The work we do as public servants is really important and has a significant impact on individuals, communities, and sometimes other countries. It is a huge responsibility, and we do our best to fulfill our missions. The internal and external pressures to succeed in the mission can make us forget that our #1 responsibility is to ourselves. It can be hard to say this to yourself, so I will say it for you: You are more important than the work you do. You have to take of yourself first.
Not practicing self-care regularly can lead to burnout and reduce the quality of your performance in many areas of your life. I learned that the hard way in recent years. I felt so intensely responsible and stressed out about the really important work I was doing that I felt a persistent sense of anxiety, and I presented an unhealthy amount of ego.
Ironically, focusing so intently on getting the work done not only reduced the quality and quantity of the work produced, but I felt awful all the time. Once I started to put everything back into perspective and practiced self-care, I was able to be more thoughtful and intentional about where I invested my energy, which led to better results at work and at home.
Below are a few things that helped me pull myself from the brink of burnout.
3 Ways to Practice Self-Care
1. Make Time for Personal Operation and Maintenance
All things that operate need maintenance to continue to operate well. Cars need oil changes. Houses need repairs. Computers need reboots and upgrades. You should think of people as operating entities as well. Your body needs exercise, and your heart needs connection. You can think of it as Personal O&M or securing your oxygen mask first, whatever analogy works best for you. What matters is that you spend time on yourself and your needs so that you can more effectively and efficiently perform your other roles.
2. Nurture Your Networks
We need people, and people need us. We are social animals, and we need connection. Post-pandemic workplace flexibilities are great, but they also require us to be more intentional about nurturing our networks because we don’t have as many built-in opportunities to connect with people organically. So, it is important to make time to reinforce those connections by setting up regular calls with those people. Expand your network by reaching out to others to connect in a variety of ways, around a work product or around a shared non-work interest. Your network can consist of people at work, at home, or in personal interest activities. It doesn’t matter which network you start with; it only matters that you connect with it intentionally on a regular basis.
One benefit of connecting within your networks is that it allows you to vent some frustrations. If you do this intentionally, you may be able to turn venting sessions into “constructive complaining”. Giving yourself and others time to get their frustrations out through complaining a bit tends to lead to acceptance or action. Connection based on shared frustration can lead to an opportunity to work on a shared goal or project, further strengthening that connection and creating opportunities for synergy.
3. Honor Your Interests
There is a sociological theory that purports that all of our social interactions are performances. We are always playing a role for someone with a specific set of written and unwritten expectations. For instance, we are students, parents, employees, friends, citizens, teachers, etc. Roles are good, and playing our roles in their context is important. However, it can be very draining to perform all the time, always filling someone else’s cup instead of your own.
Take time to fill your cup by to doing something that interests you. What is one thing that when you do it, you get more energy than you put into it? What are you curious about? History, space, mathematical theories, science fiction, world records, futurism, art, museums, etc.? Find something you love doing or learning about and make time for it. By making time for the things you love to do, you are honoring your interest and honoring yourself as a person with no expectations. The energy and inspiration you get will improve your outlook on life and very likely your performance in the various roles you play.
Nefertiti DiCosmo is a Supervisory Life Scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She is passionate about employee engagement, mentoring and helping people and groups achieve their goals. Her leadership mantra is, “Prioritize people. Simplify processes. Celebrate progress.”