Why Employers Love Advocating Self-Care

Text reads, "If you can afford to relax today, I 100% recommend you do. Stay in bed, treat yourself, watch movies, & try not to focus too much on stressful matters. Take time to be good to yourself. You deserve it."
Credit: Positive Doodles on Tumblr

Last week, feeling irritated during a training, I posted this on Tumblr:

Every professional training I go to includes a section on burnout and self-care. My thought is always the same: just pay me what I’m worth. Pay me what I’m worth. Pay me what I’m worth. And give me enough paid time off.

That’s it. I don’t need bubble baths and chocolate and massages and silly TV. I need more money. And I need more rest.

Because many people derive some sort of satisfaction out of interpreting others’ words as uncharitably and narrowly as possible, I was immediately inundated with a bunch of condescending remarks about how money isn’t everything and with that attitude you’ll burn out before you know it. So I’ll expand on my spur-of-the-moment rant.

I don’t think anyone would seriously deny that everyone needs to do things that help them replenish, maintain, and/or care for themselves. Self-care can look like many different things–taking a shower, cooking a nice meal, listening to music, spending time with friends, playing with your kids, reading, taking a nap, remembering to take your meds. Self-care looks different for different people at different points in their lives, depending on what they need in those moments.

When someone has a very stressful job or caretaking role, self-care becomes especially important to prevent them from burning out, developing mental or physical health problems, or dropping the ball in ways that harm others (clients, patients, children). It makes sense to emphasize self-care for people working in fields like mine.

Lately, however, the self-care concept has become very popular for employers to throw around as a solution for all sorts of employee issues and as a way to continually extract more and more productivity from their workers. Stressed? Do self-care! Poor? Do self-care! Forced to work 12-hour shifts with no paid time off and no guarantee that you’ll still have a job if you stay home sick one day? Do self-care!

At that point, self-care is less about actually caring for yourself and more about forcing yourself into compliance with dehumanizing and intolerable conditions. It’s less about making things better for yourself and more about surviving things the way they are without making anyone else uncomfortable by forcing them to witness your struggles.

Thankfully, my situation is not nearly as bad as many people’s. Despite the fact that I have little money, I have a lot of privilege in a variety of ways when it comes to work and money. I’m essentially treated well at work, and my work is often interesting, and I do get benefits that many people still don’t, such as health insurance and some sick time.

But here are a number of things that I need for self-care that are very difficult or impossible to access for me right now:

  • enough money and time off for an occasional, non-fancy vacation
  • time to prepare healthy meals every day
  • enough sick leave to actually stay home when I’m sick (I had to go back to work with a raging flu, fever included, after just two days because that’s all the sick days I’d accumulated after 7 months of work)
  • enough money to not have to worry almost constantly about money
  • enough money to have enough savings to not worry about being financially ruined by a medical or other type of crisis
  • enough time off work to go get my fatigue diagnosed and properly treated, let alone to get regular physicals and screenings like you’re supposed to
  • enough time off work to go to therapy
  • a schedule that allows me to sleep from 2 AM to 10 AM rather than from 11 PM to 7 AM
  • a work schedule that allows for an adequate lunch break during which I can consume real, healthy food
  • enough money for a gym membership that includes a pool (swimming is my preferred indoor exercise)
  • enough time off work for an occasional mental health day, like the day after I got into a horrible car crash and was too scared to drive to work but had to anyway
  • enough money to not have a six-figure student loan debt

And sure, if I still had comments turned on, I would immediately get a bunch of condescending comments about how “well I have a very stressful busy job but I still manage to [do thing].” Okay, we’re all different. I think my chronic fatigue is a major factor in a lot of my difficulty with self-care, but again, there’s no way I can engage in treating it right now when I’ve already used up all two of my sick days on actually being sick! What’s the best self-care I could do, taking a bubble bath and collapsing into bed, or actually seeing a doctor and having tests done and trying treatments? Obviously the latter, but that’s inaccessible right now.

Besides this list, I actually do quite a bit of self-care. In fact, since I have few responsibilities besides work (which I thankfully cannot and do not take home with me), I’m mostly free to engage in self-care between the hours of 5 PM and 11 PM daily, and all weekend. I do several self-care activities every day, usually reading, writing, watching TV, seeing friends and partners, taking walks, cleaning my house, eating yummy food, petting my cat (when she deigns to allow it), crafting, or otherwise doing something that feels restorative rather than obligatory.

Yet it’s not enough, and I’m quite stressed (especially on Sunday nights and Monday mornings), and my health is kind of a mess right now because I don’t have the time and money to take care of it. Why is that?

That’s where employers come in. When you don’t have enough money or time off work to do self-care, all the books and cats in the world aren’t going to get the job done. And that is especially true for all the folks out there whose work situations are considerably more stressful and unfair than mine, who have to work on-call, who get no paid time off at all, who can get fired just for staying home sick, who do have to take their work home with them, who don’t get health insurance, who are raising kids and supporting parents or partners, who are paid garbage salaries, who work six or seven days a week plus holidays, who haven’t taken a vacation in years or ever, who work nights, who work multiple jobs, who work in dehumanizing conditions rife with sexual harassment, racism, and other oppressions.

Why are we even talking about self-care when people are working in such conditions?

Two reasons:

One is that we don’t think fair pay, benefits, and work conditions are even possible under capitalism, so we focus on surviving as well as we can. That’s fair.

The other is that it’s more comforting to think of self-care as a completely individualized thing rather than as a part of a collective responsibility, just as many feminists would rather get bogged down in arguments about whether or not it’s feminist for individuals to do this or that than to discuss structural issues and how they inform and constrain individual choices.

Regardless, I’m not interested in derailing conversations about self-care taking place between individuals with “BUT WHAT ABOUT EMPLOYERS THO.” But when the directive to “remember to practice self-care!” is coming from an employer, I’m less patient. In my view, employers have no business telling employees to do self-care until they provide them with just and sustainable work environments. I don’t want to hear about chocolate and bubble baths until I get enough time off work to see a damn doctor.

So yes, people will keep repeating “but self-care is still vital even/especially if you don’t make enough money” and I will keep repeating “yes, and employers are using self-care as a distraction from the care they are failing to provide to their employees.”

Because in my experience, most people in healthy circumstances do not need constant reminders to practice self-care. Yes, there are some who get so caught up in work (including domestic work) that they don’t do self-care despite having the ability to. (If you know any programmers, or are one, you probably know what I’m talking about.) But most of the time, people are naturally motivated to do the things they love and that make them feel better. One exception to this is when someone has a mental illness, and in that case, the mental illness needs treatment in addition to the person doing self-care on their own.

When employers themselves are constantly exhorting us to practice self-care, something’s already broken.

And while it may very well be the case that good self-care can help us survive otherwise-intolerable situations, that doesn’t make it grate any less when the people with the power to make those situations more tolerable are the ones advocating self-care as the solution.

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Why Employers Love Advocating Self-Care

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