Looking after yourself

I’m sure that you didn’t enter the caring professions expecting things to be easy, but as the song goes ‘no-one said it would be this hard.’ Unlike so many careers, what you are leaving behind at the end of a long and tiring day isn’t just a ‘to do’ list, it may quite literally be life and death. In addition, being frequently under-resourced means that so often your best is never quite enough. And that’s not easy to cope with.

Regardless of how good you are at your job, unfortunately you aren’t super human. Coping with the demands of your role day-in-day-out can easily take its toll. Yet just because you work in health and social care this doesn’t mean that you are immune to physical or mental ill-health.

We know that you are skilled at looking after your patients. But what about your own needs? Who looks after them? If you constantly give out to others without respecting your own needs you risk becoming ill or getting burnt out.

Know yourself

It’s important that you can identify what you need to keep yourself as healthy as possible. You must also accept that, despite facing similar pressures, this may not be the same as those you work or live with. For example, some of your colleagues may enjoy going out after a long shift, but if this leaves you stressed and exhausted then you need to find more nurturing ways to unwind from work.

So, as World Mental Health Day approaches let’s look at some areas to consider to optimise your own health.

Mind your language

Learning to be a bit kinder to yourself is the first step in taking care of yourself. Your working day is challenging enough so try not to make it even harder by setting unrealistic expectations or blaming yourself for things outside your control.

  • Think about how and when you judge yourself and listen to the language you use: would you speak to a colleague or close friend in this way? How can you adopt a friendlier tone with yourself?
  • Remember to acknowledge when you do things well and make a note of positive feedback you receive. Use this to boost your confidence when you notice self-critical thoughts.

Identify your triggers

It’s unrealistic to think you can avoid stress, so developing positive ways to manage it is essential. But as stress can be so subjective, first you need to recognise what ‘being stressed’ means to you.

  • Over a period of about a week try to notice what is ‘normal’ for you and how stress impacts on you physically, emotionally and behaviourally. Keep a mood / behaviour diary if you think this would help.
  • Then try to identify what your triggers are, for example do you feel more stressed if you haven’t eaten or slept properly? Or on nightshifts? Are you aware of any ‘early warning’ signs, such as increased irritability or feeling flustered?
  • Often how ‘stressed’ you feel is directly linked to your perception of how you are coping or how you will manage a future situation so try to identify any unhelpful / repetitive patterns of thinking. Can you challenge these with more rational thoughts?

Coping with stress

Unfortunately, there is no quick or easy solution. Instead, stress management must become part of your lifestyle. Things that can help include relaxation exercises, yoga, tai chi, breathing techniques, mindfulness, and physical activity. But remember it’s important that you find strategies you enjoy and can stick with.

Don’t under-estimate the powerful impact that hobbies can have, anything that absorbs your mind can help to distract you from worrying thoughts. Talking to colleagues or friends can also help get things in perspective but try to limit the amount of time you spend going over incidents from work.

Learning to control your stress levels can take time so be patient with yourself.


This useful tool, taken from cognitive behavioural therapy (www.getselfhelp.co.uk) can be applied to any situation where you notice a build-up in your stress levels.

  • Stop: Try repeating ‘stop’ to yourself to consciously halt your train of thought.
  • Take a breath: Breathe in deeply through your belly, count to 5 and then exhale
  • Observe your thoughts: What are you thinking? Are you reacting to anything in particular? What’s happening in your body?
  • Pull back: Try to turn down the emotional intensity by gaining some perspective and seeing the bigger picture. Look at what is happening as if you were in a plane. What else can you see? What is within your control and what isn’t?
  • Practice what works: What would help you just now? What can you do to improve the situation?

You can practice this technique wherever you are, even if you are with a patient or relative. Over time it can help you cope better with the day-to-day demands of your job.

Developing resilience

After a testing shift it’s natural, and often helpful, to reflect over things in your mind. However, at some point you must switch off and focus your thoughts away from work. The alternative is to ruminate over the same points again and again and this will only drain you of energy and mental reserves.

The more resilient you are, the more able you are to ‘bounce back’ from ‘bad days.’ It doesn’t mean that you don’t feel any emotions, more that you aren’t knocked off-centre by them.  

Though some people are naturally more resilient than others, it is a skill that can be worked on. As we all cope differently, there is no exact formula for resilience, however learning how to switch off, developing self-awareness, nurturing a positive outlook and investing time and energy into friendships and relationships can help.  

Look after the basics

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, human survival depends upon meeting your basic physiological needs, including eating, drinking and sleeping. Yet you need to look after all of these to see the best effect. So, there’s no point investing in the latest yoga class if you are neglecting to eat well or not getting enough sleep.

Working shifts can play havoc to your lifestyle and make sticking to a healthy regime more challenging. But don’t give up before you have started! Look for innovative ways to work around your rota.

  • You won’t be able to make level-headed decisions with a low blood sugar or if you are dehydrated. Though sugary snacks will see you through that mid-shift dip we all know they don’t form the basis of a balanced diet! Try to adopt the mantra ‘everything in moderation.’ Treats are fine and are often essential in a 12-hour shift. Just try to limit how often you have them.
  • Drink up! Make a conscious effort to drink plenty of water throughout your day. Though it’s a relaxant, watch your alcohol intake after work and don’t use this as your only way of unwinding.
  • Developing a post-work routine can help you switch off and improve your sleep pattern. If you tend to leave work worrying about your day use your journey home to actively leave your shift behind. This may take practice, but mindfulness or visualisation apps can help – some exercises can even be done when driving.
  • Try to fit in some exercise into your week – as winter approaches, it is important that you get fresh air and daylight.

Remember too, that life is all about balance so remember to fit in time for hobbies, friends and simply having fun. Laughter is after all the best medicine!

Ask for support

There may be times when switching off and taking care of yourself becomes harder. This could be due to pressures at work, witnessing emotional situations or difficulties at home.

Though some people still think asking for help is a sign of weakness, vulnerability is now one of the recognised qualities of great leaders. So, if you are struggling, try to find someone you trust enough to share at least some of what you are going through.

  • Speak to your line manager if you feel that your work performance is being affected.
  • Most occupational health departments have a dedicated professional that you can speak to in confidence. If you would rather speak to someone outside of work, ask if your union offers support.
  • If you are concerned about your health speak to your GP or practice nurse as soon as you can. They will be used to seeing fellow professionals and won’t judge you at all.

This post was last modified on 17 May 2021


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