Making burnout history: Bravehearts’ Pamela Weatherill explains what ‘radical self-care’ looks like

Pamela Weatherill is the Director of People and Culture at Bravehearts, Australia’s leading child protection advocacy organisation. There, she oversees all human resource functions and advocates for staff wellbeing, self-care, and professional experience and development.

In the lead-up to her presentation at the 2016 Not-For-Profit People Conference in November, Pamela shares her insights on ‘radical self-care’, including why it’s so necessary in the not-for-profit sector.

Hi Pamela, thanks for speaking with us! In parts of the NFP sector, high workloads, stress and burnout are common issues. Has it been getting worse in recent times?

The NFP sector has always been about doing work that helps people who are disadvantaged; there’s always been an emotional attachment to the work. So no matter how hard we try to be try to be empathetic rather than sympathetic, or how hard we try to be our professional selves at work, we still carry work home with us sometimes.

As for workloads, the stats tell us that the average Australian is doing around six hours a week extra unpaid overtime. I’d argue that people in the not-for-profit sector are doing more than that, because we’re so connected to the mission and vision of our organisations.

I’m not sure that the workload or stress has gotten worse, or if it’s because burnout is now clearly defined, but I think they have always existed. Now it’s just become normalised – we expect a level of workplace stress.

But in the not-for-profit sector, we’re about making lives better – and that should include our staff’s lives, too.

So what is radical self-care?

Self-care is actually a really simple concept. It’s about taking intentional action to care for yourself physically, mentally and emotionally.

When we say something is radical, we’re saying it’s disrupting the status quo or the norm. So radical self-care is where we disrupt whatever normal practice is. If the normal practice is that people are doing an average of six hours’ weekly unpaid overtime, radical self-care would be to not have any unpaid overtime at all. That’s actually a radical notion.

And radical can be little – we’re better off making lots of small changes regularly rather than doing something big.

So why do you think there’s still such a disconnect between the need for self-care and what is happening in many NFP organisations?

It comes back to the norms of the organisation. Even though we’re not in the schoolyard anymore, we’re still vulnerable to peer pressure. If the norm is to come in early, work late, work though your lunch break, answer your email at 2am – that peer pressure stops us from undertaking self-care.

We’re social beings, so if the environment we work in doesn’t make it feel like it’s safe or rewarded to take steps towards self-care, I think that’s where we get the disconnect.

What does the culture of self-care look like at Bravehearts?

The first time I really recognised it was in week one! I had a peer stand over my desk at 4.30pm – when our office closes – with her handbag. She said to me, “Aren’t you going home?”

That was a clear indicator to me that going home on time is OK. When you’re a new employee, you assume you need to work long hours – that’s how dysfunctional our workplaces have become.

That’s not to say we don’t occasionally work extra hours during a special project, but it’s about it not being the normal daily practice.

Self-care is on every job description here at Bravehearts. We also have some senior staff who will ask, ‘You’re not taking lunch breaks – what’s going on?’ I’m also very excited that we are currently drafting a self-care policy.

At Bravehearts, the peer pressure is to look after yourself. That’s radical, and not the experience people have in most workplaces. If you feel stressed or exhausted, consider taking a break and de-stress. Some people do this by scheduling a relaxing day at the spa or salon. If you like getting your nails done, you may ask the staff how to prolong your gel manicure.

And what are some of the challenges you’ve faced in embedding radical self-care at Bravehearts?

It’s fighting old norms, peer pressure and ingrained habits. You also have staff coming from organisations where self-care wasn’t the norm and they’re used to regularly eating lunch at their desk or working long hours. So that’s one of the challenges – making sure new employees get a really clear message that self-care is an important part of the job.

Another challenge is that the NFP sector is often reactive [to external pressures] because of the work we do, so it’s really easy to get so busy and use that as an excuse to neglect self-care.

And finally, what else will you be sharing in your talk at the Not-for-Profit People Conference?

We’ll make sure it’s going to be fun! But it’s a serious topic, so we’re going to be talking about the definition of ‘radical’, and explore the changes that can make a difference to both the culture and the practice in an organisation. It’s one thing writing policies and setting up processes, and it’s a totally different thing changing an organisation’s culture.

We’re also looking forward to sharing our challenges and lessons learned, and opening up useful discussion on this important cultural aspect of the NFP sector.

Want to find out more about how to create a culture of self-care in your organisation? Join Pamela as she presents her workshop, ‘Beating burnout: how to embed a culture of radical self-care in your managers, leaders and organisation’ with Bravehearts’ Director of Operations Deirdre Thompson, at the 2016 Not-For-Profit People Conference on November 21 and 22. Early bird tickets are selling fast – find out more here.

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