The balancing act: staying healthy in a demanding caring role

Caring for others can take its toll on your body, mind and emotions. Yet, even though you may be an expert at looking after your patients, are you giving your own wellbeing the same attention?

If you tend to think of everyone else first and ignore your own needs, you may be risking not only your long-term health but your future career. For example, poor nutrition, lack of sleep and prolonged stress can all have a negative impact on your ability to think clearly and rationally and ultimately your ability to do your job well. So, to ensure a long and rewarding career in health or social care, it is important that you think of ways to keep you as fit and as healthy as possible.

Look after the basics

Yes, we’re sure you have heard it all before, but you do need to practice what you preach! According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, human survival depends upon meeting your basic physiological needs, i.e. eating well, balancing rest and physical activity and making sure you are drinking enough (coffee and alcohol don’t count!)

It is impossible to make effective decisions when your blood sugar is in your boots, or if you are constantly 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! However, sticking to a healthy diet and maintaining adequate fluid levels is especially hard when working long, erratic hours in a hot and stuffy environment. But it can be done! Here are some simple tips:

  • If there is a fridge or cupboard on your unit try organising what you need at the start of your work week. Ask close colleagues if you could start a kitty and share the shopping.
  • If you are buying ready meals pay attention to the labels – most supermarkets now stock healthy ranges that actually taste ok!
  • 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.
  • Make a conscious effort to drink plenty throughout the day and take your breaks without feeling guilty.

Shift work can play havoc with your sleep, so, as far as your rota allows, try to help yourself by getting into a bed-time routine, e.g. don’t drink caffeine if you know it keeps you awake, avoid looking at your phone or tablet in bed and try to have a quiet peaceful bedroom.

It’s also important that you keep active. Though most of you will clock up your daily step count during your working day, try to also to get some fresh air. Enjoy the extra daylight over the summer months and remember a brisk walk or gentle run can do wonders for your mood, help you switch off and improve sleep patterns.

Managing stress

It is widely recognised that working in the health and care sector is a stressful job; you see human life at its rawest and working patterns are not always conducive to healthy behavioural choices.

Though the term ‘stress’ is an everyday word it is actually very subjective. Even in a small team, no two carers will respond the same way to similar pressures. So, try not to compare yourself to others. Instead, the first step to managing your stress levels is to recognise what is ‘normal’ for you and how stress impacts on you – physically, emotionally and behaviourally. The trick is to know what works for you and what doesn’t. We all have a ‘tipping point’ where stress stops helping us and starts to have a negative effect.

Try the following steps to help you recognise how stress affects you:

  • Over a period of about a week try to notice what is ‘normal’ for you and all the ways that stress impacts on you. 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?

There are lots of recognised ways to reduce stress including relaxation, breathing techniques, mindfulness, and physical exercise. Stress management has to become part of your lifestyle, so think of things you enjoy and can stick with. Don’t under-estimate the positive impact that hobbies can have – anything that absorbs your mind can help to distract you from worrying thoughts or sensations. Talking to colleagues or friends can also help get things in perspective. But try to limit the amount of time you spend talking about work once your shift has finished.

Learning to control your stress levels can take time and practice so don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t see results quickly. But stick with it! And don’t compare yourself to those around you – if you constantly judge yourself, e.g. feeling that you aren’t ‘strong enough’ or ‘a good enough nurse / carer’ to deal with a busy shift, you are simply adding to the demands already on you.

What’s happening inside?

The stronger you feel inside, the more able you will be to cope with everything that is demanded of you – both at work and at home.

  • Remember that work is only part of your identity. Being able to switch off is essential but not always easy! If you tend to leave work worrying about your day use your journey home to unwind. This may take practice, but mindfulness or visualisation apps can help. Adding some exercise and fresh air into your journey can also help to clear your mind, release endorphins and stop ruminating thoughts, even getting off the bus a couple of stops early can be beneficial.
  • Everyone needs time to unwind and relax – some people like to hit the gym, some join classes to learn a new skill and others like to immerse themselves in social media. Shift work does make committing to regular slots in the week hard but try not to let that become a barrier to stop you.
  • Switch of your inner critic: constantly criticising yourself is an easy habit to fall into, but unlike constructive feedback from colleagues or mentors, it is never helpful. So, watch the way you speak to yourself – be as patient with yourself as you are with those you care for.
  • Surround yourself with positive and supportive people. Ok, you can’t control you work with but make sure you spend your out-of-work time with people who boost, not drain, you. 
  • Be smart: It’s good to have goals for your career but remember ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’. So set SMART objectives and don’t push yourself too hard too soon.

Don’t be a hero!

Just because you work in the caring professions doesn’t mean that you are superhuman! Throughout your career there will be times where switching off and taking care of yourself becomes harder. Regardless of whether this is due to pressures at work or personal difficulties it’s ok to ask for help.

Some people still think asking for help is a sign of weakness, however, one of the recognised qualities of great leaders is that they can show vulnerability. So, the first step towards dealing with your situation is to be honest with yourself and others and ask for help / support. You can choose from speaking to your line manger or another senior colleague, a trusted friend or family member or your GP. Though it’s not easy a problem shared is so often ‘a problem halved.’

Top tips for staying fit and healthy

  • Commit time and effort to managing your stress levels.
  • Maintain a supportive network of colleagues and friends.
  • Make time for yourself and practice ways to switch off from work.
  • Look after your basic health needs.
  • Remember you are human so set realistic goals and expectations for yourself.
  • Know who and where to seek help when you need it.

Take a look at some of the training available through the Skills Platform that can help you with your balance:

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