Why Leaders Need to Prioritize Self-Care

/ Christine Andrukonis

As we head into the third month of the pandemic, professionals are continuing to adjust their daily schedules, goals, and lifestyles. Everyone is working through new challenges: working parents are balancing childcare with non-stop zoom meetings, city couples are struggling to create two at-home ‘offices’, people living solo are battling loneliness – and then there are the frontline workers and patients themselves, who are fighting entirely different battles.

In this pressure-cooker environment, if you’re a leader you may be tempted to work overtime to be present for your team. But the truth is, your employees are looking to you as an example of professional and personal balance. If you don’t give yourself permission to take a break and prioritize self-care, your staff won’t do it either, and then the whole company will experience burn-out. Being a dedicated, ambitious professional is what brought you to a leadership role to begin with. But if you’re not careful, it can be your Achilles heel in times of extreme change and uncertainty.

Recently, some of the most successful companies out there, have not only encouraged time away from the computer –  they’re mandating it. Google required every employee to take a day off this week. Twitter and Square recently announced the option to work remotely permanently if it was a better fit for a staffer’s lifestyle. Everyone needs a little TLC, no matter where they fall on the corporate ladder.

We spoke with Amy Cooper Hakim, Ph.D., an industrial-organizational psychology practitioner about the value of saying ‘no’ and how to ensure you don’t forget about your mental health during a crisis. Here’s her advice:

Step 1: Give yourself permission to set boundaries. 

Pre-pandemic, setting boundaries was likely already a difficult task. But with so much uncertainty surrounding every aspect of our lives, Hakim says it’s even more challenging. This is particularly true for leaders who are expected to be flexible and open to quick changes.

However, Hakim says this perpetual availability can be unhealthy. Rather than considering what you need, as a human, to be successful, you put the organization’s goals first. While this may make you feel effective, Hakim says for ultimate productivity—and your own mental health—having clear boundaries is necessary. As leaders and managers, taking the time you need to disconnect and recharge allows you to return to work with a renewed perspective. And it sends a clear message to your employees that self-care is essential.

Step 2: Schedule time for yourself daily. 

Though your calendar feels overpacked already, there is likely a critical block of time missing: the ‘you’ hour. If you can’t manage 60 minutes, even half-an-hour or 15 are worthwhile, according to Psychology Today. It may feel unnecessary to add an event on your calendar, but Hakim says if you do, you are more likely to hold the appointment. “Just like you wouldn’t cancel a meeting with a client or your boss, you shouldn’t cancel your self-care meeting either,” she explains.

During this self-care, do whatever you need to calm down, give your brain a break, and tune in to your needs. While some may opt to take a walk or listen to a meditation podcast, others may choose to FaceTime with a friend or loved one. The key, says Hakim, is to remind yourself that you matter, too. “Don’t feel selfish about taking time for yourself. After all, we cannot care for others if we do not first care for ourselves,” she adds.

Step 3: Practice good sleep hygiene. 

Sleep is a basic human necessity. Although we may ensure our loved ones get enough rest, Hakim says that all too often, we fail to hold ourselves to the same standard. Part of prioritizing self-care is paying attention to your sleep hygiene. Generally speaking, adults need between seven to nine hours of sleep. “Even if you function for a day or two on a handful of hours, you’ll ultimately crash physically and emotionally,” Hakim warns. As a leader, you may feel so stressed that it’s difficult to fall asleep at nighttime. To help with this, Hakim suggests limiting screen time two hours before bed, take a warm bath, going for an evening stroll, or watching a funny television show. “Make a rule to avoid discussion about stressful topics before bed. If you can’t get rid of an idea or thought, write it down and commit to addressing it the following day,” she continues. “The act of writing down your worries transfers those concerns to paper so that you may rest more easily.”

Step 4: Decide on your boundaries, communicate them, and commit.

Before you can set boundaries and prioritize self-care, you have first to figure out what that means to you. For some, it could be taking a day – or even a few hours —  off to make dinner or exercise. For others, it could be blocking out time between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., so you can feed, bathe, and get your children to bed. While working remotely—and during an unpredictable time—it’s easy to feel the pressure to be working 24/7. Hakim says that’s a fast way to burn out. Instead, she suggests defining your personal boundaries, communicating them to your team and clients, and then remaining committed.

One suggestion that could be particularly beneficial right now is deciding how often you and your team are going to show up on video during conference calls. It’s true that, logging on to a video chat can help you feel more connected to your team and clients. But after many weeks of this habit, the pressure to be “on” can become exhausting. Figure out a balance – it’s important to see your colleagues regularly, but constant video may not be essential. Occasionally, you and your team may decide to skip the video in favor of an audio meeting – particularly when you’re just having a fast catch-up or debrief. You can encourage your team members to make their own decisions regarding video, and respect their choices as a form of self-care.

This year, it’s more important than ever to commit to using your Paid Time Off days. Encourage your people to do the same. Other solutions include a rotating ‘on’ and ‘off’ calendar that allows everyone to step away from their desk when they need a break. “Share that you are available between certain hours of the day and that you will respond to any emails or voicemails sent while on your break by a specific time the following day, then everyone can be on the same page,” Hakim recommends. If it’s necessary, you can also create an ‘on-call’ list with your team and rotate schedules so everyone has a chance to turn ‘off.’

As a leader, you owe it to yourself and your people to prioritize self-care and model work/life balance as best you can. If you establish your boundaries, commit to them, and continue to communicate with your people about what they – and you – need to avoid burnout, you can maintain the stamina you’ll need for this indefinite journey.