Over and over again, we’re told “More self-care!” Yes, self-care is good, but team-care is even better.
Case in point: I once worked extensively with a medical department, helping them to tackle some work performance issues. Almost immediately, I observed how within a cesspool of dysfunction, backstabbing, tolerated toxicity and wasted energy that reigned across the department, there was one team that stood out. It was a bright spot. These team members were innovative. They provided outstanding patient care. They proactively supported one another. They always had each other’s backs.
This was a team that prioritized team-care, not just self-care.
Focusing on the team (as opposed to just targeting the individual) may be our best bet in getting workplace wellness to work. Not only does it take some of the burden off the individual, but it can also create a ripple effect, or a “middle-out movement,” that can move virally throughout the entire organization – something I’ve observed happen over and over again when managers get activated.
But perhaps we should be asking the question: What are the unintended consequences of telling individuals to engage in more self-care, especially in high-stress occupations like healthcare?
The physician is made to feel like they are not resilient enough.
Those who are having to double time as a caretaker at work and at home are feeling are made to feel that they are never doing enough.
Rates of burnout continue to escalate, despite all the wellness programs.
Simply put, self-care is not enough and in fact, is rife with unintended consequences, such as the following:
1. We are potentially shaming individuals. If it’s all about self-care, then the individual is made to feel that they solely are to blame, whether it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, getting enough exercise, maintaining one’s mental health or avoiding addiction. We know, for example, that the spike in opioid addiction was largely due to government oversight and economic distress. Shame and punishment are not going to solve the problem.
2. We are ignoring root causes. Second, “self-care” prescriptions have given organizational leaders leeway to ignore deeper, root causes. For example, employee stress and burnout, studies show, are less about an individual’s capacity to “manage their stress” and more about the workplace itself. For example, one of the biggest drivers of stress is a lack of autonomy, which is, by definition, a structural and management issue – not an individual one.
3. We are overlooking the role of Wellness Privilege. Self-care prescriptions overlook the extent to which privilege makes well-being easier for some, and out of reach for others. In other words, self-care ignores Wellness Privilege, which is an unearned benefit or advantage enjoyed by some individuals or groups that makes the pursuit of well-being easier. Conversely, these unearned benefits or advantages are unavailable to others, making the pursuit of well-being, for all practical purposes, out of reach.
The truth is that we have to acknowledge the extent to which access to wellness is systemic and therefore requires broader, collective action. While changing norms across a large organization is like shifting the course of an ocean liner, changing norms across a team can offer a more nimble and accessible approach. So, maybe, just maybe, our best bet in actually improving the health and well-being for ourselves and for our colleagues, is by taking a team-based approach to well-being.