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A science-backed answer to whether or not you should prioritize self-care over caring for others

Busting the myth of putting your own mask on first (if you’re not on an airplane).

A science-backed answer to whether or not you should prioritize self-care over caring for others
[Source photo: Stewart MacLean/Pexels]

Although working conditions for most humans have improved dramatically over the past century—jobs have become less physically demanding and more employers care about their employees’ work-life balance—there is still much room for improvement.

For example, in the U.S., nearly 20% of the adult population reportedly suffers from a mental illness (the global figure is 15%), and an estimated 83% of the U.S. workforce is affected by stress, which causes 120,000 deaths per year.

According to Bloomberg, the global wellness market is now worth an astonishing $5.6 trillion. Many organizations offer individual wellness benefits such as gym membership, healthy food, meditation apps, and even paid time off in an attempt to combat this epidemic.

However, recent scientific research suggests that typical organizational interventions to boost their workforce’s mental and physical well-being may not be effective.

Among recent trends to boost employee well-being, few are as salient as the growth of self-care cultures, in which employers urge staff to look after themselves, and engage in better practices and habits to prioritize their own mental and physical health. On TikTok, #selfcare has surpassed 28 billion views, and there is now an International Self-Care Day and Month.

There is a clear logic to encouraging people to look after themselves, not least since the main part of the world we can impact, change, and are responsible for is ourselves. But an interesting question that arises is whether self-care should be prioritized over caring for others. The answer is a nuanced one, with some important counterarguments to consider.


The modern world is already quite selfish and narcissistic, with a range of preoccupying symptoms manifested in work environments, making entitlement, individualism, and self-centeredness far more common than altruism, humility, and empathy.

In this context, encouraging people to focus on themselves seems like throwing gasoline to the fire, and legitimizing rather than combatting a culture in which not just workers, but also citizens, are coming farther and farther apart.

In this unashamed celebration of individualism, people are repeatedly told that they should not worry about what others think of them (as opposed to trying to understand how they impact others). They should follow their own values and beliefs (as opposed to being tolerant or open to those who think or feel differently). Now, they must focus on their own well-being (rather than caring for others).

This so-called “Darwinian” approach to life was not even prescribed by Darwin himself, who noted that groups with the highest proportion of altruistic and prosocial people will always outperform those in which selfish and individualistic people abound.

Adam Smith, who is often glorified as the sort of kingpin of greed and individualism, saw empathy and caring for others as the foundational piece to both economics and human morality:

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”


In a reversal of the commonsensical assumption that we can’t help others unless we first help ourselves, there is much evidence for the fact that one of the best ways to help ourselves is to focus on helping others.

Eastern religions, philosophy, and spirituality have always emphasized this, from the Buddhist notion that compassion and selflessness are the means to true happiness, to Mahatma Gandhi’s belief in selflessness and service as a path of spiritual fulfillment, personal growth, and well-being (“the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”).

But modern science backs this up, too. For example, academic studies show that providing social support to others significantly predicts lower mortality rates and more longevity in the person offering that help. The act of giving support to others has notable health benefits, potentially even more so than being the recipient of support.

Across all cultures (not just the more individualistic West) spending money on others is linked to higher levels of well-being than spending it on yourself.


Prioritizing self-care over care may imply that organizations don’t care enough about their workers, making it the employee’s problem rather than a leadership or cultural problem to solve.

This is no different from when (well-meaning) diversity and inclusion interventions encourage underrepresented or low status individuals to “bring their whole self to work,” as opposed to providing the conditions that make those individuals feel safe to do so, without negative repercussions, if they actually feel like doing it.

Working adults don’t need to be treated like children, in the sense of being hand-held into better well-being practices and habits. Rather, their well-being is more likely to improve if management practices can proactively nudge, push, and incentivize the critical changes that may drive wellness improvements in their employees. In that sense, organizational care for employees must always surpass employees’ own self-care, at least at the collective level.

Alternatively, we may see a widening of the gap between conscientious, health-oriented, informed, and self-controlled employees on the one hand, and those who are not as lucky, and much more dependent on others’ support, on the other.

It is not that you must first care for yourself to have time or bandwidth to care for others. Rather, caring for others is a great way to care for yourself, not to mention create a culture and environment in which others—not just you—will have a chance to thrive.

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