Cultivating a Culture of Self-Care

In 1988, the feminist poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation.” Thirty years later, Lorde’s framing of self-care is instructive for those of us working in the nonprofit sector. If we are to continue the long work of healing the world, we must first do the work of healing ourselves.

This is more easily said than done. While we may support the concept of self-care, many of us are unsure as to how to apply this to our lives, both individually and organizationally. On a practical level, what are the steps that we need to take for our self-preservation?

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As you reflect on the role of self-care in your life, here are a few concrete ideas to enrich your personal practice. 

1.     Practicing holistic self-care requires us to know ourselves deeply.

In my early 20s, I saw a therapist who in one of our early sessions asked me, “What do you do to take care of yourself?” I couldn’t answer. I knew how to keep myself more or less functioning day to day, but otherwise I was unsure of my own specific needs and how to tend to them. At that point, I began to consciously focus on developing a plan.

2.     Create a personal wellness prescription.

One tool that has helped me discern the necessary components of my own self-care regimen is the personal wellness prescription. This technique, taught by my friend and coach Rosie Molinary, involves a process of taking inventory of how we currently tend to various facets of our lives—our spiritual, social, physical, emotional, and mental needs--and then identifying what is needed to improve or maintain our overall well-being. Recognizing that no one-size-fits-all self-care plan exists, the wellness prescription is a personal road map for navigating individual needs and life circumstances. My current prescription includes early morning exercise, a gratitude journal, and a monthly session with my spiritual director.

3.     Self-care is not about spending time doing more, but about spending more time not doing.

I often hear from colleagues and friends is that self-care can feel burdensome—just one more thing to tack on to a never-ending to-do list. The broad commercialization and commodification of self-care in recent years has left many of us wondering how we will find the time (and money) to practice it. But genuine self-care is about opening up more space for play, rest, and even boredom, which can generate creativity and new ideas.

4.     Dedicate time to be completely unscheduled. 

I learned this strategy from my friend Erin Lane, a writer and retreat facilitator.  If like me you live by a calendar, commit to blocking off time each week that you pledge not to pre-schedule with any activity, meeting or errand. Depending on your workflow and life circumstances, this can take any number of forms:  a three-hour block on a Saturday morning, a half hour toward the end of your work day, or an early morning hour while your household sleeps. Whatever works best for you, mark it on the calendar, and resist the urge to plan what you will do until the time comes. In my experience, I’ve found that simply knowing I have that block of time scheduled to use just as I’d like—to write, work, nap, or read—can help alleviate stress throughout the week.

While your individual commitment to self-care is critical, when you work for a nonprofit, your ability to practice it regularly – and at work -- is also dependent upon your organization’s culture. How can nonprofits cultivate an internal culture of self-care that helps to bolster their impact in advancing their missions?

Following is a list of strategies that nonprofit organizations can implement to support and enhance the self-care of its employees:

1.     Assess your current culture’s strengths and weaknesses.

Taking an honest look at your current practices and ways of working is an important first step before committing to change. Are meetings regularly scheduled back-to-back or over lunch hours? Are emails sent and responded to at all hours of the day and night? Is comp time offered and, more important, actually used after a late-night event or weekend travel? Does your NPO offer fair, equitable pay and benefits for its staff? Because cultural shifts can be tricky, you may consider hiring an external consultant to conduct an assessment. If that’s not feasible, send out an online survey for staff to share their thoughts anonymously. And be sure to ensure that all employees – not matter their status – are heard.

2.     Develop a set of guiding principles around self-care and commit to corresponding practices. 

It’s not sufficient simply to talk about why self-care is important. You must implement self-care strategies and be disciplined about practicing them. For example, one principle might be, “Our organization supports the thriving of those who work with us to achieve our mission,” and a corresponding practice could be to offer employees the flexibility to work from home one or two days each week. Remember to build in time for regular evaluation to assess how these practices are working (or not).

3.     Model self-care early and often in leadership.

Leaders set the tone for organizational culture, so they have the responsibility to be at the forefront of establishing self-care as a healthy norm, not an exception. Be mindful of the power dynamics at play. Just because there is a comp time policy or a generous vacation benefit on the books does not mean employees will use them. They’ll be less inclined to do so if their leaders don’t take time off. Demonstrate to your employees that it’s not only permissible -- but expected -- that they take care of themselves and their families.

Self-care is not just some trendy catch phrase. It’s vital work that ensures that individuals and organizations are well-positioned to do the meaningful work of healing the world while living our best lives.

Bio: The Reverend Katey Zeh is a nonprofit strategist, speaker, and writer. She is the co-host of the Kindreds podcast and the author of a forthcoming book Women Rise Up that will be published with the FAR Press this fall.