Self-Care vs. Communal Care: Employers Must Do More to Support Workers’ Overall Health

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was significant dialogue around the importance of self-care. Self-care is the intentional practice of tending to one’s emotional, spiritual, financial and physical needs. Community systems that create space and resources aid and abet self-care. For instance, a single mother might be better able to practice self-care if she is gainfully employed, has a supportive community that aides her and her children, and has access to preventative healthcare. A nurse might be better positioned to practice self-care if they work in a facility that is properly staffed, well-ventilated and adequately resources. In other words, self-care doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

We Need Help

As employees shifted from in-person to remote work, many vowed to do everything in their power to take better care of themselves. Workers classified as essential found themselves heading into the office but pondering how to care for themselves amid a deadly pandemic. For their part, many employers offered their team members public applause — such is the case for nurses — while giving voice to the need for self-care.

Encouraging others to intentionally care for themselves is noble enough in theory, but self-care without external support is not always possible nor sustainable. Without communal or community care, self-care becomes more of an aspiration than a consistent practice. In another example, community care might look like employers being mindful of the pollution they emit in the surrounding environment. In the context of COVID-19, it might look like ensuring workers have time to recover when they have been exposed to, or contracted, COVID-19. It might also look like employers offering ample leave time so healthcare professionals aren’t choosing between their jobs and their wellness.

To make admonishments of self-care practical to implement, employers could improve overall working conditions, pay workers a living and competitive wage, offer incentives, provide quality health insurance and address short staffing. In other words, employers shouldn’t get credit for self-care initiatives if their programs offer little more than pizza, public applause and certificates for being team players.

No More Gaslighting

Healthcare professionals are tired of being gaslit at work. Now is the time for employers to hold up their end of the bargain and create the conditions that allow nurses and others to care for themselves and the patients they so greatly cherish. Often, we see employers paying lip service to self-care instead of investing in short- and long-term solutions that will truly keep the workplace safe.

Additionally, many in society, including members of the media, are too quick to latch on to a feel-good story without examining whether systemic barriers to health and wellness have been addressed. For instance, when New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced his intentions to run for office, there were significant articles praising him for improving his health. He adopted a plant-based diet, lost significant weight and reversed a diabetes diagnosis. But what we should really be looking at is whether people with far fewer resources than Adams are positioned to do the same. Until there are no food deserts, until healthcare is affordable and accessible, until mental health care is within reach or communities are walkable, we cannot celebrate anomalies. It is only when the least connected among us has access to the resources to improve their health over the long term that we can feel a sense of accomplishment.

Shared Responsibility

Unfortunately, too many employers place sole responsibility for health and wellness on employees without examining the ways in which they compromise workers’ or the community’s health. For example, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey said in a 2020 New York Times interview that people were obese because they made poor choices. He also blamed obesity on ignorance without accounting for access issues or acknowledging the ways in which the broader culture threatens optimal health. Air pollution, low pay and inaccessible transportation systems all influence a person’s health. During the pandemic, he also noted that “the best solution is for people to not need healthcare,” a tone-deaf comment amid skyrocketing COVID-19 cases

Regardless of what some may suggest, illness is not always a consequence of personal failings. Suggesting that if people ate right, exercised and cared for themselves they wouldn’t be ill is ableist. It’s also convenient for employers who want to absolve themselves of the responsibility of properly supporting their employees’ health and well-being.

Pandemic Stress

Unfortunately, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, roughly 60% of frontline caregivers said pandemic-related stress impacted their own health. Nurses have picked up extra shifts, worked to exhaustion, abandoned maternity leave and overall compromised themselves in service of others. In such an environment, self-care is an aspiration.

Employers could have an immediate impact on the well-being of their teams if they staffed appropriately, provided adequate and safe working environments, improved the food culture inside hospitals and health systems, and offered access to mental health services. No amount of self-care will mitigate the crisis at work if hospital systems and administrators don’t take substantive action.

In other words, employers shouldn’t get credit for self-care initiatives if their programs offer little more than pizza, public applause and certificates for being team players.

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