This resource was adapted with permission from the work of Deb Penglase (she/her), from The Wish Group.

Youth workers are often strong advocates for self-care to the young people they work with but can struggle to practise it themselves. Deb Penglase, a credentialed mental health nurse with over 30 years’ experience, breaks down how youth workers can overcome barriers and actually make self-care happen.

Download factsheets

Why do we do self-care?

The first step of understanding self-care is actually understanding what we are trying to protect ourselves from. For youth workers, that includes burnout and vicarious trauma.

Deb describes burnout as a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It reduces productivity and saps your energy. You may feel:

  • Helpless
  • Hopeless or cynical
  • Exhausted or emotionally drained
  • Resentful
  • Overwhelmed
  • Unable to meet constant demands

Vicarious trauma is described as when the trauma experienced by a victim/survivor starts to affect the helper in a way that creates distress. It can make the helper feel grief, fear, anger or despair. It may increase when you feel responsible to help. You may be having thoughts like:

  • “I’m not getting as much joy out of my work.”
  • “I’m feeling negative about my workplace.”
  • “I’m not quite sure why I’m doing this job anymore.”

Deb explains that staff in ‘helping’ work like youth work are more at risk of burnout and vicarious trauma; “it doesn’t [necessarily] mean it’ll happen, just means it’s a risk factor.” Burnout and vicarious trauma can also manifest in physical health concerns.

What is self-care?

Self-care is holistic, intentional, proactive and ongoing. As Deb summarises, “it’s about how we actually live our lives.”

Self-care is not just about distraction, although Deb notes that can be helpful at times – “when you’re just feeling overwhelmed and you need to get up and step away from the screens or your desk or work for a period of time.” However, this should be in moderation and balanced with other practices.

Self-care is multi-dimensional. It encompasses:

  • Physical wellbeing
  • Emotional wellbeing
  • Spiritual wellbeing
  • Nutritional wellbeing

Self-care is about reflection and resilience. We are often told self-care and preventing vicarious trauma must involve having breaks away from the work. That’s important, but sometimes we can also use the positive stories that come from difficult or challenging times to inspire us. This is called ‘vicarious resilience’. “[Researchers] realised that trauma is quite contagious; it's vicarious trauma,” Deb shares. “So they thought, well, logically, vicarious resilience could exist as well. And resilience can be contagious.”

Vicarious resilience is about refocusing and sharing in the resilience that comes from others’ trauma. But importantly, it is still very individual. “It does require being quite honest with yourself,” Deb says, about what you find difficult in your work, and where you could improve your resilience or boundaries. It’s also valuable to think about this in terms of maintaining your autonomy, accountability, and emotional management.

When we identify our areas to strengthen resilience, we can create safe opportunities for personal challenge to gently test how we respond and build up strength. “Testing that out like you would do with some of the young people that you're working with,” Deb explains. “[The same way you might say] ‘let's test out how they're going to go here, let's teach them the skills there.’ It's doing the same thing for yourself and saying, I find that I don't do particularly well in these type of situations … That just goes into making us more able to understand what's going on around us; [to] be able to be better helpers.”

Self-care is also the beginning of being in a positive relationship with yourself, that improves your sense of self-worth. It creates a positive loop, where we take care of ourselves when we understand that we are valuable.

Why might self-care not work? What can we do to overcome this?

Self-care can be difficult, especially at the beginning. Distraction is easy, “but it’s not easy to really embed self-care into your world and your life as a habit,” Deb says. You have to work at it and be intentional. “It’s like any new habit … It can be challenging at the start to make sure that you’re getting it up and running and that you’re feeling the benefits.”

A habit can take between six to 12 weeks to build. Deb recommends creating a self-care plan and scheduling time each week – for a number of weeks – to build the habit. She recommends Black Dog Institute’s Self-Care Plan, and advises considering it as a “living document”. That is, a plan that can evolve over time.

You may have tried self-care but it ‘didn’t work’. This can happen when we ‘copy and paste’ what we think self-care should look like from other people. But as Deb explains, self-care is about you, not someone else. Additionally, it may happen when you are finding it difficult to reflect honestly with yourself.

Try reflecting on what helps you recharge, but also what situations you might like to build up strength and resilience in.

You may feel you’re working against the clock. “There's so many things to do, so many people to help; we’re so busy,” Deb says. “The easiest person to disappoint when you look at your calendar every week is yourself. Where you sit there and go, well, I don't actually need to explain to myself why I'm not going to go and do that thing that I said I would do for me. If I cancel on anybody else I feel like I'm letting them down. … [But] if we don’t look after ourselves, we can’t hope to continue to look after others.”

This is related to boundaries work. Try breaking your to-dos into what you have to do, what you want to do, and what you are doing for others. This can help you get a realistic view of where you are over- or under-committing.

You can also speak to your manager and wider team about self-care and establishing a culture where self-care is encouraged and team members look out for one another. Self-care is not just an individual responsibility; your wellbeing is part of the collective responsibility of your workplace.

See YACVic’s ‘Boundaries and Burnout’ resources for youth sector workplaces

As an ongoing practice, Deb says “it’s not to say there’s not peaks and troughs. But if we have really good self-care habits, it’s a bit like early intervention for anything; the peaks and troughs are likely to be shallower and come less frequently.” As you reflect on your progress, Deb emphasises, “please don’t beat yourself up [if you aren’t always consistent]. That’s not the purpose of self-care! It’s reflecting and recognising, [which in itself] is part of self-care.”

This story is part of our Learning from COVID-19 series, featuring the creativity and adaptions of young people and youth workers. Check out our other stories or share your feedback.