SLP Self-Care Tip: Take Time Off

If you listen to your body whisper you won’t have to hear it scream.”

Self-care is one of those terms that’s thrown around a lot with a variety of meanings. I can’t say if any meaning is really “wrong,” but to me self-care is less about self-indulgence and more about self-nurturing or even self-regulation. Just as an example: While I would love to treat myself to a healthy egg white omelet (self-indulgence), I know I’d feel sick afterwards because I have a sensitivity to egg whites (self-care due to my food sensitivities).

Before I was diagnosed with a sleep disorder I was a bit of a workaholic. I worked up to 60 hours each week and for good reasons: I found so much meaning and fulfillment from my job, my co-workers needed me, my patients needed me, and I like to give 110% to everything I do.

Since my diagnosis I’ve had to accept that I need to prioritize my health over all those considerations. When we don’t get enough sleep our brains and immune systems don’t work as well. It took me more effort than I like to admit to accept these facts and to adopt time off into my self-care regimen.

I know I’m not the only SLP whose struggled with this.

Some of us SLPs work in schools, others work in hospitals, and yet others (like me) work in private practice. Some of us treat adults, others treat children. Some of us primarily treat swallowing disorders, others primarily treat voice disorders, others primarily treat aphasia, others Autism Spectrum Disorder, others phonological disorder, and yet others primarily treat fluency disorders, but most of us treat a variety of these in a given day or even with a single patient.

While SLP is a field of variety, one thing that we all have in common is a heavy workload. SLPs are under-staffed around the world. Every country has waiting lists upwards of 4-years-long. We’re expected to see as many patients as possible in as short a time as possible and to stay professional while doing it. Private practice SLPs in the USA are being pushed to change from 5 to 6 hour-long appointments each day to 10 to 12 half-hour appointments because we’re reimbursed differently from our Occupational Therapist and Physical Therapist peers: while insurance companies pay them a set amount for each 15-minutes they spend with a patient they pay us the same amount for each appointment, despite the appointment’s length, and it comes out to less than what OTs and PTs get when they see patients for 45-minute appointments. This has resulted in a doubled caseload and, therefore, doubled paperwork for us SLPs.

As the school year starts and so many school-based SLPs return to work after a much-needed break I’m reminded of the fact that we still need time off to rest whether we’re feeling worn out or outright sick. I know this can be incredibly hard when faced with incredible caseloads, limited paid leave, and even limited pay.

That’s the line I had to draw for myself as an SLP with a sleep disorder: even though I don’t like taking time off when I’m feeling unwell (even when I’m not contagious because it’s my allergies or sleep disorder that are getting to me) it’s better for my health and, therefore, better for all the considerations that make me hate doing it (my patients, my workflow, my routine, etc.).

This was all highlighted in the “Hacking Stress” CEU course I took from ASHA. My favorite part of the course was the story about a competition between 2 lumberjacks. While competing to see who can cut down the most trees in an allotted time the first lumberjack notices the the second keeps sitting down. The first lumberjack thinks he’ll surely win the competition because the second is taking so many breaks. But in the end the second lumberjack has chopped down more trees. The first lumberjack asks the second how he did it since he kept sitting down and the second says, “I was sitting down to sharpen my axe.” I remind myself of this analogy every time I take time off: I’m sharpening my axe!

So, as a result, I’ve given myself 3 weeks of each year and I schedule them 17-weeks apart. Since I’ve started doing this I get sick less often and usually feel like I’m at my best (though I always feel top-shape the first week back from a break). I rarely take off holidays because they usually fall on Mondays and Fridays and it’s unfair that the kids scheduled on those days get less treatment than the rest. Best of luck to anyone else struggling to accept the necessity of time off!