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Today, I remembered a crucial moment during my time as a caretaker.
It was Tuesday, the last day of my eight-day-and-night shift. I had had a rough week. The small office was full of people: my boss, two interns who didn’t like me, and I.
I was exhausted and ready to go home at night. One of the kids was sick, so I took the medicine out of the box to give it to them.
As I took the pill out of the plastic wrap, my boss—who had been standing behind me—started shouting and asking why I wasn’t giving the pill to the kid still wrapped. This way, it wouldn’t come in contact with my hands. There was such tension and anger in the air over this “inconvenience.”
I’m not exaggerating.
I was so surprised by this reaction that I didn’t know what to say. I could understand why it was better to keep the pill wrapped, but I felt the intensity of this response to be completely out of proportion. I froze, felt ashamed in front of the interns, and angry toward my boss for putting me in this position—treating me as if I were incompetent.
I also felt like this reaction may not have anything to do with the situation at hand, but that there was something else going on.
Looking back and still feeling some residue of shame, I know this was a key moment.
It was then that I started to explore the idea of quitting my job and making it my mission in life to help professionals know how important it is to prioritize their own well-being.
I didn’t leave right away, and I tried to voice my needs, though no changes were made so I’d feel more comfortable.
What bothered me most was a hypocrisy in the organizational structures, and it’s one I’ve seen in other structures of “helper” environments.
On the surface, there’s talk of welcoming mistakes and learning from failure. But many events show us that this notion isn’t truly embodied in our workplace culture.
Some organizations, whose goal is to help those in need, unfortunately fail to take care of their own employees.
The attempt to reduce suffering and the mission to serve can easily be compromised when employees’ needs are not being met. This can directly impact the lives of those we’re here to help in the first place.
What I also experienced is that a lot of people who go into care professions share a specific trait. While they’re passionate about helping others, it often means that they’re used to ignoring their own needs.
This makes setting boundaries more difficult.
From what I observed, organizations and companies in these fields are benefitting from such traits, as the employees don’t often know how to acknowledge and articulate their needs. If you feel like you might be part of such an organization, I hope that my story shows that you’re not alone.
Even though part of me wishes that I had the courage and strength to respond differently, this encounter taught me a valuable lesson.
It showed me that I still had to learn how to set boundaries in my work environment. It also made me evaluate what I needed from my boss and my colleagues in order to feel safe at any job—the need to feel respected and valued and be met with understanding if I make a mistake, which is bound to happen because I’m human.
I strongly believe this lesson is crucial for every helping professional. We need to become aware of our needs so we can communicate these topics with our colleagues and employers.
The truth is that an organization whose goal is to help people should see their employees’ well-being not only as a priority, but as an ethical responsibility.
Contemplating on our experiences, especially in writing, can often bring forth new insights.
So if you’re a helper, I invite you to take a moment to reflect on your work environment with these questions:
>> What do I require from my workplace, my colleagues, and my boss in order to feel safe?
>> What do I need in my work environment so I feel seen?
>> Do I feel comfortable voicing my needs toward those I work with?
If you’re a leader in an organization which aims to help others, ask yourself:
>> How is my organization paying attention to the needs of our employees?
>> Are we making conversations around this topic a priority?
>> If not, how can we change that?
Define an action step you can take today and schedule when you will share it with your employees.
To go deeper, share your thoughts with a trusted friend or colleague. Letting others hold space for our processes can be a powerful practice.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions in the comments.