Margaret Ambrose

Award-winning journalist and communications professional.

Why leaders should look out for their employee’s self care

This blog is part of our Expert Commentary series, bringing you insights into some of the unspoken challenges women face in the workplace, from experts with lived experience. The series explores a range of topics and perspectives to highlight the ways inclusive and compassionate leadership practices can benefit everyone.

Content warning: This article discusses Domestic Violence, homelessness, and Intimate Partner Violence. If this article causes you to feel distressed, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

On any given work day I hear stories from women who are sleeping in their cars with their small children; survivors of domestic violence who have fled their homes with nothing but the clothes they are wearing; women who as teenagers had their babies taken from them and 70 years later are still seeking justice and recognition for their pain. As communications manager with a not-for-profit organisation that supports single mothers, it’s my job to tell stories – and they’re usually very bad stories.

Women who hold leadership positions in not-for-profits deal with tragedy and trauma on a daily basis and it’s a role they often play in silence, never speaking of the toll it takes on them and those they love.

They are witness to all sorts of unimaginable tragedy: natural disasters that leave families destitute and with little hope for the future; starving children; refugees; extreme poverty. It’s an unbearable burden that is often carried by women, because it’s a sector largely made up of women.

Anyone who works in the not-for-profit sector will tell you that they didn’t go into it to get rich. Traditionally, the NFP sector pays well below what they could ask for in the commercial or government sectors. We teach women and girls to ‘care’ and as a result, it is often women who gravitate to NFP’s that work with vulnerable people. The emotional investment from this work leaves women vulnerable to the secondary trauma caused by the work they do.

That’s certainly the case for me. As a single mother myself, supporting women in crisis isn’t just a job, it’s providing a voice and a lifeline to women, who in different circumstances could be me. It’s personal.

It’s the same for the work I do as a journalist, specialising in reproductive rights and donor conception. For me, advocating for and sharing the experiences of single women and donor-conceived children isn’t a concept, it’s my life.

So, given the emotional load created by their work, why is self-care so low down on the list of priorities for women in NFPs?

Well, look at what I’ve told you about myself. From what I have written so far, you know that I am communications manager with a charity that supports single mothers, and that I am a journalist who writes about issues related to assisted reproduction. I haven’t told you that I play the guitar, that I love jigsaw puzzles, I haven’t told you about my travels, or that I have watched every episode of Gilmore Girls – many, many times.

I defined myself by how I help others. And that’s a large part of the problem.

Things are gradually changing now, but I grew up like most women, in a society that rewards women who are the peacemakers; that tells us being the best version of ourselves is caring for others, supporting those around us; being loving and gentle and kind. We’re told in a million different ways that the role of women is to be supportive, and certainly to never stand up and say “what about me?”

Because of this, there’s a reluctance to seek help or prioritise self-care.

How can I complain about having to organise and host the extended family Christmas dinner, when I’ve just comforted a mother who is homeless and hungry, and who doesn’t know how she’s going to explain to her child that there will be no presents on Christmas morning?

While there may be increased understanding about the mental health needs of women working leadership roles in NFPs, the reality is, all of us – across every sector – are building careers in a society where women’s work is undervalued and under paid, compared to our male counterparts. If you want to succeed in your career, you cannot show any sign of ‘weakness’ or heaven forbid, that you may be struggling.

For women working in communications, the threats to our mental and physical wellbeing are especially real. In many cases, next to the CEO, we are the most visible members of the organisation, and targets for those who hate what it is we work for.

For women journalists and communications workers, hatred, abuse and threats can be an almost daily occurrence. I’ve had threats made to my life and my family, I’ve had rape threats, I’ve had countless emails and social media messages telling me I am worthless and should just die.

During COVID-19, the abuse took on a new level. With many of us working remotely, the abuse and threats happened in our homes, the place where we should feel safest.

Given that self-care is such an important issue for women in NFPs, it’s still rarely discussed – or if it is, it’s the usual suspects of advice: get lots of sleep, eat well, make sure you exercise. All these things are important, but they’re not always practical and by themselves aren’t enough to deal with secondary trauma.

Happily, more and more NFPs are signing up to Employee Assistance Programs, engaging external consultants who are available for staff to call if they’re struggling. The phones are staffed by mental health professionals and the calls are confidential. All the organisation knows is the number of calls, for billing purposes.

Yet, the existence of Employee Assistance Programs doesn’t address the issue of the reluctance of women in NFPs to reach out for help or incorporate self-care into their work. Leaders in the sector can really make a difference here. It’s not enough to tell staff about the existence of the program – they need to be reminded often, provided the details regularly, and encouraged to call.

I would love to see women in leadership speak more openly to their staff about their own experiences. For self-care to be taken seriously, it needs to become normal.

It’s advice I know I should take, and maybe writing about my own experiences is a start. Yes, I will try to eat better, exercise and meditate, but I will also be unafraid to call that Employee Assistance Program, and I urge other women to do the same.

But it turns out, the best thing you can do to care for your own emotional wellbeing might also be the easiest.

Asked during a webinar with The University of Melbourne medical students how he coped during Victoria’s brutal second wave of COVID-19, which saw almost 800 people die from the virus, the state’s Chief Health Officer, Professor Brett Sutton, talked about the importance of diet and exercise, but also highlighted the natural ‘oxytocin effect’ he received daily – simply by hugging his loved ones.

Margaret Ambrose is an award-winning journalist and communications professional She regularly writes for Australian and International newspapers and about social justice issues facing women, reproductive rights and IVF. Margaret has worked across many not-for-profits and is currently publications co-ordinator with the Council of Single Mothers and their Children. She lives in bayside Melbourne with her two daughters, Greta and Aurora.

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