a twenty-minute timeout.  We have a parental timeout system in our house where mommy/daddy can call a timeout and leave for 20 minutes, as long as you make the official timeout gesture and a whistling sound.  Twenty minutes later, mom returns and I take a break to shower, meditate and center myself for the remainder of the day.  Having a plan to care for yourself means nothing if the culture and environment does not support its practice. 

In the professional arena, I hear cultural rumblings of self-care now being a “professional expectation and responsibility”.  Placing even more onus on the individual person.  Individuals do need to have their own plans, but if an employer does not promote, allow and/or support these practices, the efforts of the individual are thwarted by the tone-deaf bureaucracies in which our work resides.  We cannot expect self-care from individuals without also shaking the foundation of the institutions in which we work.  Self-care does not happen in a vacuum.  Self-care is not solely about personal responsibility.  Self-care is about community.  Self-care is about cultural change.

As a medical professional, the system in which I work is sick.  The system is in a moment of heightened stress.  We must build a system where it is okay to take a twenty-minute timeout.  Hand gesture and whistling sound optional. 

                                                                     - Adam B. Hill, M.D.