You Can Only Lend a Helping Hand if Your Hands Aren’t Full

Self-care is so important. I think we’ve all learned that in one way or another over the past year. We’ve also learned that there are a lot of different types of self-care: responsibilities to ourselves (eat right, get exercise, sleep the right amount), doing fun things (eat your favorite food without thinking about calories for once, splurge on the thing you’ve been eyeing for a while), and recognizing and respecting your limits (take a mental health day, avoid energy vampires, learn when to say no).

I want to look at a related scenario: recognizing when you’re actually in a good place right now, and finding ways to help the people who aren’t.

If you aren’t in a good place right now, put on your own mask before helping others with theirs. (The metaphor isn’t great during COVID… don’t touch others’ actual masks.) If you aren’t in a situation where you can add to your plate, this post is not about you. Come back to this when you’re ready. Stop reading, put on a lo-fi playlist, and have some hot chocolate.

If you look around right now and think, “I’m feeling pretty good right now: I’m not overwhelmed by my workload, responsibilities, or emotions,” that’s great! You’re in a position to offer to help out your colleagues who don’t currently feel that way. Don’t forget, though: these feelings come and go. Next week you might find that your workload is piled high again. In a couple days, you could take stock and realize, “This is too much for me right now.” And that is totally fine. You have moved into the previous paragraph, and should join them until you’re ready to come back. (I hear they have hot chocolate. Maybe they’ll share.)

Before you start looking for opportunities to help others, I want you to promise to do the following:

  • Protect your own boundaries. People who volunteer for everything, I’m looking at you. (And at a mirror, because… been there, done that.) If you try to help with everything, you’ll quickly overdo it and wind up needing more help than you can give. That is not the goal here.
  • Protect your energy. Along those same lines, don’t pick up tasks that drain you. If there’s someone you find it emotionally taxing, don’t volunteer to work closely with them.
  • Protect others. Make it clear that you aren’t making offers on behalf of the library, your colleagues, your supervisor, your direct reports, or your successor whenever you leave your position. Protect future-you as well: make offers specific to avoid getting stuck with an ongoing responsibility you weren’t planning on.

Now that I know you’re going to continue to take care of yourself, here is some guidance for offering to help your coworkers out of a tough time:

  • Don’t babysit or nag them. You are not taking it upon yourself to decide what they can and cannot handle. If they decline your offer, it is declined. This doesn’t mean you can never offer again, but don’t bug them constantly… that is adding to their plate, not removing from it.
  • Know their preferences about offers. Some people like their schedule or to-do list to stay as it was when they came in that morning, or when it was set weeks ago. Others welcome the opportunity to make last-minute changes. Know who falls into which category and time your offers appropriately.
  • Know their preferences about tasks. The same concept applies to the tasks and schedules you’re offering to help with. I think of Friday afternoon reference shifts as unappealing. As the person who makes the reference schedule, if I took that shift from someone to help ease their burdens, but they think of that shift as protected time to work on something else while reference traffic is slow, I’ve caused a negative effect where I thought I was causing a positive one. (Even worse if I gave that shift to someone who dislikes it… Now I’ve made things worse for two people!)
  • Be specific. This falls under “protect your own boundaries” too: Make an exact offer so the parameters are known. “I can help you plan that workshop when you’re ready,” could come back to bite you if “when you’re ready” happens to coincide with a time when you suddenly get busy with other tasks. “I can meet with you this Thursday afternoon to plan that workshop,” makes it clear that the offer does not necessarily stand for other days or weeks, or even this Thursday morning.
  • Make it about you (a little). This is confusing advice, so let me clarify. A person who might say no to, “Do you want to take a break? I can go for a walk with you if you like,” might say yes to, “Would you like to go for a walk with me? I need a break.” (This is another time to know their preferences though, because some people might say yes in an attempt to help you, even though they are swamped.)
  • Spread out the pain. If you’re in a position where you make schedules or assign tasks, try to share the load across as many people as possible. Don’t always schedule the same person for the busiest shift (unless they prefer it for some reason). If there’s a difficult or annoying ongoing task to be done, rotate the responsibility for it in an equitable way.

A lot of those depend on knowing things about other people that they may not share readily. Personally, I’m always going on about how much I love to make a PowerPoint or take notes during a meeting, so people ask me to do those things and I’m happy to. Others aren’t as obnoxious as I am about their favorite work tasks, so if you don’t know… ask! Communication is always better than assumptions.

Don’t forget to ask when you are the one who needs a hand. If you’re the person who offers when others need help, you’re more likely to get a positive response when you need it. (Which is not the only reason you should do it, but a nice perk!)

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