"In early January, I set unachievable goals for myself. I analysed my flaws as only I could, picking habits to track so that I was fully aware of how little I read for pleasure, exercised or slept."

When ‘self-care’ just doesn’t cut it

If burnout is a problem and the promise of self-transformation and self-care aren’t working, then what now? Dr Katie Bruce, chief executive of Volunteering New Zealand, offers an alternative. 

This New Year, along with everyone else, I found myself watching Tidying Up with Marie Kondo while fawning over Bullet Journaling on Instagram and ordering a ton of coloured pens, stickers and notebooks. Self-diagnosed with ‘errand paralysis’ as a paid-up member of the Millennial Club, all I need is a ‘to do list’ right?

Don’t have time to exercise? Get up at 5 am and climb a mountain before work. Juggling work and childcare? Re-programme yourself into self-optimisation mode and you too can be a Superparent (*AA batteries required in the form of a cleaner, nanny and supportive partner to maintain the Superparent facade).

In early January, I set unachievable goals for myself. I analysed my flaws as only I could, picking habits to track so that I was fully aware of how little I read for pleasure, exercised or slept.

January is over, as are its promises of resolutions, change and hope. It’s February and what was I thinking? The new and improved unattainable me has slipped out of reach as I resolve to focus on surviving 2019. My new journal, pens and stickers will be added to the pile of things to KonMari.

The key to living your best life and avoiding burnout, we’re told, is through personal changes to us as individuals. “The most common prescription is ‘self-care’,” says newly crowned millennial spokesperson Anne Peterson. “Give yourself a face mask! Go to yoga! Use your meditation app! But much of self-care isn’t care at all: it’s an $11 billion industry whose end goal isn’t to alleviate the burnout cycle, but to provide further means of self-optimization. At least in its contemporary, commodified iteration, self-care isn’t a solution; it’s exhausting.”

Burnout has got us all talking at the moment. When burnout reaches the privileged and resonates so strongly with a whole generation, it then gets the attention that was denied for those for whom burnout has been a core part of their life experience. As Dawn Foster says: “You can fold your clothes however you like, but that won’t spark as much joy as knowing you have a pension and can afford your rent.”

If burnout is a problem and the promise of self-transformation and self-care aren’t cutting it (even for those who can afford to try them), then what now?

What if the biggest potential boost to our wellbeing was all around us, not hidden inside ourselves? Rather than asking ‘what kind of person do I want to be?’, we could ask ourselves ‘what kind of community and country do we want to be a part of?’

Hang on, this is too big. All I want to do is get to the end of the week without forgetting to pick up the kids, running out of milk or missing out on what must be prime op-shop finds with the wave of KonMari.

But we already answer this question every day. Community is not something outside of us, we create it through our actions and our connections with each other online and in real life. “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make” said Jane Goodall, someone who certainly knows a thing or two about that.

We’re not all out here saving chimps, but you do check in on your neighbours because you value these relationships and you support each other. You sign a petition you see on Facebook for universal free dental care because health for everyone matters to you. You spend your Saturday mornings teaching kapa haka because you think kids should have a strong cultural identity and a chance to do something fun together.

The ironic thing is this connection with other people and purpose through volunteering is linked to individual health and wellbeing. There are even calls for doctors to prescribe volunteering to patients because the link is so strong.

We already have one of the highest rates of volunteering in the world. Nearly half of New Zealanders are generous with their time and volunteer in some way. But the trend of how much time people volunteer is downward.

The capacity to be generous with our time for the benefit of others, our communities, and ourselves is becoming a privilege that fewer people can afford. Increasing demands and pressures to construct our optimal self can relegate volunteering to just another thing to add to the growing to do list.

If we’re serious about addressing a culture of burnout, concerns about wellbeing and inequities in people’s ability to participate, “individual action isn’t enough” says Anne Peterson. “Personal choices alone won’t keep the planet from dying… To do that, you need paradigm-shifting change.” 

To prioritise our collective and individual wellbeing we’ll have to address some of the more fundamental stuff. How are we going to do a better job of sharing power and responsibility to create the communities that we all want to live in? How can we value community participation, caring, volunteering and activism as much as we value paid work How can we ensure that volunteering isn’t used as a replacement for meaningful work for those whose contributions are not as valued in our current set up? And how can we support paid volunteering leave from our jobs so that we’re supported to have this time?

Social change has only ever come about because people did more than they had to for a cause that was important to them. They imagined a different kind of future. The clutter-free house will just have to wait another year.

If volunteering sparks joy for you then you can find out about your local Volunteer Centre here and online volunteering opportunity websites here.

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