“Take a break”, “Treat yourself”, and “#self-care” have become ubiquitous in our conversations today. The COVID pandemic has also placed importance on the concept of self-care. But what is self-care? Where does it come from? And perhaps the most important question: is it enough?
Self-care as a concept was first used in the 1950s to refer to how institutionalized people could cultivate a sense of self worth. In these early days, self-care existed in academia, used by medical professionals when discussing survivors of traumatic experiences as well as the elderly.
The term expanded in the 1960s to look at those helping people cope with trauma (social workers, EMTs, psychologists) and how they could be more effective in their roles once they have looked after their own selves.
In the 1970s, the Black Panther Party played an important role in developing the concept of self-care into what we know today. In the organization's work in communities across the San Francisco Bay area, self-care was used to prevent activist burnout. Activists like Angela Davis and Ericka Huggins have openly spoken about how self-care and mindfulness was used by the Black Panthers in their community care work.
Throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early 2000s, self-care remained a relatively unused term, spoken about mainly in academic circles as well as amongst activists within racial and LGBTQ+ movements. This, as with most of the history of self-care, took place mainly within the USA.
Self-care has seen a resurgence in use, becoming one of the most commonly used terms in this pandemic-seasoned world. The term itself has seen an explosion in interest, with Google Trends showing the term has more than doubled in searches worldwide since 2016. Discussions around self-care have also gone beyond activist and academic circles, with conversations entering the workplace and our private lives.
While in many ways, the term has taken on varying definitions, it is still, at its core, focused on the individuals' need to take care of themselves.
When looking at the development of self-care, it can be observed that self-care is seen through a western and primarily American viewpoint. That is to say that it is viewed through the cultural lens of the individual. This can be seen in how self-care is practiced, with solo activities such as shopping sprees, massages, counseling sessions, personal diets, and ‘me time’ being the most commonly observed activities.
This focus on the individual makes sense when you take into account America's individualistic culture and its global cultural power. Through the widespread use of social media and the domination of American viewpoints across the internet, this individualistic take on self-care spread and became the dominant view, pushing existing ideas aside.
This individualistic perspective on self-care, while being one of many, has also become the basis of policy and workplace culture, with phrases such as “take care of YOURSELF” or “do what YOU have to do in order to perform YOUR best” becoming commonplace.
By looking at the origins and spread of self-care as well as the role of cultural power and individualism, we can begin to understand that the emphasis on the individual’s responsibility to take care of themselves without support through workplace culture, policy, as well as the broader community, is not only a modern occurrence but also one that is very western-centric. We can also begin to see that the focus on the individual in self-care is not possible. In essence, self-care is not enough!
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become abundantly clear that placing full responsibility on the individual to take care of themselves is neither sustainable nor desirable as a long-term mantra. This is true regardless of whether you’re from a society that places more emphasis on individual responsibilities or collective responsibilities.
In contrast to the subtext of the variety of “self-care” terminologies, where the energy and responsibility are all on the individual, there are examples of alternative cultural and regulatory models from other parts of the world.
In South Africa, for a cultural example, self-care is unconsciously seen through the lens of Ubuntu. Ubuntu, roughly translated into “I am because we are”, is an African philosophy and worldview that places the individual within the context of its wider community. While not always supported by organizational structures, self-care in the South African context is, by definition, community-based.
One example of how Ubuntu shows up in daily South African life is the Stokvel. Stokvels are grassroots savings groups where, in their traditional forms, members contribute a portion of their income to the group. This money is then given to one member of the group on a rotating basis to use on various expenditures said person needs. These stokvels meet regularly and serve as opportunities for socializing as well as financial health mentorship and accountability.
In France, self-care looks a lot like taking 2-hour lunches during the workday and refusing profusely to work outside of work hours. From a regulatory perspective, the country’s right to disconnect law reflects the firmness of this boundary and expresses the importance French culture places on private time. Here, self-care means fiercely protecting an individual’s private lives both at the cultural and legal levels.
As we can start to see, for self-care to truly be successful as a practice, it needs to be supported by culture and policy. This is true at the individual, societal, and the organizational level as well. To be clear, what we are saying is that Co-Care needs to become the standard. What we mean by this is re-distributing the energy and responsibility of care from the self to the community. We do not mean taking away the individual's responsibility to look after themselves and to ask for help, but rather to create the organizational structure and culture that can support the individual - to create a community of care.
Across the board, this means the serious consideration of wellbeing and our roles as colleagues, leaders, and organizations in supporting the wellbeing of others. How do we show up for each other, support each other, and empower each other in the pursuit of our wellbeing goals?
At the team level, managers might consider, as one example, integrating co-care-related agenda items into regular meetings, such as personal check-ins, dedicated space for gratitude, or a team retrospective on collaborative behavior. These agenda items provide space for team members to share how they are and what they need on a regular basis.
At the organizational level, leadership might consider instituting wellbeing policies and practices that integrate co-care principles into the organization’s operations. Numerous methodologies, such as psychological safety, modern agile, or nonviolent communication, are great resources and pieces of inspiration that provide many policies and practices that can aid in integrating co-care principles and structures into your organization.
From our weekly meetings that create space for gratitude to the way we experimented and eventually implemented a 4-day work week, this understanding of co-care shapes our approach to team and individual wellbeing. It is one of the core principles that help us build organizational culture and supporting processes that not only create the space for self-care but, more importantly, the opportunity for co-care.