Life as an OT During COVID-19: How to be a receiver (and not just a giver) of care

Occupational therapists, like many other caring professions, often feel more comfortable in the role of care giver/provider. It can feel much easier to look after others than to sometimes think about ourselves and our own wellbeing. There are so many people in our communities who need our support (particularly at the moment), that it’s easy to forget about what our own needs are.

There is a lovely metaphor that I often use in my work with parents, regarding this exact issue:

If you were travelling on a plane with a child in your care, the safety message which always occurs at the start of any flight is, “In the case of an emergency, please fit the oxygen mask to yourself first, then assist your child.”

In other words, in order to take care of others who require our support, you must first make sure you are able—physically and mentally—to provide that care.

Value guided actions, turning your thinking around

To shift our thinking about our own needs can also feel a little uncomfortable, which of course is very normal. However, if we come back to what we value, this can be the motivational force to reframe our thinking about taking care of ourselves.

An example of a value guided question might be: “How much do I value myself as an OT and the service I provide?”

If the answer is “well, heaps, obviously”, then you should consider the second question: “Can I do this, without looking after my own physical and mental health needs?”

I don’t need to tell you the answer to that!

The moral of the story is: it’s not being selfish or self-centred to look after yourself. It’s actually a big part of how you can achieve your end game. To provide the best care you can to others.

So, let’s start by talking about a topic we known so much about already, self-care—no eye rolling, please :)

‘Boring’ self-care

In the current climate as occupational therapists, we might be experiencing some of the following challenges:

  • Feeling rushed off of our feet, needing to perform additional roles and responsibilities
  • Providing additional support to others in our life who are struggling with changes
  • Losing roles in your daily life as changes have needed to occur in your our and/or family
  • Holding additional worry for the uncertainty in our client’s lives
  • Feeling bit ‘at sea’ and uncertain with sudden changes in our own daily habits and routines

My point is, we are all trying to cope with additional stressors in our lives right now. Even if you feel like the categories above don’t fit with your situation, we can all be practising ‘boring’ self–care as way of anchoring ourselves to occupations that are familiar, safe and predictable.

‘Boring’ self-care includes those day-to-day things that are important to maintain, but are things we might forget as being good for us:

  • Washing your hair/face                                                         
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Putting fresh sheets on your bed                              
  • Taking regular meal breaks
  • Getting outside (even in your own backyard)                                               
  • Finding time to laugh
  • Breathing and taking time to pause                                                  
  • Talking and sharing with others (even virtually online)

The message here is that we need the basics first before we build in more activities that are good for our physical and mental health.

Adding something new, or adapting something old

To be totally honest, many of us are really struggling with the basics. However, once you have those basics right, add away!

More than likely if you are like me, you’ll have to use the old ‘scheduling of time’ to force yourself to prioritise the basics. Use your own occupational therapy lens to think about ticking those boxes you know soooo well. Work, rest, productivity and leisure.

Consider a personal example. My guitar lessons have stopped. But I know that music is helpful for me to ground myself and have down-time. So, I still pick up my guitar at the same time my lessons would be. I’ve set up a space at home which allows me to do this without my kids interrupting me every five seconds.

Imagine if you had your own OT assessment

If you were not an OT, and you had a lovely OT grace your presence to look at your routine, roles and habits, what would they say to you?

Would they say, “My, you have a lovely balanced life full of things that give you meaning.” Or would they say, “Um, I’m wondering if we can improve this a wee bit.”

Some people might be experiencing a sudden loss/change to their working life. Again, I don’t need to teach you about thinking adaptively as you’re an OT! However, for those of us who are struggling with loss, you might consider starting a new project to feel like you are still feeling fulfilled and ticking that box of work and productivity.

For example, my neighbour, a PE teacher, started painting her fence this week. Her words to me were, “I’m not coaching at the moment, so I thought, what a great time to paint my fence. I’ve been meaning to do it for years.”

Communicate kindness at all costs

The final thing I will mention is to please remember to take an active stance of kindness.

Kindness is wonderful for our mental health and acts of kindness can improve our sense of self-worth. Kindness, breeds kindness. There are two ways we can do this right now:

  1. Through our communication. So many health professions have many varied views on COVID-19 and what we should, or shouldn’t be doing. Listen attentively to others before casting judgements or using blaming language. So many of us are talking from an emotional mind, or a more logical/pragmatic frame of mind. In the middle of those two things, which we refer to as wise mind, is often a hard place to find right now. Regardless of someone’s stance, be validating in your communication back and don’t try and solve problems that we just can’t answer. Remember the power of listening is very helpful.
  2. Through our work. This is a chance for our profession to shine! As a lot of people are struggling with adaptation, we can step forward and help. We can use our skill set around adapting occupations to lead others confidently down a road that holds a lot of uncertainty. This might not be just in your work life, but in your social life.

On a personal level, our family is distancing ourselves from my in-laws who have comorbidities. However, to stop them from feeling totally cut off from us, we now have Gran’s take-away. She bakes our kids a meal and we then wave through the window and drop a weekly letter to them. To me this was a no brainer, but not something that they had thought about.

Final thoughts

To sum up, my key points are:

  1. You are totally worthy as a receiver of care
  2. You must prioritise your own self-care if you are a care giver of any kind
  3. Get the basics right first, don’t forget about boring self-care, it’s important
  4. Review your current routine to ensure your life balance is right for you
  5. Be kind

COVID-19 has made me realise that I’m an incredibly proud occupational therapist. Our profession is fabulous. We could run the world right now, just saying.

About the Author

Caroline Thain works for headspace in Launceston, Tasmania, as well as in private practice. She graduated at the end of 2003 and has primarily worked as an occupational therapist in the field of mental health including both government and non-government sectors. Caroline particularly enjoys working with parents and adolescents, but in the current climate of COVID-19 finds herself talking to various groups in her community about how to manage their mental health through an OT lens.

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