Our work is often challenging as much as it is rewarding. We go from church and community meetings to planning sessions, from school visits to one-to-ones and from church services to open youth clubs. In each place, we want to put young people first, advocate on their behalf and give them our undivided attention. Our role as youth workers asks us to give of ourselves. We face pressure with all the demands of our attention and it can feel like we haven’t got time for ourselves.

I have known people who have ended their careers in this field early or have pushed themselves to burn out. Whether full-time, part-time or voluntary, we need to ensure that we are well supported and that we are serious about self-care.

What is self-care?

Self-care is about giving ourselves permission to stop for a moment, consider our own needs and be intentional about addressing them. If we can reflect on and deal with our own needs, then we are more able to have the energy and motivation to care for the needs of others. Sometimes our work can wait while we reconnect with ourselves and God.

I fully believe that we need to place God at the centre of our being. We need to take the time to maintain the connection with the one who sustains all life. There are lots of devotionals, courses, worship events and conferences that provide and promote that time. What we need to focus on is the continual re-grounding that reconnects us to ourselves.

Promoting wellness and self-care can seem like just another thing that is added to the continually growing list of things to do. Unless it’s made a priority, it is pushed down the list as a luxury that we will one day get round to once everything else we’re expected to do is done. When faced with the complex needs of young people, groups and communities we can feel conflicted when asked to think about ourselves. Your health and wellness matters. Taking care of yourself is a key part of changing and transforming the people and communities around you. Make the time.

Jesus knew he needed to find these precious moments to be alone before the crowds found him again

Living, working and worshipping

Our communities are shaped by government policies, local issues, historical memories and more. We can often find ourselves living, working and worshipping in the same community and unpacking these different contexts can be messy. To help you, consider your answers to these questions:

  • Does it ever feel like your work is more focused on the needs of the church or the funder than the needs of the young people?
  • Does it ever feel like the young people are being blamed for not getting involved, when the systems and structures make it difficult to do so?
  • Does it feel that, because of cuts, you are filling in gaps in provision and that there are fewer places for young people to turn to for support?

Youth and children’s workers play an essential role in the communities they work in, often bridging a gap between two groups and trying to communicate both sides of the situation. Being part of and engaging in these communities where we live, work, worship and play can become all-consuming. We can become stretched and stifled at the same time.

Self-care is about creating and engaging in practices that allow you to sustain yourself. They will be things that reinvigorate your energy and feed your soul. They will make you a better listener, an active community member and a more conscientious care giver. Giving out to others and neglecting yourself can breed feelings of resentment. Taking the time to look after yourself allows you to enjoy time with others. You can enact these measures yourself but it’s even better when supported by the organisation you work for. Here are some experiences of youth workers when they were able to prioritise self-care:

“When I worked for the Salvation Army the church I was part of signed up for the ‘We love our youth worker’ campaign. This had many great benefits. but the most valuable one was a day a month to retreat, reflect and spend time dedicated to listening. I was regularly asked to make it known when these days were so people knew to give me space.” Gemma in London

Self-care is about giving ourselves permission to stop for a moment, consider our own needs and be intentional about addressing them

“As much as I appreciate local networks, the biggest impact on my wellbeing is from my direct employers being unceasingly encouraging, generous, supportive and empowering. So, for a specific example, they’ve given me loads of training opportunities and encouraged me to work outside the walls of not just our church but our town too. They’ve given me extended paternity leave. I’ve been encouraged to take retreats and I don’t feel any guilt at taking time out of my day to walk around to pray or go for coffee to read.” Dan near Bristol

Any good employer or organisation you volunteer for wants to get the best out of you. In a role such as a youth worker, in which people bring their issues to you, that means ensuring you have the time to look after yourself.

When we think of Jesus withdrawing, we more often than not think about going to a quiet place to pray. Either in the wilderness, up a mountain-side or in the garden of Gethsemane, it’s easy to picture Jesus getting away from the crowds to spend time with his father. However, these aren’t the only cases; in Luke 4:42 and Matthew 14:13 Jesus withdraws to either an isolated place or a remote area to be alone. It doesn’t mention him going to pray but to be by himself. He was fully human and mentoring disciples, engaging with the Pharisees’ questions and performing miracles would have taken its toll. It’s also interesting to note that both these occasions of withdrawal are interrupted by crowds of people wanting his attention. I think that Jesus knew he needed to find these precious moments to be alone before the crowds found him again.

Experiment (and look after) yourself

Chart your time

Choose a week and reflect at the end of each day. Draw a pie chart and split up how you used each day. Work out when and where you gave time to yourself. Was this quality time? Was it enough? How might you build more time in for yourself next week?

Look after your mind

Take the time to switch your youth work head off by engaging in a hobby. Reading, painting, sport, cooking, board games and video games all help us to switch off and do things that captivate our minds in different ways.

Look after your body

Remember the basics: eat well, move more and sleep enough. Are you skipping meals and breaks at work in order to get more stuff done? This can give you more time when the pressure is on but it can become a habit and won’t help you in the long run. Make sure you not only eat nutritionally but also take the time to stop and eat. Get some exercise, anything from a leisurely walk to an energetic dance around the kitchen will do for starters. Working odd evenings can make having a night-time routine difficult but getting a regular good night’s sleep is key to being ready for the next day.

Look after your emotions

Make sure you have a trusted person to check in with, and make sure you check in with them. It’s easy not to want to bother someone else with our struggles, but sharing is caring to ourselves. Think about it, what advice would you give a young person feeling stressed? Don’t be a hypocrite, if you don’t want young people to hold their feelings in then don’t do it yourself.

Connect with youth workers locally and beyond. Many youth work organisations host groups and spaces where youth workers can connect and support one another. Stay in touch with what’s going on by reading articles in Premier Youth and Children’s Work, attending conferences or linking with other organisations such as Frontier Youth Trust.

Look after your spirit

When our work and our faith are so intertwined it can be useful to think about other things that move and lift our spirit, such as listening to music, visiting a gallery, singing, being grateful. Open yourself to inspiration through arts and culture.