I was at work the other day reviewing some old disaster plans (immediately post 9/11/2001) after cleaning out some drawers in one of our offices. The language struck me. I mean, I clearly remember the events of that day and I understand the response needed in anticipation of a similar event—the entire nation felt it. But what got me was the phrasing related to healthcare workers. The expectation that they would be available for as long as needed as soon as called no matter what happened. The expectation that their children would come with them if no alternatives were available. The idea that these people would march to any order when called. Again, I’ve been in healthcare for 20 years, I’m no stranger to the expectation of the work. But to see the demand on paper disturbed me and got me thinking about boundaries.
The way the words were written clearly set the tone that the individual’s needs were last (again, in some cases I completely understand this), but it demonstrated that those in healthcare service were merely servants. These people are not to be treated as someone stepping up in a crisis and doing something good, they are treated as a commodity to be used until they couldn’t perform anymore and the next one stood up. Why is that those who are called to serve and help are put in a position to go beyond their means at all times? Why is it the norm for them to experience burn out in the face of stress and crisis? This isn’t normal. Altruism should not be met with expectation of draining all energy.
But it is still like this to this day. Everything in healthcare constitutes an emergency and there are no boundaries. There is also a lack of critical thinking. I don’t save lives by any means, I’m not clinical, but my life is constantly disrupted and turned upside down by the demands of the field. It’s no wonder that I feel frustration and anger all the time. There is no reason that all of my energy need be focused on a place that doesn’t replenish that energy. I’m not a battery designed to serve you until I need a recharge. Humans are multi-faceted and we have myriad of needs and setting the precedent that other people’s needs always come before your own is a dangerous thing.
Why is it ok to set the expectation that some have to give all? Or that in order to get what we want we have to give all? To some degree there is truth—in order to become who you are you need to give up who you were. But our time is finite and we need to prioritize how we spend it. Time is one transaction you can’t fix. You can change the direction moving forward, but you can’t change what happened. So when it comes to the environment you’re in, make sure it is something that fills you up. There are genuinely people who don’t mind being available 24/7, they love responding to the call of crisis. I am actually one of them—but my definition of a crisis is different. Staffing is not an emergency. You forgetting to close a drawer is not an emergency. I am setting that boundary. That means being ok with being different from the group. So be it.
I’m not a commodity. If I give you my energy it is my choice and it is not to be taken advantage of. We need to respect each other and appreciate each other. I’m not talking lip service and saying thank you and then ignoring the person until we need something from them. I’m talking about hearing what they need and actually fulfilling that need (I have a piece on this coming up). It’s a mutual reciprocity and I know not everyone works like that. But even the most giving of people need to replenish every now and then. We need to ask ourselves why we do what we do and what we can do to make it better. To make ourselves feel better. To function better. To not burnout. That starts with respecting ourselves and setting the boundary. With knowing who you are. I’m not a disaster commodity, I’m a human.