Self-Care Tips & Strategies for Occupational Therapists and Students
According to U.S. News, Occupational Therapy ranks 28 in 100 top best jobs of 2020. Rankings are based on full assessment of salary and work-life balance that the jobs provide (U.S. News, 2020).
All things considered, that’s a fantastic ranking compared to the thousands of possible jobs available in the U.S. (and with all of the emerging remote and at-home work opportunities).
However, even occupational therapists and OT students are not immune to the stresses of a career, and they are still at risk for taking a dive in their work-life balance. This is especially true for OTs who have taken on unique stresses caused by COVID-19 and its abrupt change to how we administer therapy.
With that in mind, we have created a way for you to examine your own work-life balance by asking yourself a series of questions that might help put things into perspective:
What are some signs that my work-life balance is no longer balanced?
The easiest signs to spot which indicate that your life is off-kilter include:
You are slipping in the most basic daily activities: Due to restricted time or reduced motivation, you are not completing basic tasks for yourself: regular meal preparation, showering, hygiene, regular exercise, spirituality, and household/financial management.
Your relationships are suffering: You sense new and/or persistent strain in your relationship with others: family members, friends, significant others. You don’t feel like you are actually connecting to others in a healthy way, or maybe your loves ones have even talked to you about some negative changes they have noticed.
You are not sleeping or eating very well: Your daily food intake has changed, including eating more, not at all, or consuming unhealthy foods and drinks. You might find it hard to fall asleep at night and wake up frequently throughout the night. You drink more coffee to offset your lack of sleep which causes more anxiety and difficulty sleeping.
You have no “me” time: Because life has gotten so hectic, you don’t actually recall the last time that you did something for you and for you alone. This includes any activities that you used to consider enjoyable: reading a good book, going on a run, binge-watching your favorite TV series, hanging out with friends, etc.
You feel like most or all aspects of your life are actually failing: You have convinced yourself that you are struggling to hold your head above water because everything you are doing in life is falling apart: work, school, and your home life.
You are not actually happy: It’s unrealistic to think that a person is supposed to be genuinely happy 100% of the time. However, if your work-life balance is thrown off, you may come to the realization that you are not happy for the majority of your time.
What are some commitments in my life that could be decreasing my work-life balance?
As a practitioner or as a student, think about all the commitments you currently have on your plate: job, school, family, extracurricular activities, and self-care time. We put “self-care” time into the mix because that really does take some commitment when life gets crazy. When one of these commitments gets to be too much, such as increased workload, decreased work satisfaction, or amplified family/relationship drama, ALL other portions of your life take a hit.
What health repercussions do I face if I neglect my self-care?
Burnout: The World Health Organization (2019) classifies “burnout” as an actual syndrome. Tell-tale symptoms of burnout include: “energy depletion, exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job…and reduced professional efficacy” (WHO, 2019). Burnout is considered an occupational experience, so WHO suggests that it’s a term strictly used to describe work-related scenarios only. Burnout can occur because you are overloaded or because you don’t find the work environment challenging or fulfilling enough. To read more about burnout in occupational therapy, be sure to check out our burnout series here.
Fatigue: You are physically, mentally, and emotionally tired. This could be due to a lack of sleep or it could be an array of other life factors.
Depression: This could include a range between depressive symptoms and full-on clinical depression. Depression affects roughly 18 million people in the U.S. every year and is the leading cause of disability for persons between the ages of 15 and 44. Additionally, depression (including mood disorders) accounts for $23 billion in lost workdays every year (CDC, 2013).
Anxiety: Similarly to depression, anxiety related to work-life imbalance can be just anxious behavior as well as clinical anxiety disorders. If you are already battling anxiety, that imbalance can further exacerbate symptoms: fearfulness, avoidance behavior, panic attacks, etc.
Physical ailments: Increased stress is empirically linked to physical illness such as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, asthma, and gastrointestinal issues (WebMD, 2020). Experiencing acute or chronic physical illness due to stress further impedes on your ability to do your job, which commences a vicious cycle of burnout and reduced self-care.
What does self-care look like?
The International Self-Care Foundation (2020) defines self-care as activities that people do for themselves to “establish and maintain health.”
They break down self-care into 7 major pillars:
- Health literacy: the capacity of individuals to obtain, process and understand basic health information.
- Mental well-being: knowing your body mass index (BMI), cholesterol level, blood pressure; engaging in health screening.
- Physical activity: practicing physical activity such as walking, cycling, or participating in sports at a desirable frequency.
- Healthy eating: nutritious, balanced diet with appropriate levels of calorie intake.
- Risk avoidance or mitigation: quitting tobacco, limiting alcohol use, getting vaccinated, practicing safe sex, using sunscreen.
- Good hygiene: washing hands regularly, brushing teeth, washing food.
- Rational and responsible use of products, services, diagnostics and medicines: using responsibly when necessary. (ISF, 2020).
This goes to show that self-care encompasses so much more than having that girl’s night out at the bar or vegging in front of the television. Self-care is a very purposeful, well-rounded commitment that takes time.
What factors can I or can’t I control or change?
If you want to make time for self-care, it is up to you to make it happen. When it comes to work-life balance and self-care, there are more factors within your control than you may think.
For instance, you can control:
Your choice of schooling: In the end, it is your choice whether or not to attend OT school, and it is okay to give yourself permission to either proceed or to explore alternatives if your quality of life is compromised.
Your choice of work: Same with work. Currently, the market gives OTs a lot of say in which career path they would like to embark on. If you are not happy with a certain job or specialty, explore other options.
Who or how you interact with others: You have a ton of power in how you communicate with others, especially persons who you don’t get along with. If it’s a patient, a fellow employee, or another student, have a frank discussion with your superiors about how to make changes.
What you eat and drink: Choose healthy ways to keep your nutrition up, your body strong, and your mind clear.
What you do to exercise: Choose physical exercises that work for your timeframe which are physically and mentally fulfilling. This could range from a short walk around the block to a full-length marathon.
How you relax: If you relax better with others, set up those dates and get out with friends. If you prefer to relax alone, make that time for yourself and recruit help if needed (if you have children).
What you do to manage your mental health: Seek counseling when needed. Be responsible with what you can emotionally handle on a day-to-day basis, and cut down on activities that are damaging to your mind.
There are factors that are beyond our control, especially this year: COVID-19 precautions and restrictions, new work rules, new administrative expectations, etc.
Sometimes, we have very little control in which patients we see, what schoolwork we have to complete, what deadlines we have to meet, and whether or not our patients succeed in therapy. When this happens, we have to teach ourselves to roll with the punches and realize that we can still go on.
Remember that self-care for occupational therapists is not a “one size fits” all solution. Some OTs will find comfort in certain activities or interests while others will participate in completely different routines. Everyone tolerates different levels of stress and challenges, and it is not fair to yourself to compare your plate to others. Find work-life balance and a self-care routine that is just right for you.
100 Best Jobs. (2020). U.S. News. https://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/rankings/the-100-best-jobs.
“Burnout” an occupational phenomenon: International Classification of Diseases. (2019). World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases. Viewed on December 8, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) [Online]. (2013,2011). National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, CDC (producer).
Griffin, M. (2020). 10 Health Problems Related to Stress that you can Fix. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/features/10-fixable-stress-related-health-problems#1.
Great article, explains clearly what to look out for to understand if you are experiencing burn out. This can help develope OT’s insight into their situation which is the first thing needed to instigate change for the better.