Let’s talk about Structural care!

One of our most controversial shows was on Structural Care.  It was titled “I’m Mad About Self-Care”. Pieta taught all of us something that day … self-care is an illusion that puts the burden of taking care of oneself on the individual and shifts the responsibility away from employers/organizations.  As you can imagine – this is not good … and if you are mad about self-care, stay for the next 30 mins. 


Cynthia Rojas  0:02 

Hi, everyone, welcome. Well, one of our most controversial shows was on structural care that was almost a year and a half ago. And it was titled I Am Mad About Self-care. we learned something. Pieta, my co-host, taught us something that day: that self-care is actually an illusion. It puts the burden of taking care of oneself on the individual, and shifts the responsibility away from employers. And as you can imagine, this is not good. So, if you’re mad about self-care, then I would recommend you stay for the next 30 minutes, as we talk about what organizations should be doing to help their employees be better.

CTMM Intro

Cynthia Rojas  1:32 

Hi, everyone. Welcome again. Pieta, how are you today?

Pieta Blakely  1:38 

Hanging in there. How are you?

Cynthia Rojas  1:39 

I’m good. I’m good. And I want to welcome our listeners, including our listeners in Australia. How exciting. But we have listeners all over the world. And this is also our 80th show. So, I just want to break that moment because we were both saying how amazing this is. And that this is the year we go into two years of doing Coffee Time..

Pieta Blakely  1:51

Yeah, soon.

Cynthia Rojas  1:51

So, Coffee Time turns two years old. Its amazing. This was supposed to be a six-week show. All right, Pieta, this is your house. You used to a year and a half later, feel very strongly about structural care versus self-care.

Pieta Blakely  2:25 

I think I feel more strongly about it now than I did last year or any time before. And let me say why I initially said that I was mad about self-care, was you know, this is fairly early in the pandemic, and everybody is super stressed. We’re still super stressed. But the experience of being super stressed was relatively new, right? The up ended work environments, the lack of childcare, or the lack of toilet paper in the stores, like all of that was fairly new. And people were saying things like, “Well make sure you take care of yourself, take a bath.” This is ridiculous. This is ridiculous.

We’re asking people to keep functioning through this environment, through these times. And then we’re placing this burden on them to do something else, to make themselves feel okay about it. And that’s what made me so mad. Now that now that we’ve talked a little bit more about it and looked into it some more, there are I think, three levels of care, three or four levels of care for us to think about. And one is simply self-soothing. And I I’m very reluctant to give concrete examples because what soothing to one person might be care to another and vice versa. But, you know, if you’re stressed and you go take a walk around the block, that is more like self-soothing. It’s very useful, but it’s temporary. It’s not addressing the underlying causes of your stress or anything.

Then there’s self-care, which has been completely commercialized. So, self-care involves spending a lot of time on money on gym memberships, gurus, inspirational speakers, masterclasses in vision boarding, there’s this massive self-care industry, and I do not at all mean to malign serious self-care or to say these things aren’t important, but you end up with kind of like going on a diet or giving up drinking In January. People just feel guilty because they’re not self-caring. Another task to feel stressed about, like, you’re not keeping up with this self-care. And that’s completely counterproductive.

But the bigger issue is, some of these problems are caused by outside structures, or caused by, you know, this isn’t your trauma. You’re picking up trauma at work, because you work with traumatized people, or you are exhausted because you work 80 hours a week, and then you care for family members. That’s structural, like, that’s not a personal flaw, or failure of your time management. And to suggest that you should take another hour to do yoga to deal with that stress is ludicrous and mean. It’s just mean. So, let’s have a different conversation  about I think two things: cooperative care and structural care.

Cooperative care is something like I pick up some of your burden, and that is dropping off a meal to a neighbor, who’s having a hard time or covering for you at work, that kind of thing. And then there’s structural, which is why are you even in this problem? So, what can we as a country, or we as a workplace do to remove these barriers to your being healthy and okay? And there, we get to things like single payer health care, or universal affordable housing, or universal childcare, or employers filling in those things where they’re missing. So,  can an employer just say, “Hey, we’re going to require everybody to take six weeks of vacation every year because that’s what you got to do when you work here”? Can an employer just say, “Look, it’s very stressful to work here, and everybody is going to have to go to some kind of mental health support, and you’re required to do it during your work hours, and you must go twice a week, and we pay for it”?. Why aren’t we having those conversations? Right?

Cynthia Rojas  7:28 

You know, I read an article recently about the concept of the 40-Hour Workweek, and how it’s rooted in a way of living that we no longer conform to. And I thought this was really interesting about, how, at the time that this was designed, there were two parent households where a family could live off of one income.

Pieta Blakely  7:57 

And there is a perception that that is true.

Cynthia Rojas  7:59 

Yeah, yes. Yeah.

Pieta Blakely  8:00 

Right. And, you know, I think that was a white middle class heterosexual model, which unfortunately, we tend to think is like the Acme. But, you know, there have always been lots of families that weren’t doing that. You’re right, though it was possible in that era to do that, for one wage earner in the household to, you know, buy a house, have a car and pay for vacation every year. But not anymore.

Cynthia Rojas  8:33 

Yeah. And I appreciate you lifting this idea that that way of life fit for a small group, and unfortunately became the way of being for, or was supposed to be the way of being for all groups. But things have changed. They’ve changed so much. Many of us need a two income household. Families look very different these days. There’s a sandwich generation that I don’t know if we had it 30 years ago, 40 years ago, but we have people taking care of children and grandchildren and their parents all at the same time, many times in the same household. That 40 Hour Workweek just doesn’t make sense anymore.

Pieta Blakely  9:28 

It doesn’t make sense. And it particularly doesn’t make sense for those of us who used to go to an office but haven’t gotten there in two years.

Cynthia Rojas  9:38 

Yes, yes. I have to tell you something that has always been a pet peeve, but now has become very obvious to me. I’m looking for a new doctor. So,  I’m making a lot of phone calls. And every place I’m calling is only open from nine to five. And if you go to the bank, it’s nine to four. And if you go to other places, and so,  it’s like, how are we supposed to navigate the other parts of our lives? And so, this is why this starts to make less and less sense and becomes a burden to the employee, what you’ve been saying all this time.

Pieta Blakely  10:19 

Yeah, I remember the first time I had a job where I didn’t work on Friday afternoons, and how life changing it was that I had time to go run these errands during business hours on Friday, which meant I actually got an entire two-day weekend. And I have strongly resisted working on Fridays ever since. I just don’t think people should work on Fridays.

Cynthia Rojas  10:44 

And so what year was that? Pieta?

Pieta Blakely  10:47 

That was like, 2001.

Cynthia Rojas  10:49


Pieta Blakely  10: 50

It was a long time ago.

Cynthia Rojas  10:52

That was 20 years ago.

Pieta Blakely  10: 53

It was a long time ago. Yeah.

Cynthia Rojas  10:54 

Wow, that organization was ahead of its time.

Pieta Blakely  11:00 

You know, I’m not sure that it was organization wide. I think it was kind of a verbal agreement between me and my boss. But, you know, there’s something to be said for that, like, you know, why would the organization have had any other policy? But given my responsibilities, given that I did not do the type of work that had to specifically be done on a Friday afternoon. Everybody, who does that kind of work should have that kind of flexibility.

Cynthia Rojas  11:35 

Let me ask you something, and I’m going to put something in the comments. What should a work week look like? Let’s start there. Let’s start with the structure. What do you envision? I mean, we talk to organizations all the time. What do you envision would be a good balance? That’s another word that gets over used.

Pieta Blakely  12:00 

Yeah. And it depends what kind of work you’re doing. Because obviously, some people, have to work at various specific times. Some kinds of workplaces need certain number of staff at every hour, but for those of us whose job is mostly being at a desk, writing stuff, that’s not direct care, and things like that, I think your work week should look like whatever you want. I think there’s no particular reason that we have to work a certain number of hours. I think we should think more in terms of what do we need you to accomplish in a week?

So, an interesting conversation on LinkedIn the other day that asked, if you’re not going to the office anyway, and you finish your eight hours’ worth of work in six hours, what do you do with the extra two hours? Are they yours? Or do you like owe them back to the employer? And there was an interesting conversation about it, where some people say, well, obviously, you just move on to the next task. There’s always plenty to do and other people who said, “Well, why should I be penalized for being that much more efficient and, you know, can’t I go take a nap, do my personal stuff?” I fall more on the camp of it’s your time, right?

Let’s invert this conversation, because we tend to talk about like the time that employers give us to do our personal stuff. Let’s talk about it the other way. Let’s say you actually have all of the time. You, the worker, owns all of your time, and you elect to sell some of it to the employer. So, what are the terms of that? Are you selling it hour by hour? Or are you selling it based on your products? Those of us who are self employed, talk about that a lot. And you know, how we sell our consulting services, but like, let’s the rest of us think about that. Like, how many of your hours you actually want to sell? And do you want the basis of this conversation to be, “Okay, I’ll sit in my desk for 40 hours a week, or do you want the basis of the conversation be like I get it here is the job description and yes, I can do that for you for X dollars a year”?

Cynthia Rojas  14:30 

I love that. I love that thought. We have a comment from Thaddeus, a very good friend of ours, who was on our show and he’s coming to us through LinkedIn. Do you want to read that Pieta?

Pieta Blakely  14:43 

He said, “Our agency implemented a policy of no meeting between 12:00 and 1:00, so people can come together if they want to and no emails before 7:00 am nd after 6:00 pm, to limit expectations of employees checking email throughout the evenings or early mornings.”

That’d be like simple structural changes. And that’s another thing that we haven’t really talked about, is boundaries and modelling. And that that’s an important thing, that organizations and leaders can do is manage expectations. What the people who are the most able to work all the time do becomes the expectation in the environment. That’s how we all ended up working 40 hours a week, and commuting to work and all of that. But if those people make a rule that we don’t email in the evenings, then everybody is off the hook for checking email in the evenings. If those people say your lunch hour is important, and I am going to protect it, I’m not going to make you, the lower wage lower authority worker, defend your own lunch hour. That has a huge effect in the organization.

Cynthia Rojas  16:02 

Yeah, well,  I have to tell you, in my search for this new doctor, all these doctors’ offices are closed during lunch.

Pieta Blakely  16:08

Good for them.

Cynthia Rojas  16:08

I know. And I thought, wow, talk about modelling good behavior, right? Our doctors always talking about boundaries, talking about balance all those words. And I happen to call during my lunch hour, but they were all closed. That taught me something. We have a comment from Myra. Let’s see. Myra’s another friend of the show. All right. Pieta, can you read it?

Pieta Blakely  16:44 

Businesses have commercialized self-care, but self-care is so much more than that. And it doesn’t have to cost a penny. My self-care doesn’t cost a thing. And Yoga is not for everyone.

Here, here. Yoga is not for everyone.

Just like working out is not for everyone. For example, I hate to work out but I love to walk and that’s my workout. Many think that meditating must be quiet when meditating is just about focusing on something or just yourself. I do agree there are different levels of self-care.

Yes, absolutely. And I have heard… so, I know Bell Hooks talked about caring for herself as an act of protest. I’ve heard that that’s where the term comes from. And if that’s the case, we got it way wrong. That’s a dramatic misunderstanding of what self-care is.

Cynthia Rojas  17:42 

Well, I’ll tell you something, this is where we interesting. So, we know Myra. She’s been a viewer on the show from the very first day. Myra works in a school district, and she handles crisis management. And so, Myra, it would be interesting to hear from you, this concept of structural care and you are a leader of a unit. How do you infuse structural care and not put the burden on your staff? Because your work is the exact kind of work that we’re talking about – this idea of your employees could be vicariously traumatized? And is it up to them to learn how to meditate? Or is it up to the institution to create ways for them to deal with their work appropriately?

Pieta Blakely  18:45 

Yeah. And to create the space, right?

Cynthia Rojas  18:51 

Yes, yes. What are some examples, Pieta that you’ve seen?

Pieta Blakely  18:55 

Well, physical space, like a meditation or prayer room in the building. You know, practices, like making sure that everybody takes breaks; practices like modelling, that it’s okay to get up from your desk and take a walk in the day, letting your staff see you leave the office and go take a walk during the day; encouraging people to leave at five o’clock, or virtually to log off. What else can we think of… creating a culture that doesn’t glorify being in meetings a lot and being very busy and having a full calendar.

Cynthia Rojas  19:50 

Right. Unless your job is meetings,

Pieta Blakely  19:53 

Calendar meeting facilitator?

Cynthia Rojas  19:56 

Well, I used to lead strategy and so, people that do a lot of strategic work, are constantly in meetings. But what you’re seeing is that be very careful not to have a to do list where you were30 hours in meetings per week, but you still have 30 hours[ worth of work.

Pieta Blakely  20:17 

Right. And what tends to happen is people say, “Oh, I’ve got so many meetings, you know, 20 hours of my week is spent in meetings.” But it’s just kind of this badge of honor. Nobody’s doing anything about it. A more proactive approach is, here’s something that I was talking about planning a meeting. When you invite people to the meeting, tell them why you’re inviting them to the meeting. So, the invitation email is really long. It says, Cynthia, I’m hoping that you can attend because we need your perspective about x. And we’re going to ask you to why. If you can’t describe why each of those people is coming to the meeting, then you don’t invite them to the meeting.

Cynthia Rojas  21:02 

I love that. Pieta, you’re always changing my life. I love that idea.

Pieta Blakely  21:11 

How many meetings would you not be in if somebody had to clearly articulate what you were there for?

Cynthia Rojas  21:16 

You know, and Gmail, and I don’t know, not everybody uses Gmail, but there is a space for notes. Yeah, right. You can even put it there. I love that idea. Yeah,

Pieta Blakely  21:29 

There’s an organization that I learned from, that like the rule in their organization was, if the person who’s invited you to the meeting hasn’t done that, has not explicitly said what you need to do at this meeting, then you’re under absolutely no obligation to attend ,and that’s that.

Cynthia Rojas  21:47 

Wow. Okay. And so, Myra, you wrote a cryptic message.

Pieta Blakely  21.48

Myra says she still has AOL.

Cynthia Rojas  21:48

We love AOL. Last year, when we were talking about this, we had Tom King on the show, who is an executive director and really was very honest about experiencing burnout, and being able to change the work that he does which has made him very conscious and a much better leader. But he said something that I want to read if that’s okay, because I think it’s important. He was talking about taking care of our frontline staff and paying attention. Many of them are people of color, and they choose human service jobs, because it’s, it’s embedded in their DNA – we want to do great work.

Pieta Blakely  22:57 

And the people closest to the work are going to be the best at doing the work.

Cynthia Rojas  23:02 

Yes, and then he says, “You are a hero, and heroes don’t get tired.” Now, he’s talking about perception. Right. And that’s true. And we want as leaders, it’s our responsibility to make sure that that’s not happening, not to glorify this martyr, this hero martyr, the sense of heroism to the expense of your own health.

Pieta Blakely  23:30 

And it becomes an excuse to really be abusive to workers in the extreme case, this while we do the really, really important work, so, we’re not necessarily going to get paid a living wage, we’re not necessarily going to have retirement savings, we’re not necessarily going to have, the right tools to do our jobs, the physical infrastructure that’s really respectful to us. And I’d say that’s just lazy, right? If your staff are subsidizing your business model, by, you know, spending extra time on a task because they don’t have the technology to do it. Going to the chiropractor after work, because they sit in this broken down office chair that you got donated 10 years ago – your business model isn’t working. I’ll give some other more concrete examples. &sing their own cell phone during the day to do their community organizing work, driving their own cars, or riding their bicycles and not getting subsidized when they work in the community. They’re subsidizing the organization by nicks and cuts. Your business model doesn’t work. Like, we need to have a more robust conversation about that.

Cynthia Rojas  24:54 

Yeah, I completely, completely agree. Rene says he loves that, too. I think he’s referring to this idea of Tom King’s statement about, you know, watching out for our staff and making sure that in praising their great work, or validating this idea, they are heroes; they really are, and not to make that damaging to their health.

Pieta Blakely  25:22 

And it’s also going to marginalize people who, you know, different people have different amounts that they can work, either because they have other responsibilities, or because they have health care, or they have disability, or, you know, what else. So, let’s not create a structure that highly values people who can be productive for really long hours, which is, you know, young, healthy, childless people, and values them over other types of people with diverse demands on their time and energy.

Cynthia Rojas  26:01 

Yeah. I think this is great. So, we’re going to have a series. I should have said this in the beginning. But this is the first of a series of conversations about structural care. And we will be talking to some individuals, leaders in how they are instituting structural care into their organization. And our hope is to learn from them. But I think, Pieta, I love you’re thinking outside the box. What if we lived in a world in a work world where we made up our own hours and it was based on projects and not time?

Pieta Blakely  26:43 

Right. I mean, given the, the capacity that we have now to communicate across space and time, the idea that we all have to work simultaneously just doesn’t really make sense. It makes no sense. And it’s you know, again, a relic of when people had to come into the office and interact with the equipment in the office, because that’s where the move was, or something like that. But now that we’ve all got computers and phones in our houses. I’m not sure if that makes any sense, that there’s any reason for it?

Cynthia Rojas  27:27 

Yeah, I do want to say one thing, because I think I came upon this years and years ago, is structural care is not necessarily bringing a yoga instructor, a yoga person, into the workplace an hour before the day begins or an hour after the day ends, or during lunch hour. That is not what we’re talking about. This is really important. Because I think employers mean well when they do that, but those kinds of activities usually result in low participation. Because again, you are asking me to show up an hour earlier and I’m already commuting or I’m having a bunch of things in the morning. You’re asking me to stay an hour later, or I’m switching my lunch hour for yoga. And so, what we’re talking about is really institutionalizing care in a way that does not at all put the burden on the employee. And that is what we’re going to be talking about in the next couple of weeks. Any last words, Pieta? This is, I tell you, this is a topic you could — said recently, “I could talk about this for weeks.“

Pieta Blakely  28:46 

I really could. And I’m really excited that we’re going to be talking about it for weeks, because I think we’re going to learn a lot, and we’re just getting started with our thinking on this. But the implications for issues of equity are huge. The implications for how we think about non-profit work are huge. And now is the time, right? We have talked multiple times on this show about how the context of COVID and all of the negativity that’s around that, but also, the opportunity that lies in crisis. Everything’s on the table. All of our routines are disrupted. Now’s the time to talk about it.

Cynthia Rojas  29:40 

Yes, I love that. And if we could bring Tom King back, that will be great, because now he’s had a whole year of COVID. And we’ve really learned from him. What were some of the things he did? So ,we’re at the end of our show, and we want to thank everybody for watching us and also for those who participated in the conversation. Rene, Myra, Thaddeus, thank you so much along with our listeners in Australia. And Pieta, have a wonderful weekend and we’ll see everyone next week!

Pieta Blakely  30:14 

Have a wonderful weekend, everybody.

Cynthia Rojas  30:14

Take care.

Pieta Blakely

About Pieta Blakely

I help mission-based organizations measure their impact so that they can do what they do well. I started my nonprofit career as a teacher in workforce development and adult basic education. It was important work and I was worried that we didn’t really know if we were doing it well. In the process of trying to answer that question, I got a Masters in Education and a PhD in Social Policy, and became an evaluator.

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