Why self-care is important

Mental health is linked to lots of other issues, from poverty to work overload, and empathy is the best way forward.

woman sitting alone in dark room


The growing impact of poor mental health at work has become a bit of a political football of late, with ministers talking down the problem and suggesting people may be exaggerating it. Cabinet minister Mel Stride recently said: “There is a real risk now that we are labelling the normal ups and downs of human life as medical conditions which then actually serve to hold people back and, ultimately, drive up the benefit bill…People may be convincing themselves they have some kind of serious mental health condition as opposed to the normal anxieties of life.”

In a speech last week to the Early Years Alliance conference, CEO Neil Leitch said that when he initially read those comments his first response was one of disbelief and anger. “Disbelief at the suggestion that mental health was somehow a choice. That people who suffer from illnesses like anxiety, like depression, simply need to buck up their ideas to get them back into action. That all they need is a bit of tough love to get better,” he said. “But the main reason I felt angered, and I would go as far as saying disgusted, is because I, like many of us, have seen first-hand the impact that mental health challenges can have. And I know that it is not a choice, and that ‘tough love’ is not the answer.”

He went on to talk about the knock-on impact of poor mental health, which is linked to so many other issues such as poverty, domestic violence, poor physical health and waiting lists, poor housing and so forth. He spoke in particular of the impact of mental health problems on early years workers. He cited one worker who told him: “I am expected to be a social worker, teacher, manage staff, police officer, health worker… You name it, I am doing it.” The same goes for school staff. But we also know that the police are overwhelmed with dealing with mental health issues. Indeed employers generally are increasingly having to face the problem and are setting up mental health champions and other initiatives. The problem is this is just dealing with the symptoms rather than the causes,

Nevertheless, we have to recognise that dealing with the symptoms is challenging and that people need support. An unsupportive, overly pressurised or bullying work environment will only exacerbate the problem.

The early years sector is facing a recruitment crisis. Part of that is due to the increasing challenges in the sector, alongside pay and other conditions. Leitch said: “You cannot pour from an empty cup.” He called on early years to know the value of the work they do, but to put themselves first, to prioritise self-care.

He said: “Today, we know that a child should be treated with patience and understanding, that they should be encouraged to acknowledge and work through what they were feeling, not bottle everything up inside.

“Perfect advice for a child, but I bet you rarely heed that advice yourself. Think about how you treat yourself when you are feeling overwhelmed. About whether you give yourself the space to work through your own feelings? Whether you show yourself the same kindness, the same compassion, that you would show to a young child?”

It’s a call for empathy and one we definitely need after the last few years of austerity and Covid and it’s in all of our interests.

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