Full confession: In my career as an aid worker, I have burnt out multiple times.

My burnout taught me the importance of leaning into my community, my support network and trusting the folks around me. I learned what it truly means to be there for each other.

When we burn out, the road to recovery can be tough. For that, we need more than just self-care. We need a culture of care around us. We need a community that understands, empathizes and is ready to catch us in case we fall.

How can we foster such a culture?

Give yourself permission to get involved

Society encourages resilience and independence and we’ve heard the all too familiar ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. But taken overboard, it can mean living in isolation – minding our own business or looking away if it doesn’t concern us.

We need to give ourselves permission to get involved, to show compassion and be a helping hand to the people around us.

If we see someone hurt in an accident, we ask if they need help or medical attention, right? It should be no different for someone who’s overwhelmed with stress and burnt out. It’s time we reach out, check in and ask if we can be of help. It’s as simple as asking, ‘how are you doing today?’ Then we hold space and listen. It’s OK if they say no. We keep trying and we keep reaching out and checking in.

Encourage spaces and opportunities for communities to care

Community care can be a range of different things. It can be helping a neighbor with an errand, being there for someone without asking him or her to take the first step or simply doing something nice for a friend. In the workplace, it can be encouraging your staff to take regular breaks (or their vacation days), helping a colleague with tasks, or checking in on how they are coping.

Community care is about cultivating honest one-on-one relationships, encouraging dialogue and building trust. It’s hard to feel motivated or valued at work when the workplace feels robotic and unfriendly. When you know someone cares about you, it can make a difference in you taking that first step to seek much-needed support.

Community care can also happen in digital spaces. Joining Facebook groups, volunteering online or being part of a WhatsApp group that offers you space for open discussion are some ways of connecting with other individuals.

Self-care means different things to different people

We need to be mindful that in many parts of the world, talking about self-care and wellness can be unfamiliar and viewed as selfish. Growing up in an Asian household, I never saw my mother – a single parent working 7 days a week to support her children – indulge in personal time for herself. I saw grit, perseverance and putting others before her needs. Years later, when going through my burnout recovery, learning to prioritize care for myself was a foreign concept to me. It took a while to find measures that didn’t make me feel guilty for prioritizing myself for once.

It’s time we stop imposing predetermined self-care solutions onto individuals especially in communities where seeking help such as therapy is seen negatively. The point is to start listening and holding space for individuals to contribute to the conversation on what self-care could look like for them and encouraging locally created solutions that are in line with their culture or backgrounds.

For us to cultivate a culture of care, we should go beyond promoting individual self-care at the expense of community engagement. Burnout should not be seen as a maladaptation that requires only a personal response. It requires us to look at the wider issue at hand – together – to address the real causes of burnout. 

And for that, we need to do our part to show support and care for those around us – aid workers, nurses, activists, mothers, and teachers (to name a few) – so they can continue to provide community care for others.

Self-care and community care may not address structural imbalances at play that have led many folks to burn out. Helping a colleague with some tasks in the office is not necessarily going to change the fact that he or she may be going through difficult hardships at home. But community care has a way of letting someone know they are not alone. Together, it gives us confidence in our collective capacities to create the change we want to see happen. Because when it comes to burnout, we are all in this together.