What Working At A Women’s Shelter Taught Me About Self-Care

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women's shelter

It was the end of the first week in my new job as a Coordinator of Volunteers at a rural women’s shelter when my thinking about when and how to practice self-care underwent a dramatic shift. It took just one afternoon with a group of women to challenge everything I was comfortable with and thought I knew about work ethic and healthy living.

Those beliefs stemmed from the family business my grandfather started and which my father continued. Like other family members, it was my first job and it became tied in with both my family history and my expectations for how to live life successfully.

When my grandfather began as a business owner, he was the sole employee until he got it established, and his work ethic was formidable.

There were no days off, leaving my grandmother to raise their children and care for the household chores in a time before most modern conveniences. That same tradition was carried on by my father, and while he took evenings off and parts of a weekend, the work ethic and ideas for well-being stuck.

Fast forward to my working life. I brought that same expectation to all my jobs.

No doubt I was a dream employee, taking on extra shifts, staying late, and going in early. Normal, the way things were, and all without the perks that behemoth companies like Google offer their employees like nap rooms or snack bars.

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Time off when you’re self-employed looks different than it does when you work for someone else. So does self-care, which is a reasonably new term. When you’re self-employed it’s easy to put even regular breaks in your workday off, because there’s always so much to do.

Regardless of whether you work for yourself or someone else, self-care is a necessary part of your well-being. Given how much of your awake hours are spent working, the question becomes, “How can self-care be incorporated into more of your entire day and not just when you’re ‘off the clock’?”

Rarely does the current trend of self-care include activities that help your body, mind, and spirit. The only reason I know it can look different and occur at work is because of an unusual activity on a Friday afternoon, among a small group of phenomenal staff.

What a work culture of self-care looks like

While we might read in awe at what’s offered within those big companies, the truth is regardless of where you work, taking time to recharge is important. Of course, the work culture and your attitude must evolve enough to allow it to happen. Just like mine had to when I was hired to work at that woman’s shelter.

It was there that I discovered what self-care could look like. Not as mandated by management, but by staff themselves knowing what they needed to do for themselves.

It started with a power outage.

So, there I was on a Friday afternoon of my first week of work ready to finish strong, and then the power went out. I thought I could work through it, even though there was no working technology.

As I sat at my desk considering my options, other staff wandered out. My office was open and in the middle of the center. I still didn’t know anyone beyond a friendly smile, but soon they were gathered near my desk, sitting on the stairs that led to the upper level. Chatting together, talking about weekend plans, until someone suggested a drumming circle. Say what?

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Turns out several of the counselors had drums in their offices, along with tambourines and maracas. Out they came and the women re-gathered on the stairs as the sunshine poured in from the skylight above. The instruments were distributed, and they invited me to join them, but I only shook my head ‘no’ and watched in disbelief as one after another they joined in.

Despite how strange it seemed, I couldn’t help but smile at their laughter and lightheartedness. They invited me again until finally, although feeling foolish, I joined in.

It was at that moment I understood the necessity of putting down our cares for a while and moving out of the sanctioned or cultural and unhealthy forms of self-care. In this workplace, these instruments were tools for use with their clients, but they also knew how to use them for their own purposes to release tension and invite happiness.

It was from them that I realized the importance of how to take advantage of time and when to embrace spontaneity as part of a self-care regimen.

While it felt uncomfortable to join in on their play, it was that day that I learned how others, even at work, can take personal responsibility to participate in healthy self-care. It was also when I began the journey of learning to let go of the deeply ingrained and highly-lauded hustle mentality.

New models for self-care

As you can imagine, the counselors whose work involves the daily stories of families impacted by domestic violence are in an environment of constant stress. You can’t possibly be unaffected by the circumstances of the women and children you’re counseling every day. It’s why their work culture is rooted in self-care because to be effective you need to know what works for you and practice it.

A nurse from a hospital in Colorado realized this and created a program for use while at work. It’s a mindfulness and self-reflective practice put in place to offset the stress and burnout facing the nursing population.

It was studied for its effectiveness and the results were positive.

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“This work suggests that this program improves job satisfaction and can reduce burnout leading to improved environmental and safety measures.”

One person looked around and saw what could be possible and then created a program to improve the working situation for all. He saw it as a workplace necessity and not an at-home suggestion.

Self-care is what you do regularly, not just on vacation, weekends, or evenings. While you might not be ready to break out the drums and tambourines, there are many options for self-care that will keep you recharged.

Consider these possibilities:

  • A walk outside of your office space
  • Meditation, mindfulness, or breathwork
  • Adult coloring books
  • Short stretching exercises at your desk or elsewhere
  • Reading a chapter from a self-improvement book

Relegating self-care as an off-work activity only is short-sighted in the greater scheme of things. By taking time away from your desk you’ll improve your mental clarity and energy while reducing your stress.

Whether you’re self-employed or work for someone else, try to find ways to disconnect from your tasks and engage in activities that will help you to recharge. Do that and you’ll find that you’re more productive and happier, without the continued pressure of the old-school work ethic or new-school hustle mentality.

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Frances Hickmott is a writer, speaker, and author. She is the author of Journey To Joy: How To Overcome Life's Setbacks To Create A Life You Love. She writes about mental health, self-improvement, and resilience.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.