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Self-care and Mindfulness: You Are Enough

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It is a calming thought when you wonder if you are in over your head.  Such a thought calms the mind and heightens self-confidence. It is also found on bumper stickers and coffee mugs.  It is intended to refocus the mind, thus avoiding feeling overwhelmed, upset, exhausted, stressed and self-doubting.  It is the newest version of self-care — a thought to help you know that you can accomplish it all. 

Previously, self-care’s motto was to take care of yourself before you take care of others, or the airplane example.  Every time you board an airplane, the pre-flight safety presentation includes instructions to put the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting any other passenger.  You must take care of yourself before you can help someone else. 

Oxford dictionaries.com defines self-care as “the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one’s own health; the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.” How often do we stop to employ tools or other techniques to lessen stress and focus on our own well-being?

Close your eyes and imagine you are 9 years old.  It is a pleasant summer day. The sun is shining and you have two hours to play before dinner.  No responsibilities or chores at the moment, and you don’t even know what a to-do list is.

There is no car payment, no bills, no carpool, no errands to think about.  What do you do?  Do you color? Swim? Ride your bike? Read a book? Jump rope? Skate? Play football?  Are you alone or with others?  Inside or outside?  Whatever you pick makes you glow with happiness.  You are elated.  Remember the feeling.  Now imagine that same level of happiness today.  What are you doing to give yourself that same feeling of pure joy? 

Just going through this visualization exercise can lower your stress, and some also believe that the activities that you chose when you were young will still bring you contentment today, hence the rise in adult coloring.

In a 2014 article in the New York Post, “Society’s self-destructive addiction to faster living,” author Dr. Stephanie Brown describes our society as a “chaotic, frenzied spiral of a new addiction” where Americans boast about juggling “10 plates while you brag about your 90-hour week.”  Phones, instant information, constant motion and endless commitments create a hectic pace. 

According to a 2015 CNN Money article, in America, “nearly four in 10 workers report logging 50+ hours on the job.” Then add kids, errands, exercise and there is barely enough time to sleep.  Does this describe you?  Do you enjoy the pace or are you caught up in it?  If someone were to look at your calendar, would the manner in which you spend your time reflect your values and give the most accurate reflection of your priorities? 

 

Clear your head

Where did the down time go?  It used to be that when you stood in line at a store, sat at a traffic light, waited for a meeting to begin, you had five minutes of down time to clear your head or let your mind wander.  Maybe that time was spent people watching, organizing your thoughts, looking out a window or talking to a passerby. But now, that time is spent texting, checking email or returning a phone call. The term “taking a break” used to mean taking a brief moment away from whatever work you were doing to relax or close your eyes or just stop “doing.”

Now, taking a break means just doing something other than what you are presently doing.  You take a break from watching this presentation to answer an email. 

You take a break from revising that policy to fill out those forms to send to Human Resources.  The relax is gone. Forget finding shapes in clouds.  Instead, we don’t relax unless that is on the schedule in our Outlook calendar. 

Public service is a calling, a calling where many employees assist their fellow citizens through the sometimes overwhelming paperwork and procedure of government regulation. Other employees assist the most vulnerable populations in the community, working to provide essential services so that these citizens can meet their basic needs. 

These customers are our neighbors, struggling and seeking help.  Taking care of them, assisting them, is rewarding; yet it also can be emotionally draining. 

Employee Assistance Programs provide counseling, but employers and supervisors can offer more to employees in the areas of stress relief and balance, more than just alternative schedules and telecommuting. They can encourage mindfulness.

Psychology Today describes mindfulness as “a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to your current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future.” 

More and more employers are spending time in meetings, trainings and newsletters discussing mindfulness.  Employers are dedicating space for quiet rooms or meditation. 

Some employers are offering classes on sleep, nutrition, meditation, exercise and time management to begin conversations about mindfulness and stress reduction.  As good stewards of mindfulness, employees should also consider asking for help, volunteering, laughter and hobbies as ways to lessen stress and improve mindfulness. 

 

How can supervisors encourage mindfulness and self-care?

First, role model mindfulness and include the topic as part of the conversation within the culture.  At staff meetings, each person can mention something for which they are grateful.  Quotes, articles and books can be shared on mindfulness topics.  Leadership may want to give journals to staff to encourage reflection.  Take time at staff meetings for employees to thank one another for providing assistance. 

Second, encourage employees to schedule time to recharge by using their sick time.  Employees who come in to work when they are ill only spread illness to others.  Recently, a department director had over 50 percent of her staff out ill.  The staff was working on a stressful project and came into work sick, spreading the germs to other staff. 

Third, encourage employees to leave their desks at lunch.  Office desks, phones, keyboards and the mouse are some of the areas that attract the highest concentrations of germs in the workplace. Don’t eat there too.  Taking a break at lunch can also make employees more refreshed to take on tough tasks. 

Fourth, recharge by scheduling and using vacation time.  According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Applied Research in Quality of Life, and reported by the Huffington Post, planning a vacation can make you happier than taking the trip itself. 

Fifth, don’t require employees to work while they are on vacation. Fair Labor Standards Act aside, they need the time to recharge.  A department director said her previous boss required her to check her email each day and to watch the streaming of the board meetings, even when she was on vacation. 

Sixth, as we all know, sitting is the new smoking.  Make time to walk to the printer, stand when you talk on the phone and stretch at meetings. In your organization, is it acceptable to stand during a meeting or is it considered disrespectful? 

Seventh, allow flexibility for employees to use leave time so they may volunteer in the community.  According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, “volunteerism improves health by strengthening the body, improving mood and lessening stress in participants.” Employees who are called to public service are also often called to volunteer in their community, so flexibility can be a recruitment and retention strategy. 

 

The payoff

Coconino County Chief Adult Probation Officer Sarah Douthit has been bringing the mindfulness and self-care conversations to her staff to improve employee well-being for over a year. 

Douthit says, “I believe that we must model the way when it comes to self-care.  If our staff members see that we are emailing on our off-hours or coming to work sick, we are tacitly relaying our expectations for their conduct.  If we appear stressed out and overworked, that negativity seeps through the organization. 

“Mindfulness starts with our personal reflections and our own self-care.  We can’t expect to care for other people if we don’t start with ourselves.”

Her efforts and those of her leadership team have paid off; in FY2018, her probation officer positions had zero turnover when looking at employees who left employment for a reason other than advancement or retirement. And lowering employee turnover is something that makes everyone calmer. 

Healthy, happy, less-stressed employees communicate more effectively and have better customer service.  They are more motivated to dive into tough problem solving and are invigorated to do the work. They are more engaged. They are more likely to stay with an organization.  A culture of mindfulness and self-care can make departments and organizations thrive. 

The Dalai Lama said: “When our mind is calm, we’re better able to find peace of mind and live a joyful life.”  

 

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