Blog post

Coronavirus crisis: Time to de-stigmatise self-care

The current Covid-19 crisis is making many elements of our everyday lives challenging, including the way we work. Here, Yasuhiro Kotera, Academic Lead in Counselling, Psychotherapy and Psychology at the University of Derby, explores why self-care for workers is so important, but not always easy.

By Yasuhiro Kotera - 4 June 2020

Poor work mental health is on the national agenda in many countries. It is a serious problem related to a wide range of negative outcomes such as poor work performance and compromised job satisfaction.

In Japan, 60% of workers experience intense stress and anxiety, and in the Netherlands, 43% of sickness absence costs are due to mental health problems. Likewise, in the UK, 80% of workers experience burnout symptoms in a normal working week, caused by work pressure, financial anxiety and health problems.

Economically speaking, the yearly costs of poor work mental health are £40 billion on employers (half of which is derived from presenteeism, where a worker comes to work but their performance is restricted by mental distress). In total, it costs the country £85 billion, which is put into perspective when compared to the NHS England’s yearly budget of £115 billion.

Self-care is not selfish

In research I conducted with my colleagues at the University of Derby, we explored worker populations nationally and internationally and consistently found that self-compassion (being kind to yourself) was a strong predictor of good mental health. Across industries, and across countries, we found that workers who are compassionate towards themselves tend to have good mental health. Self-compassion is a central component of good self-care – ­­­­­­ you cannot care for yourself well without it.

However, practising self-care is not easy. One hindering factor is stigma attached to self-care. For example, in the healthcare field, self-care is sometimes referred to as ‘responsible selfishness’, which leaves many healthcare workers hesitant to take care of themselves.

In order to help people in difficulty, Dr Green and I recently offered a free webinar entitled ‘Self-Care for Workers’ targeted at local businesses. The one-hour webinar introduced poor mental health in the workplace, our research findings, the importance of self-care, and offered helpful and practical self-care techniques.

Before we talked about responsible selfishness, we asked participants what they thought about self-care. The most frequent response was ‘selfish’. It is this type of negative perception towards self-care that makes it hard for people to care for themselves. But if you don’t function well, and only focus on helping others (which is a core function in many services), you may burnout, and be unable to help others.

Self-care is not selfish, rather it is essential to maintain a good output. When I started to work as a psychotherapist in San Francisco, my supervisor consistently advised me to take good care of myself, and I still value this advice today. Indeed, culture definitely affects people’s attitudes towards self-care, and the British culture may make it hard for people to take care of themselves. This is something I am now exploring in my research.

Some helpful and practical self-care techniques

In our self-care webinar, led by myself and Dr Pauline Green, we discuss the importance of self-care and practical techniques you can practise in your daily working life. Some of popular ones are breathing and reframing.

Self-care breathing is a deep and slow way of breathing, paying attention to the air you inhale and exhale. It is important to exhale slowly, as often we forget to do so. It is ideal to inhale for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, and then exhale for eight seconds to experience relaxation.

Reframing is one of the most popular techniques reported by Japanese senior managers in my study. We often become self-critical, especially to what we don’t appreciate much about ourselves. Reframing can give us other perspectives to see these characteristics, which can lead to better self-care. It is often helpful to think about a different context where the same quality can be useful or think about positive intention of the quality. My favourite example is the song ‘Rudolph the red nose reindeer’. Rudolph was ashamed of his red shiny nose, but Santa Claus as the manager, reframed it saying that thanks to Rudolph’s red shiny nose, Santa can see things around in the dark. Rudolph is now very motivated to work! As a manager, Santa Claus used reframing to enhance Rudolph’s work motivation and engagement very effectively. This is one way to reframe; finding another context where the same quality can be useful (context reframing). Another way of reframing is to identify positive intentions for the quality. For example, one of the participants did not like herself being ‘too rigid with rules’. But the positive intention behind this may be that she wants to ensure that the quality of her services was high. Once we identified her positive intention, she became more caring for herself.

Now may be a good time to allow yourself to take care of yourself. The Theory of Human Caring says that one needs to take care of oneself to offer care for others. Likewise, the Dalai Lama says that caring for others requires caring for yourself first. I hope that this article will help you feel a bit more comfortable with taking care of yourself.

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About the author

Yasu Kotera smiling, sitting at a table in front of tea cups and a jug of water.

Yasuhiro Kotera
Former Academic Lead in Counselling, Psychotherapy and Psychology

Dr Kotera's teaching primarily focused on mental health and research modules including supervision at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.