Staff care and self-care. The term “staff care” refers to the attitudes and actions that institutions take to promote the well-being of their staff, and that staff take to promote the well-being of themselves and each other. “Self-care,” one component of staff care, refers specifically the actions individuals take to promote their own well-being. In other words, staff care involves institutional and personal awareness, attitudes and practices.
Examples of institutional practices include recreational staff retreats, adequate safety norms, staff training, insistence on regular physical exams, discouraging overtime, or workshops on self-esteem and managing emotions. Examples of self-care range from workplace practices such as delegating and learning to say no to extra tasks, to how one spends time outside of work, be it eating well, exercising, avoiding substance abuse, listening to music, socializing with friends, or otherwise resting from work and replenishing oneself.
The role of institutions. Ad hoc efforts help, but to be most effective, staff care requires a specific institutional culture and practices of respect for and assistance to staff, in which management plays a key role. Ideally, staff care should take the form of ongoing, institutionalized, daily practices, not one-time or short-term interventions. Institutions can and should encourage self-care. In addition, Faith-based organizations can provide pastoral care, collective prayer, and other forms of spiritual accompaniment and renewal.
Private businesses know that their employees are one of their greatest assets, and many take special steps to care for and not lose or waste their human capital. NGOs should rightly be concerned about productivity levels, or the risk of losing and having to replace valuable staff persons, in whom they have invested time and training, and all the costs that implies. But staff care is about more than productivity. It is also an ethical imperative.
Understanding of staff care varies. Our studies show that field workers have varying degrees of understanding of staff care, usually related to significant and reiterated health problems. In the Chaco region, almost half of those interviewed sought assistance to boost their physical, mental and/or spiritual health. It is positive that such a high percentage was able to seek help, but worrisome that they needed it.
Few institutions have a clear awareness or understanding of the concept of staff care. While some offer ad hoc activities such as spiritual retreats or family visits for those who live far from home, only one of the organizations surveyed has a formal program, which is limited but includes a person dedicated exclusively to the spiritual care of personnel. Those interviewed reported that the lack of support and accompaniment from their organizations aggravates already high levels of stress, while those who have experienced comprehension and support spoke highly of their value.
Making staff care a priority. Unfortunately, staff care is generally not considered a priority in the face of emergencies and other urgencies, and because organizations rarely take a preventive stance toward their work or their staff. In some organizations, staff care is considered superfluous or even selfish, particularly in some Faith-based organizations. None of the NGOs in the Chaco have sought funding for staff care, while five of the nine groups that work with at-risk children sought financing and three received small amounts. Generally NGOs feel it is difficult to ask donors to support staff care, and donors indeed have little awareness of the significance of staff care.
In sum, there is ground to be broken in going beyond a model of individual stress to look at organizational models of stress. The major personal costs of working with extremely vulnerable populations can and should be effectively mitigated. Staff care is, in part, about healing, but it is mostly about prevention, personal well-being, healthy individuals, and healthy organizations.