Welcome Wellness - Watching our thoughts: shall we shrink the “shoulds?"

by our Wellness Officer for Psychiatry, Deirdre Conroy, Ph.D. 

These past few years have brought no shortage of challenges. How can we focus on wellness when we’re dealing with such intense workloads, a global pandemic, unpredictable childcare needs, and many other personal responsibilities in our private lives? What if there was a tiny step towards wellness that doesn’t cost any money or require any time?        

I have spent time over the last year on a “listening tour” during which I have zoom-visited with many of our faculty and staff and their teams. We are all juggling so many responsibilities on top of a new work environment. This new environment merges home and work and as a result, our roles and identities can shift from one moment to the next. Whether we are working from home or are reporting to the hospital floors every day, many of us have reported feeling obligated to work while sick and to respond to emails ASAP at any time of day or night.

Examples of feedback I have heard sound something like: “I’m at home anyway… I should still get some work done even though I’m sick.” or “My supervisor sent me an email in the middle of the night and since they are working, I should respond to show them I’m available too.” or “There is such a shortage of healthcare workers right now, I should be there to support my colleagues and patients.” 

A common word spread throughout many of these responses is “SHOULD.” We feel we should be doing more, responding faster, staying longer. Admirable! However, the word “should” can often be a red flag that can lead to other less than pleasant emotions, actions, or inactions. Sometimes “should” statements in our thoughts are used when criticizing ourselves or other people. We might also use “shouldn’ts,” “musts,” “oughts,” or “have tos.” When our thoughts contain “should,” this can trigger negative emotions, including guilt.  While guilt can sometimes motivate us, it can also lead to more negative emotions or shame.

Guilt = the fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, especially against moral or penal law; culpability; a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined. 
Example: "I did something bad."

Shame = an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. It's an emotion that affects all of us and profoundly shapes the way we interact in the world.
Example: "I am bad."

When we push ourselves because we feel we should or because we think that we’re a bad person if we don’t, we may experience health or mental health challenges down the road. In addition, the way we think can affect our actions and, ultimately, how we interact with our teams and how satisfied we feel with our jobs.

The good news is that we can modify our thoughts and expectations of ourselves. For example, a quick strategy to try is the semantic method. Simply substitute language that is less negative and emotionally loaded in your mind. Instead of telling yourself “I should be working when I’m sick,” you might say, “I’m sick and I’ve decided to not work.” Perhaps your body will recover faster?

We’re all working hard to support and improve workplace wellness. A good example is our department's policy of no expectation of email response after-hours. We can all start modeling wellness by taking time away from work when we’re sick or setting team expectations of no immediate responses to email unless specifically requested. Your body and brain will thank you!   

Additional Resources:
There are multiple resources listed on the Wellness Office website. Please also find our own Depression Center Toolkit, specifically Self-Help Strategies and Complementary Strategies and Coping at Work.

Feeling Good: New Mood Therapy - David D. Burns, M.D.  

Daring Greatly - How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead - Brene Brown, Ph.D.



View all of Dr. Conroy's articles on the Welcome Wellness homepage.