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NextStep guide: Administering self-care

October 5, 2021

As rewarding as being a CNA can be, like any job it has the potential to create high levels of exhaustion and prolonged stress that can lead to burnout. That’s why it’s important to know your limits — physical, mental and emotional — and learn to treat yourself with the appropriate amount of preemptive care.

Acknowledge your limitations

We’re all human. Looking for ways to cope is not a weakness. The combination of long hours and daily emotional investment can take its toll on any caregiver (especially during a pandemic). Compassion fatigue is real. It’s important to acknowledge that and to allow yourself to prioritize self-care both in and outside the workplace.

Take care of your body

It’s easy to neglect yourself when you spend every working day caring for others. Break times slip by. Lunches are forgotten. But caregiving is often physically demanding, so it’s important to take care of your own body’s needs before tending to others’.

Eat healthy and regularly. That means fueling yourself up throughout the day. Instead of reaching for junk food, prepare healthy snacks like nuts, fruits, and raw vegetables (celery, cucumbers, baby carrots, etc.) and allow yourself at least one proper sit-down meal per day, even if it’s only for 15 minutes.

Hydrate. As you likely tell those under your care, water is good for you! Up to 60% of your body is made of it, with your brain and heart a good 73%. So take your own advice and maintain your body’s fluids. (Remember what happened to the Tin Man when he was low on oil!)

Get quality sleep. A well-rested body (and brain) is crucial to doing a good job and keeping your spirits up during those long shifts. Determine what your optimum amount of sleep is — for most adults it’s somewhere between 6 and 8 hours — then do your best to allow for that nightly amount. If falling asleep is difficult, consider natural supplements like melatonin or CBD, which can be very helpful after a stressful day.

Exercise. While making your daily rounds might count as exercise, try to break up your body’s routine with some light stretching or aerobics between shifts or while a client is resting. A brisk, five-minute walk during a break can also get the blood flowing.

Take breaks. At least once or twice a day (set alerts if you need to), allow yourself a few minutes to step away from focusing on work. A brief change of scenery and a breath of fresh air can go a long way toward reenergizing your perspective.

Breathe! It’s amazing how just a few deep breaths can help ease the body’s tension and sweep away the mental cobwebs. Try it! (And if you’d like to get a little more advanced, view this guided exercise with NextStep’s master mindfulness teacher, Lynn Morrison.)

Clear your mind

The mind, like any muscle under constant use, needs to occasionally unclench. Along with rest and air, there are a number of other ways to refresh the gray matter.

Meditate. Give yourself at least five minutes before and after work to sit still with your eyes closed in silence (or while listening to gentle music). Breathe. Clear your mind of any distracting thoughts. Breathe some more. It’s the equivalent of starting — and ending — each day with a clean slate. (Click here to see Lynn Morrison’s tips on using meditation to reduce daily anxiety and stress.)

Avoid doomscrolling. There’s so much bad news in the world, it’s easy to find yourself endlessly flipping through newsfeeds and despairing at the universe. Don’t do it! In fact, try to avoid staring at screens as much as possible. Unless...’re using them to distract yourself during downtime. Distractions can be good. Electronic mental vacations, whether in the form of e-books, mobile games, or streaming TV, are a great way to take your mind off the day’s stresses. In fact, reading a book or streaming a regular series at a set time each night can help ease anxiety and even improve sleep.

Stay connected

Maintaining friendships and receiving social support are crucial for keeping a healthy perspective and feeling validated in your work and the choices you make. If nothing else, it’s good to have someone to vent to on a regular basis — and being the ventee can also have its rewards!

Set boundaries

Being clear — to both yourself and others — about what you will or won’t do is an important part of maintaining an even keel in the workplace. Sometimes this can be tricky, but not doing so can lead to major job dissatisfaction and burnout.

Do what’s right for you, know your own limitations. Everyone’s boundaries are different. Back-to-back double shifts may be an opportunity for one person but not worth the added stress for someone else. Know when to say yes to that double shift and when it might be a mistake in the long run.

Establish expectations. When the opportunity arises, straightforwardly (and politely) communicate your boundaries to others, whether an employer, manager or coworker. For instance, you might feel strongly about using your scheduled lunch or break times to reset and refuel (especially after reading this article!). If so, it’s important to let coworkers know up front that, unless there’s an emergency, they should consider you unavailable. Or, maybe on certain nights a recurring family obligation will prevent you from staying late or taking extra shifts. Even if you notify your manager in advance, it can be helpful to offer a gentle reminder on the day of, just so there are no unpleasant surprises.

Try not to take work home with you. When not specifically on call, it’s important to allow yourself downtime. The surest path to burnout is to feel always “on,” without any waking hours devoted to family or self. That may mean letting people know you won’t be checking messages or taking non-emergency calls after a certain hour or on weekends. If that isn’t possible, then designate an hour or two of “quiet time” each night, silencing your work alerts and devices — anything to give your mind some distance from the worries of the day.

Learn when to say no — especially if you’re feeling stressed out, overwhelmed or uncomfortable with something you’ve been asked. If someone tries to overstep a boundary, try to address it as it’s happening, not later, so it’s fresh in both your minds and won’t snowball into something more unpleasant. If you need to, reach out to a supervisor or coworker about ways to maintain those limits. Your NextStep mentor is also always available to provide any support or advice.

As long as you’re able to perform your duties in the manner and time agreed to, then setting reasonable boundaries doesn’t make you a bad employee or “difficult.” However, it’s equally important not to be taken advantage of or feel compelled to always say yes. Finding the right balance is key to maintaining a positive attitude toward your work and the people you’ve been hired to care for.

Just don’t forget to take care of yourself along the way. After all, the better you care for yourself, the better you’ll care for others!

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