Can Strong Work Ethic and Self Care Co-exist?

Strong work ethic & Self CareI’ve got a muscle spasm in my neck.


I’ve had severe pain in my neck for about a month and it refuses to go away. Instead it has spread at times to my back and shoulders. I’ve done ice, I’ve done heat, I’ve gone in for massage therapy, I’ve taken pain relievers and muscle relaxers, and I’ve used Tiger Balm like it’s going out of style. I’ve exercised and done rehabilitation stretches. And while I have found immediate relief with all of these treatments, the pain returns.

In the past, when I’ve had a muscle spasm like this flare up, I’ve gone to see a doctor. On two occasions in recent memory. (Unfortunately, not recent enough to still have some Flexeril left for this round.)  The first question the Doctors always ask is, “Did you do something that caused the initial pain?” And the second is, “Are you currently under a lot of stress?”

“Do you know what caused the initial pain and are you under a lot of stress?”

This time, I know what caused the initial pain. And it’s bumming me out, because the tying part of tie dye (you know, my job) is the cause. And while there are exercises I can do to prevent the injury from reoccurring when I return to tie dye, I can’t get my muscles to return to their normal state currently. Why? Because of the answer to the second question my doctors pose. Stress, as my doctors have explained to me, keeps my muscles in spasm. They react like that because of a perceived threat, and they won’t recover until stress is reduced.

In other words, my muscles can’t recover until I recover.

And because I know the questions and the answers, I’ve not seen a doctor this time around. As much as I’d love some Flexeril to help relax these muscles, I know the real long-term solution is to reduce stress in my life. Easier said than done, right?

Why this Whole “Self-Care” thing is Difficult for Me

You see, I come from a long line of incredibly hard workers. A strong work ethic was instilled in me as far back as I can recall, and I know my family has a lot to do with that. I’ve also worked for employers and with coworkers along the way who have exemplified that same strong work ethic. I think of a family business in Southern California that took me on when I was a naive nineteen year old fresh out of rural Washington. Or a coworker who worked tirelessly to pioneer a nonprofit in Hawai’i that would help people with disabilities experience the beauty of their island.

Having grown up with a strong work ethic, I tend to gravitate towards others who also work hard. I mean, it’s no surprise that my husband is the hardest working man I’ve ever met, and that my closest friends are also very committed, hard workers in all they do. I personally find immense value in a hard day’s work and doing a job well. This is a huge necessity (and asset) as a business owner.

However, the downside to this strong work ethic is that sometimes I don’t know how to rest. In fact, I despise resting… I judge myself as lazy and unproductive whenever I stop to breathe. When I come to the end of a work day and I haven’t accomplished as much as I had originally set out to accomplish, I get pretty down on myself. So instead of resting and getting reenergized so I can be more productive on the morrow, I exhaust myself with guilt over what I should have done. Sometimes I stress eat. Okay, most times I stress eat. I love food, OKAY???

Ain’t Nobody Got Time Fo’ Dat

As you can imagine, I’m a wreck when I’ve got physical impairments keeping me from what I consider a hard day’s work. Guilt is not simply unproductive, but counterproductive as it adds stress and stress prevents (or at least prolongs) healing. And so the cycle goes until I finally take the time to recover. To really rest and recuperate. Not keep trying to get back to tie dyeing because I’ve got work to do. Not just mixing dyes or just tying a couple things. That’s not resting. That’s not reducing stress. That is strain and it will not help!

(Repeat after me: Rest reduces stress! Rest reduces stress!)

I guess I need to figure out how to work stress-reducing activities and preventative care measures like stretches and exercise into my daily schedule. But… I don’t have time to rest. I don’t have time to exercise. I can’t afford to do those things this week – I’m vending at an outdoor market this weekend and need to add 50 items to my inventory! Sigh. Even now I hear that still small Jiminy Cricket voice inside saying, “You can’t afford to not rest and take care of yourself.”

Can a Strong Work Ethic Coexist with Self Care?

YES. Most cultures around the world have at least one day of the week that is a “day off.” Most employers recognize that vacation days actually help employees do their jobs better before and after they return from a vacation. Overtime is a term because governments recognize the dangers of too much work and too little rest. Self care, it would seem, is actually part of a strong work ethic.

So why is it so difficult? Maybe it is the perceived judgment from others. Maybe it is the “keeping up with the Jones’s” nature of social media. Maybe it is the deadlines. Maybe it’s that all of our value is wrapped up in what we do rather than who we are. But as difficult as self care may be, it is apparently crucial to maintaining that strong work ethic we’ve worked so hard to preserve. Therefore, let us throw away any fears of judgment and recognize our humanity. Let us take the time we need to rest, let us throw off the guilt that tends to creep in and steal our joy in resting, and let us work hard when it’s time to work. Finally, let us not only work hard, but also learn to play hard. (Or rest hard, whatever the case may be.)