What does expanding self-care beyond the self look like? by Renate Lunn

We’re fortunate this week to have this post from Renate Lunn, the Training Supervisor at New York County Defenders Services in Manhattan. Previously, she was a staff attorney with The Legal Aid Society in New York City. In this post, Renate offers wonderful insights and wisdom about the importance of broadening self-care to include caring for others. This is especially important for leaders and supervisors.–Jenny

“How do they do it?” I ask myself trudging back to the office from court. As a supervisor, I’m fortunate enough to have a low caseload. Nonetheless, whenever I go to court for my own cases or someone else’s, something happens to a client that makes my heart pound, my teeth clench, and my mind swirl with angry rants.

If I feel these biological changes on the occasional times I’m in court, what is happening to the bodies of my colleagues? How do they manage every day? How did I manage life as a trial attorney before becoming a supervisor? Now that I’m a supervisor how can I support my team?

I’m grateful to Jenny Andrews and David Klaus for addressing these questions on their website BeSustained.org and blog posts. In our community, we talk about stress and burnout in spurts usually in response to a crisis— whether a trauma or the crisis of attrition in an office. Jenny and David are making sure we pardon the pun, sustain the conversation.

I first explored the effects of stress and trauma on me and my practices in a series of blog posts about 3 years ago, here, here, and here. Recent events, including a new role as a supervisor, have caused me to revisit my thoughts on how public defenders deal with trauma.

I’ve become more critical of the term self-care and propose that we expand self-care beyond the self. Implied in the phrase itself is the notion that the person experiencing the trauma, stress and fatigue bears the burden of responsibility for fixing it. Although trauma is caused by power structures that cause systemic injustices, “self-care” implies the solution is for the person crushed under the weight to push it off of herself. Or rather to create a magical, flexible bubble where her empathy can radiate out but the sorrows and rage only trickle in at a manageable rate.

It’s unrealistic to put all our individual selves in charge of protecting ourselves from this broken system. We need to support each other and management needs to support staff. Jenny has started referring to burnout as moral injury, “because it stops placing responsibility for solutions on the individual,,.and recognizes that systemic obstacles are the true causes of much of the chronic stress that we are experiencing.”

Also embedded in the concept of self-care is a certain privilege. The privilege of having everything else in your life in place to allow you to take care of yourself. In my conversations about the unique stress of public defense, I have often forgotten that not all public defenders have the same home lives and outside resources. Some have more economic worries than others. Some take care of loved ones outside of work hours and might not have the luxury of having family that can pick up the slack at home while they indulge in self-care. The exhaustion from dealing with mircroagressions that people of color encounter intersects with the stress of the job in ways that the bubbliest of baths and a scented candle can’t relieve.

As a supervisor, simply suggesting self-care is irresponsible, as it sounds like it absolves me of any responsibility for ensuring that my workplace supports its staff.

So what does expanding self-care beyond the self look like?

Group-Care

Supporting each other is vital. Or as @PrisonCulture succinctly points out on Twitter: “the only way to sustain the *self* is to collectivize care. #fin”  Group self-care includes: participating in a text chain that starts with someone saying, “my client just died and I don’t know what to do with my grief,” letting someone ugly cry in your office, or babysitting your officemate’s child. The Facebook group Public Defense Zen is a great place to connect with supportive defenders around the country.

Direct Supervisor-Care

As a supervisor, it is easy for me to forget what life is like with a full caseload. Without the reminders of the risk of moral injury in our jobs, I risk offering simplistic and unrealistic advice. It’s important for those in management to spend time in the courthouse and client meetings. In addition to fostering empathy with staff, management can see the structural challenges that leadership might be in a position to ameliorate.

In one-on-ones with the attorneys I supervise, I ask them how they are taking care of themselves to do the work in the long haul and how I can support them. It’s tough balancing keeping a professional distance and supporting what happens in the time away from the office that allows people to bring their A-game to the office. Usually people just tell me about their gym routines, which leads to more office small talk about the gym and some positive peer pressure. It also demonstrates that I care enough about my colleagues to want to work with them for many years to come.

As a supervisor, I also avoid sending emails and texts to colleagues during off hours. If I remember something I want to share in the evenings, I type up a draft, but don’t send it until the next morning. Jenny has exhorted the benefits of turning off the work phone on evenings and weekends.  

Public Defense Senior Management Care

We need to make sure folks running defender offices provide health insurance that covers therapy, and support making time to attend therapy on your lunch hour is supported.  Offices can provide when possible a space to decompress or meditate. My agency, New York County Defender Services, has a wellness room where mothers can pump and anyone who needs to can take a cat nap or meditate in a massage chair for a few minutes.

Achieving pay parity with prosecutors and making sure that staff earn enough money to thrive in this job without taking on second and third gigs is essential to fostering resilience. No one in a public defender office should stress about paying bills.

Eating healthy, having a #ThirdThing and taking bubble baths are great and all, but they are not enough. We need to expand our concept of self-care to include caring for each other.

–Renate Lunn

Please reach out to us if you would like to write a post on public defense wellness. We welcome your contributions.

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