The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the vital importance of first responders, health care workers, and other service providers (many of whom have been deemed “essential” in policy as well as in popular imagination).
This designation has served as a kind of honorific, highlighting the heroic nature of people whose callings expose them to unique hazards. It has also prompted a conversation about how we as a society actually value, care for, and reward those whose daily work is vital to the basic function of public health and safety (as well as to social services, commerce, education, and elder and child care).
The occupational hazards that service providers face are not limited to contagious diseases like the coronavirus. These years of ongoing crisis have also revealed the burden of secondary trauma, demoralization, and burnout that many of these jobs include.
These effects, distressingly familiar to many in the service industries, have only been heightened by the relentlessness of the pandemic by the ways it has been politicized and by the surge of human need that has been exacerbated by the added demands this global health crisis has placed on every category of human service.
Fueled by fear and a kind of desperation, we have developed a language about service that often includes metaphors borrowed from warfare. We talk about “front lines” and people serving “in the trenches.” Solutions to challenges are addressed with “boots on the ground” and “plans of attack.” Our words are geared up for battle. It’s no wonder that we so often see a challenge as an enemy and a service relationship as a place to win or lose.
Our current situation is a potential catalyst for transformation, not only in the ways we structure our public health and social service systems, but also in the words we use to imagine and describe the work itself. We can step away from us-versus-them thinking and learn how to serve each other as a unified human collective.
Service is an energetic force. Service is about reciprocity, fulfillment, and responsiveness. Too often, we experience it as tinged with exhaustion, burnout, and social and cultural warfare. Conscious service invites us to access and harness this energy, contribute to the transformation of dysfunctional systems and ways of being, and join in creating vibrant and sustainable communities that are marked by hope instead of fear.
This generation-defining era offers an opportunity for us to think and act differently. We stand in a moment where the faults and shortcomings of our current thinking and organizing in the human service sector can be first noticed and then transformed into healthier and more human-centered models. It’s time for a paradigm shift in the way we service providers approach and understand our work and for a similar shift in the way our society educates, trains, deploys, organizes, and supports those of us who take on callings and careers as service providers.
The emotional and spiritual challenges facing service providers have been of concern since I started in the field over 40 years ago. Today, the crisis facing service providers has become apparent, not only to those of us experiencing it, but also to those who love us, as well as the community at large. This isn’t just because nearly everyone depends on or will depend on some kind of service in our lives; beyond the crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, the current state of disharmony, inequity, and marginalization in the world has deepened these concerns and brought them into wider focus.
It’s time to make the happiness, health, and joy of service providers as essential as the work we’re called to undertake in service to the world.
In his wonderful book A Deep Breath of Life, Alan Cohen puts this quite simply: “If your vision of service does not include your own happiness, you’ve left out a very important person.”
When we first step on the path of service, few of us really know what we’re getting into. We have grand visions of how we can contribute. Often, we’re ill-prepared to include our happiness in this vision and poorly supported when it comes to managing the discrepancy between our ideals and the realities we come to know in our work.
In the professional sector, many service providers go through a process of disillusionment. We wonder how we went from “I’m going to change the world” to simply struggling to get through the day. This personal angst eventually shows up in the quality of our service. Engaged and effective service is next to impossible when the human resources, the people at the heart of every human service effort, are strained, overwhelmed, disconnected, and unsupported. And everyone loses.
I believe we lose because our approaches are based on outdated and often contradictory beliefs about service. These include cultural assumptions about altruism and the self-sustaining nobility of self-sacrifice in service roles, as well as employer-driven directives about the need for compartmentalization and rigid boundaries.
As a group, service providers have readily absorbed these contradictory myths and instructions. The result is an unsustainable paradox whose tension our bodies and minds must hold: we try to effectively and compassionately respond to the serious and interrelated needs of others while also obeying ineffective—if well-intentioned—directives about self-care and professional distance.
Many people believe that the solution to what ails us is achieving a thing called work-life balance. To avoid burnout and its related problems, we’re told we need to find a way to separate our lives from our work.
Managing work-life balance has become a kind of holy grail for those who are concerned about worker turnover and employee morale. This interest isn’t limited to service industries. The premise assumes that being at work isn’t and shouldn’t be a part of living our lives.
Behind most prescriptions for creating work-life balance is a suggestion that when we’re engaged with our work, we ought to be estranged from other aspects of our lives, and when we go home, we should simply reverse that process. This model may have addressed the needs of a 20th-century automobile assembly-line worker, but those of us whose vocations involve the emotional, relational, and spiritual energies of service (along with the physical and cognitive labor of hands and head) need something altogether different.
Most interpretations of work-life balance are based on the false dichotomy of separation. The truth is that our work and our lives are intertwined, no matter how many guidelines and boundaries we build to make them seem separate.
So what can we do?
We can begin with the matter of balance. If you are feeling out of balance when it comes to your work and your life, reorganizing the shape of one or the other is like the proverbial rearranging of deck chairs on a sinking ship. Instead, see what you can do about the substance.
Conscious service is concerned with the substance.
This approach is based on the radical assumption that the work we do can be a source of joy and fulfillment, and that joy and fulfillment are not merely fringe benefits of service; they’re the heart of the matter.
Conscious service acknowledges the good intentions behind superficial strategies for self-care, and it moves beyond them to access the power of responsibility, choice, and inspired action with which we can connect to ourselves in respectful, compassionate, and life-giving ways—ways that take seriously the forces that motivated us to pursue a life of service in the first place.
Conscious service begins with the premise that service is a form of love and that our ability to authentically and honorably love others must begin with our capacity to respect and care for ourselves with compassion and affection. It recognizes that compassion does not make us tired; overextension of self and lack of self-compassion are what exhaust us.
You can start today, right where you are.