Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
Since the start of the pandemic, employers have been increasingly jumping on the self-care bandwagon—reminding employees to make time for self-care, sending out tips on incorporating yoga or mindfulness into their days, and even sometimes carving out work time for self-care practices as a group. It’s not hard to see why employers are suddenly so interested in the topic: Stress levels shot up last year, and for many people, they never came back down.
But it can be hard to see those gestures as genuine, given that the same employers often expect people to work too many hours without breaks, discourage them from taking real time off, and ignore the stressors in their employees’ lives, from lack of child care to not earning a living wage.
This person who wrote to me describes an experience with a tone-deaf employer that’s pretty typical:
My toxic, dysfunctional employer hired a consultant (after doing layoffs!) to come in and talk to us about self-care and how to be more resilient. As if it’s our fault we’re miserable because we just haven’t done enough mindfulness, yoga, bubble baths, therapy, or whatever to offset the fact that our working conditions are terrible and we’re living through a pandemic.
Irritatingly, the push for self-care often burdens employees with additional demands on their time while preventing them from doing the work that could actually relieve some of their stress. One high school teacher described what’s happening at her school:
Everything about education has had to be drastically adapted in the past year and many of us are still struggling to keep up with the constant changes in expectations, combined with our own family crises. My new principal sends daily emails dripping with toxic positivity, such as pointing out the beautiful weather that we should be thankful for or encouraging us to take time to practice self-care. These instructions are starting to feel more like extra responsibilities, especially when coupled with “here are three articles I thought you’d all enjoy reading before tomorrow’s staff meeting.” I sort of understand that she’s trying to keep our spirits up, but honestly, most of us would rather just not get an email like that at all. It’s just one more thing to see in the inbox and have to read, you know?
In staff meetings, we’re put in breakout rooms on Zoom to share our self-care ideas with each other, when we’d rather discuss professional things like concerns about specific students’ progress (face-to-face discussions with colleagues, even remote ones, are so much more valuable than emails for this sort of thing), so we feel like it’s wasting and disrespecting our time.
Employers also appear not to have considered that their mental health initiatives may actually be bad for some of their employees’ mental health:
My boss has started asking us to share reflections on mental health as an icebreaker at mandatory meetings in the name of “breaking down the stigma around mental health.” … Usually I deflect by saying something relatively generic about limiting my social media use. However, this is increasing in frequency and the people who jump in first set the tone by going all-in and sharing super personal details about medications and therapy. It creates a lot of implicit pressure to share something similarly personal.
Aside from finding this uncomfortable, I’m noticing that these sharing sessions actually detract from my mental health. … Work is by far the most significant stress in my life, because the organization is not well managed, roles/assignments are unclear, and some staff work glaringly harder than others with no one ever held to account for failing to produce. … I’ve suffered a lot from insomnia that’s often triggered by workplace frustrations, so to protect my mental health I’ve been working on creating a mental wall where I ignore what everyone else is doing or not doing except for my direct reports and focus on doing a good job on my own projects. These “mental health sharing sessions” break down this (sadly fragile) wall and I end up dwelling on negative thoughts and feelings again, often leading to insomnia that night, because when I really contemplate what I need for mental health, I re-examine all the frustrations of the office.
If you’re thinking this sounds awfully intrusive at work: It is. If you’re thinking maybe individual managers gone rogue are responsible for it … nope. Some of these initiatives are companywide:
My company recently announced that they would be offering wellness benefits. They didn’t expand on any details in the announcement, and I assumed it would be something like discounted gym memberships or healthy snacks at the office.
Instead, I got a message from a consultant about scheduling a 1-on-1 meeting to discuss my well-being, in which we would discuss the following areas of my life:
• Physical – your health and energy
• Emotional – your mental and spiritual side
• Social – your relationships
• Career – loving what you do every day
• Financial – managing your money
• Community – engaging with the larger world
• Creative – expressing your true self
This seemed bizarrely invasive and a huge overstep of workplace boundaries. There’s no reason my employer needs to know anything about my emotional or spiritual well-being. I already have a doctor, therapist, and financial advisor, so I replied and politely declined the benefit.
Moreover, the push for reflection and self-care is often remarkably out-of-touch with the realities of employees’ lives:
I have a disability, I work an extremely demanding job that has only gotten more demanding during the pandemic (I’m a public defender), and I have a disabled 4-year-old child who never sleeps. Our society just needs to accept that “self-care” (whatever that even means) simply isn’t available to many people. The last thing I need is to be guilted and shamed for not doing enough self-care. I already know I’m dropping balls left and right.
What’s perhaps most frustrating about the workplace self-care lip service is that often the employers espousing it aren’t doing the things they actually could do to improve employees’ lives and mental health, like providing good health insurance, reasonable workloads, and plentiful vacation time. Those are things they’re uniquely positioned to offer … but it’s easier (read: cheaper) to send out emails about yoga or bubble baths.