The Ethics of Self-Care by Lauren King

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In the nonprofit field, I have found that steadily increasing workloads paired with fewer resources leave many of us overwhelmed to the point that feeling “burned out” is the norm.  At a recent conference, self-care became the focus of several sessions. Usually this is the point in which I would tune out and use the time to catch-up on the e-mail that is piling up because I am out of the office. It’s not that I don’t think self-care is important, it’s just not something that takes priority among the many other to-do’s at work. But the conference presented it in a way that I couldn’t ignore. They presented self-care as an ethical obligation.

When I think of self-care from an ethical standpoint- it stops being a luxury that I should engage in when I have time.  It starts to feel like a priority. I really liked the way the conference framed the idea of self-care because it opened my eyes to its impact on others from co-workers to clients. If I allow myself to become overly stressed and frazzled then I bring that negative energy into the office.  Equally problematic, it interferes with the quality of work I produce.  I just cannot justify being “too busy” to work on becoming a better member of my team.

The conference left an impression on my colleagues too.  Our agency has since begun to incorporate self-care into our office space. Overall, we have embraced self-care in two distinct and helpful ways:

  1. One department has a “Sharpening the Saw” week in which we turn our attention fully to looking at our processes to see which are less effective and create ways to refine our work. The idea and name stems from the story in which a lumberjack is struggling to cut down a tree in the forest. Someone walks by and suggests they sharpen their saw to which they essentially reply, “I can’t, we are too busy sawing.” (  By setting aside a week devoted to strengthening our processes, we eliminate the potential distractions that may otherwise keep us from growing and strengthening as a department.
  2. Each Friday, there is time devoted to self-care. Different staff members volunteer to lead various activities that range from yoga to chocolate tasting. Not every activity appeals to all staff, thus there’s a different turnout each week. However, even though not everyone attends, it still creates a culture that values self-care, which extends throughout the office.

The biggest lesson I have learned is that self-care truly goes beyond self. We are all connected. It’s not fair to our co-workers, organization or clients if we don’t take the time to invest in our own wellness.