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Viewpoint: Self-Care for HR Professionals

A woman is meditating in a lotus position.

From a previous article, we know that working in HR can often have negative consequences on HR professionals' mental well-being. However, HR professionals who practice self-care can mitigate the difficult effects of the work they do.

What Is Self-Care?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, self-care is the practice of taking action to preserve or improve one's own health. Self-care is the foundation of health care but is outside of formal health and social care systems.

Self-care is a part of daily living and a key strategy for the HR professional to employ in the face of workplace stressors.

Health authorities, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), have published formal definitions over the years that expand on a variety of domains that self-care encompasses. The WHO's popular 1998 definition states:

Self-care is what people do for themselves to establish and maintain health, and to prevent and deal with illness. It is a broad concept encompassing hygiene (general and personal), nutrition (type and quality of food eaten), lifestyle (sporting activities, leisure etc.), environmental factors (living conditions, social habits, etc.), socio-economic factors (income level, cultural beliefs, etc.), and self-medication. 

For the purposes of this article as it relates to the role of the toxin handler, we can think of self-care as the practice of taking an active role in protecting one's own well-being and happiness, particularly during periods of stress, in any of the self-care domains. The key, as noted above, is not so much what you do as long as you find ways to proactively address the potential negative impacts and consequences of being a toxin handler. Self-care should be individualized to the HR professional according to their likes and interests.

Why Does Self-Care Matter?

We can think about why self-care matters from the perspective of society—the health of the population—as well as from the perspective of the individual. According to the WHO, lifestyle or chronic diseases—heart attack and stroke, cancer, chronic respiratory disease, and diabetes—represent 71 percent of all annual deaths worldwide, causing an estimated 41 million deaths every year. Unhealthy lifestyles and health risk behaviors cause much of the illness, discomfort and early death related to chronic diseases and conditions. The behaviors that impart the most risk include lack of exercise or physical activity, poor nutrition, tobacco use, and excessive alcohol consumption. These behaviors are important targets for self-care, as they can be changed or improved.

But as an HR professional in the role of toxin handler, it's important to practice self-care because it gives you control in situations where it may seem that you lack control. Self-care gives you the chance to step away from whatever toxic issues are going on in the workplace and make yourself and your well-being a priority. Some of the fundamental principles of self-care include aspects of the individual, such as self-reliance, empowerment, autonomy, personal responsibility and self-efficacy. While you may not be in control of all the issues and situations you face as an HR professional, you can be in control of how you approach your own self-care.

Why HR Needs Self-Care

When toxic workplace situations are not dealt with, they tend to spread throughout the organization. HR professionals are typically tasked with managing these situations—becoming toxin handlers.

HR professionals often are not making a particular organizational decision; rather, they are reacting to a decision that has already been made. The term "handler" becomes very appropriate in this regard: Despite not making the decision, HR generally communicates the results of the decision. Being the bearer of bad news can take its toll.

Self-Care Strategies

Self-care is a skill that can be learned and must be practiced in order to be effective. It is something that can and will look different for everyone. We've developed a model of self-care for toxin handlers, which outlines a number of important strategies HR professionals can take to mitigate the negative impact of handling toxic emotional work within an organization. These strategies may serve as healing measures for HR professionals who are impacted by their work, and it is recommended that HR professionals incorporate these strategies into their lives. In the next article in this series, practical tips for toxin handlers and their organizations to implement the components of the model of self-care will be provided.

Tamara Schult, Ph.D., MPH, is a research data analyst at Veterans Health Administration in Hastings, Minn. Charles Gray, Ph.D., MBA, is an HR consultant for the Department of Veterans Affairs.


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