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  • Vanessa Barajas, MPH

Self-Care for Leaders

Self-care is about loving who you are and looking after yourself. It’s about treating your wellbeing and happiness seriously. That means taking active steps to live a healthier, happier life. It’s important for all people at work, because without wellbeing, we can’t thrive. But it’s especially key for leaders, because they’re role models and supporters for other people in the workplace. And if leaders aren’t taking care of themselves, how can they realistically help other people?

Let’s look at five ways leaders can start their self-care journey.

1. Keep reserves of energy

Being a leader can be rewarding, but it can also be draining. Why? It requires several skills, such as empathy, listening, delegation, strengths-based coaching – all of which require a ton of energy. And you’ll probably need to combine many of these skills to deal with most situations at work. You need reserves of energy for when the team may need you and so you need to proactively keep your energy levels up.

Here are a couple self-care tips to help you maintain high energy levels:

  • Respect your need for sleep – whether you need eight hours or six hours, or whether you need to wind down before bed or can just fall asleep instantly, listen to your body and be true to it.

  • Carve out your time – as a leader you feel you need to be all things to all people, all the time, but you’re human. Close down your emails when you need to. Let people know you’re taking a break. They’ll respect you for it.

2. Self-reflect on things that didn’t go so well

Leadership is a lifelong marathon of learning. It’s kind of like parenting: you make the best, most informed decision you can at the time. But when situations don’t go the way you want, it can be scary. You find yourself dreading similar situations in the future because you don’t feel confident handling them. Self-reflection is the key to getting through this fear, because unless you know what exactly went wrong, how can you develop the required skills to cope better in the future?

Here are three self-care tips to help you positively self-reflect:

  • Don’t try to remember every detail of the event and self-reflect at the same time – you’ll miss important details, such as how you felt towards yourself and others and what everyone said. Write down key information as quickly as possible so you can look over it later with a free mind.

  • Give yourself actionable conclusions – analysis is great, but how will it help when you face a similar situation? Bring it back to two questions. What do you need to do differently in future? To do that, what do you need to learn or practice?

  • Don’t ruminate – there’s a fine line between reflection and rumination. Remember you’re on a lifelong journey. Be positive and seek to understand why something happened and how you can avoid it in future. Don’t focus on the situation itself.

3. Get into some type of exercise

One of the unavoidable facts about leadership is being pulled in loads of different directions at all times. Of course, this is what makes it challenging and exciting, but it can also lead to that frazzled feeling at the end of the day which can be hard to shift. Exercise is a great ‘reset switch’, it reboots your brain chemistry and brings balance to a frazzled state.

Here are three self-care tips to help you exercise most effectively:

  • You must prioritize it – exercise, like hobbies, quickly falls to the bottom of the to-do list when you’re busy, which is ironically when you need it most. Make it a priority, a non-negotiable part of life.

  • Make it a habit – even if you stretch for two minutes, do something. To be an effective de-stressor, exercise must become a habit. Building it into your daily existence is key, rather than seeing it separate from your routine.

  • Enjoy it – it’s very easy to have a fixed mindset on what constitutes ‘good exercise,’ but just because your colleague goes to the gym, this doesn’t mean it’s for you. It’s not great for your wellbeing if you have to drag yourself kicking and screaming. Choose something you actually enjoy. It could be yoga, or a walk around the block or at a community garden.

4. Do mindfulness for a solid foundation

Mindfulness is, of course, good for everyone, but for leaders it’s especially important because it helps generate ‘headspace.’ What is headspace? It’s a state of mind open to new experiences. It’s about living in the moment and experiencing it with confidence, with lots of energy stored up ready to use. These qualities are, of course, essential to effective leadership, particularly decision-making and leading a team.

Here are three self-care tips to help you use mindfulness effectively:

  • You won’t feel like it – when your mind is racing at a thousand miles an hour, you won’t feel like taking time out to simply ‘be in the moment.’ This is normal and natural. To help you begin, just commit to taking two or even one minute. In time, you’ll look forward to it.

  • Make it work for you – there are lots of preconceptions around what mindfulness should or shouldn’t be or do. Whether it's a sitting meditation, an eating meditation, or a walking meditation, find what works for you.

  • Do it at the right time for you – when you begin, it’s much easier in the mornings when you feel freshest. It’s an invigorating start to the day. With that being said, the morning isn’t an ideal time for everyone so explore when practicing mindfulness is a good time for you.

5. Experiment with self-care routines

Self-care routines can be incorporated throughout your entire day, both at work and at home. However, many leaders neglect this, partly because there's a misconception about what self-care really is, but also because leaders see this as a luxury that they simply don't have time for. Reframe how you think about self-care.

What self-care should include is any activity that improves your emotional or physical well-being. Think of it as an investment you're making in yourself and your team members, because the research on this is clear, that improving your well-being can boost your mood, energy levels, focus and even your ability to be empathetic. When you are stressed, your effectiveness as a leader is diminished from your decision-making abilities to your productivity and focus levels.

Take micro breaks throughout the day every few hours to:

  • Sit at your desk and shut your eyes for a few minutes

  • Meditate or practice breathing exercises

  • Go for walks for fresh air, coffee or stop by a colleague’s office

  • Stretch

  • Watch a funny video

  • Listen to your favorite music

  • Do a crossword puzzle

  • Read a chapter of a book you're enjoying.

Leaders, are you now ready to practice self-care? It's time to change the belief of overwork as being a badge of honor. The new badge of honor is in caring for ourselves so we can better care for others and show them it's okay for them to take care of themselves.


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