- For those in helping professions, caring is their superpower—but it can also be their kryptonite.
- Boundaries and limits can help people in helping professions keep caring in ways that are healthier and more sustainable.
- Work-life balance is healthy for everyone but especially those in the helping and caregiving professions.
Sometime into middle age (and after some therapy) I realized that I was what I’d call a “serial giver.” After working in human service-related professions my entire life, I began to reflect upon all the attributes these vocations entail: Dedication to making the world a better place. Helping people. A feeling of deep value in the alleviation of suffering and the acknowledgment that I’m really good at connecting with folks in deep and meaningful ways.
The satisfaction I find in connecting with people and knowing that I could make a difference has always felt right and good. But sometime in my early 50s, amidst a worldwide pandemic and working through some of my own health challenges, I noticed a subtle nagging inclination to listen not only to what my body and mind were trying to tell me but also to the other “serial givers” (teachers, healthcare professionals, social workers, therapists and the like) and what they were saying.
A 30-year veteran RN on one of the healthcare units I work with shared that she was tired and now looking to retire. “It’s cheaper for the hospital to hire travel nurses than to pay us what we’re worth. I get it. If I were younger, I would probably do the same. It has to be nice to pick where and when you want to work, and to pack up just when you’ve had enough.”
My husband works in education and has seen a similar exodus of those who have dedicated themselves to the profession for many years. “I could deal with the crappy pay,” one person said. “I loved the kids and I loved my job. But all the stresses have piled up over the years and I’ve finally hit my breaking point. All the ‘extras’ and the expectation to just keep working harder as the stakes get higher aren’t sustainable.”
I think that life’s traumas—in the classroom, in the hospitals, and in the world in general—have had a massive trickle-down effect. During this time when we’re dealing with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting unprecedented mental health crisis1, those of us who have dedicated our lives to the alleviation of suffering are finally learning to set boundaries. And that’s not a bad thing.
A Paradigm Shift
A 2021 article in Forbes magazine2 addressed the “hustle and burnout3” generation that we’ve found ourselves living in recent years. Journalist Holly Corbett acknowledges that: “Our very economy was built on consumption and the Puritan work ethic that ties our value to what we produce. In the current corporate and startup environment, we’re literally consuming work. The ‘Great Resignation’ is evidence that employees may be shifting from a ‘live to work’ to a ‘work to live’ mindset. It’s not easy to declare that your priorities are taking care of your mental health or spending more time with your family when we live in a capitalist system that values work above all else.2
The collective grief the world has experienced is felt more strongly by those of us who work more closely with people in the human-service professions. We can’t hide from it. What I consider my superpower (compassion and a penchant for close human connection) can also be my kryptonite.
When we care deeply, we also feel deeply—and those feelings can manifest in our minds, hearts, and bodies as diseases or illnesses when we don’t take care of ourselves well. For this reason, I’d assert that the great resignation or quiet quitting isn’t about not caring. It’s about caring too deeply, acknowledging this propensity, and learning how to back off a bit to care more for ourselves in the process.
It's About Balance
Setting limits on how much we take on, creating boundaries around how involved we become in emotionally charged situations, and taking stock of what’s happening within us are the first steps in establishing a sustainable work/life balance. When we do this, we become more equipped to stay in the game longer and utilize our caregiving superpowers in ways that don’t continue to drain us.
A recent NPR post addressed this topic, suggesting multiple rebranding alternatives to “quiet quitting.4” Suggestions like “morale-adjusted productivity,” “reverse hustle” and “work-life integration” seem more appropriate for those of us with the default mode of putting the needs of others before our own (or the needs of our families).
In a similar post, reporter Greg Rosalsky suggests that we replace the term “The Great Resignation” with “The Great Renegotiation,” allowing workers to enter into conversation about their value, well-being, and work-life balance. The recent resurgence in the development of labor unions5 certainly suggests this to be the trend, suggesting that conversations are happening to address the issues upended by the pandemic related to stress, mental health, and self-care.
I think there’s a misunderstanding that people in the workforce are starting to not care. On the contrary—those of us working in human service-related professions want to care. We're good at it, and we want to harness our superpowers of compassion and empathy, and dedication for the greater good. It’s important for the companies and organizations we work for to help us set boundaries and limits that will help us continue to do this important work in ways that are meaningful, life-giving, and most importantly—sustainable.
 Ellyatt, H. Last responders: Mental health damage from Covid could last a generation, professionals say. CNBC. February, 2022. https://www.cnbc.com/2022/02/10/covid-pandemic-mental-health-damage-cou…
 Corbett, H. The Great Resignation: Why Employees Don’t Want to Go Back to the Office. Forbes. July 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/hollycorbett/2021/07/28/the-great-resignat…
 Hustle Culture and the Burnout Generation. The Finery Report. February, 2021. https://thefineryreport.com/articles/2021/2/25/hustle-culture-and-the-b…
 Rosalsky, G. & Selyukh, A. The Economics Behind Quiet Quitting and What We Should Call it Instead. September, 2022. National Public Radio (NPR). https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2022/09/13/1122059402/the-economics-…
 Gilmore, R. & Kraus, H. The Resurgence of Unions, Why Now? KJK. May, 2022. https://kjk.com/2022/05/20/the-resurgence-of-unions-why-now/