You can’t properly care for others if you aren’t also caring for yourself. Our treasured occupational therapist, Kate Sheehan of stairlift and home lift company Stannah, encourages Carers not to neglect their mental health and shares her top tips for maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
Choosing to care for others is a compassionate and kind act. It is a highly valuable role that often comes with a significant investment of time and mental effort for those who undertake it with little recognition of its true impact. When focused on others, it’s easy to neglect the small things that contribute toward your own health and wellbeing.
Many informal Carers may feel guilt over taking time out for themselves but remember, you're doing the best you can with what you have, and which may look different each day, so be kind to yourself and follow this routine:
Take a break: If you feel able, take a break. It might not be possible to take as much time away from your caring role as you want or need, but take the time wherever and when you can, however short it may be. Take time to rest and do some of the things that you enjoy and that will benefit your mental health.
Fresh air and exercise are known to be good for both our bodies and brains; consider taking a walk or going to the gym. If you are a creative individual draw or paint in your free time. Choosing activities you can complete in stages or pick up and put down as needed can also be beneficial, as you can invest as much or as little time as you need.
Be realistic: Think practically and establish what is realistically achievable for you and the person you are caring for. Overscheduling appointments or creating long to-do lists, which you are then unable to complete, may result in feelings of frustration or disappointment. Although planning time for rest and recovery is essential for you both, don't be afraid to say no or ask for adjustments if this is what you need.
Try to open up: Consider sharing how you feel with someone, whether a friend, a fellow Carer, or even a professional. While practical support can be beneficial, so can a listening ear. Many informal Carers find having a space to share and process their thoughts and feelings helpful, especially when caring for a close family member or those with progressive and fluctuating health conditions.
If you are not ready to share details about your caring role with others, try letting those in your life know that your responsibilities may reduce your capacity to maintain and nurture those relationships. This will help them to understand if you are not always able to sustain your friendships and allow them to offer support if they feel able. In addition, booking time with a friend or planning activities in advance can give you something to look forward to and allow you to plan around it, meaning you may be less likely to cancel at short notice.
Use smart technology: Could technology help you? With a wide variety of assistive tech available, there may be products that shoulder some of your responsibility while supporting for the patient’s independence. For example, items like automatic medication dispensers can be filled once a week and will then alert the person when it is time to take it. In addition, chair sensors and pagers allow Carers to be notified when someone needs support or tries to get up unaided, so you can leave the room without worrying about their safety.
For protecting your mental health, it's important to practice self-compassion and try to understand your limits. Recognising the early warning signs of fatigue will help you take proactive steps to rest, relax, and avoid burnout.
Explore further the effects of how poor sleep can affect your physical, cognitive, and mental health by Kate Sheehan, our occupational therapist, and top tips on how to improve your sleep hygiene by our psychologist expert Jo Hemmings.