Self care at work is something that many leaders overlook. In the hustle and grind of the workplace, we often stop focusing on ourselves. Instead, we turn our attention toward making sure our teams and our bosses are satisfied.
However, this can be a mistake. As leaders, we need to be at the top of our game for as long as we can each day. While it may seem selfless and noble to focus on others instead of ourselves, this has the potential to undermine our efforts over the long term.
In this post, I’m going to look at why self care at work is so important for leaders in particular, as well as the damage it can cause when it is lacking. Then of course, I’ll look at some ways you can include self care in your routine.
The Leadership Magnifying Effect
As leaders, we provide direction and leadership to our team members on a day to day basis. This working relationship often involves significant communication and interaction.
This means that our leadership behaviour has a direct impact on the people we lead every day. Our self care doesn’t just impact us. Our behaviour impacts the five, ten or fifteen people we lead every day.
If we’re having a bad day, it’s not just us that suffers, the people around us do too.
But that’s not where it ends. As leaders, we’re also out and about. We’re giving presentations, leading meetings and dealing with other teams and stakeholders.
When we’re not being the best we can be, we’re impacting the people outside of our teams too.
This all has the potential to magnify the impact of our leadership behaviour. When we get angry or stressed, many people feel it. If we’re at our best, our people feel that too.
This can send ripples through the workplace. It really depends on just what type of ripples we are making… are they positive or negative?
Listen to this related Thoughtful Leader podcast episode:
Common Impacts of a Lack of Self Care at Work
A lack of self care at work can have many different impacts. When we aren’t caring for ourselves, we are more likely to feel stressed, tired, overwhelmed, cranky and unhappy. All of these feelings can cause havoc for ourselves, and for our teams.
When this becomes an ongoing pattern of neglecting our self care at work, we are more likely to see some of the following problems.
1. A Lack of Self Care Causes Inconsistent Leadership Behaviour
One of the signs of a stressed, overwhelmed leader is that they show inconsistent leadership behaviour. Inconsistent behaviour comes in many forms, and can be a huge factor in damaging team culture.
It might be that one day you call out bad behaviour, and the next day you overlook it.
Perhaps you emphasise your focus on high quality work one week, and then you forget about it the next.
You might even get angry at your team, when you normally wouldn’t. When you show inconsistent leadership behaviour, your team won’t know what to expect.
This creates the potential for a poor team culture, because bad behaviour goes unpunished. Team members start to feel fearful of how you might react, so they become tentative, walking on eggshells around you.
All this leads to a nervous team who feel uncertain about what to expect. Proactivity will suffer as team members wait to see how you respond on a given day, rather than stepping forward and taking initiative.
2. Overwhelmed Leaders Show a Lack of Empathy
When you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, tired or otherwise unhappy, how focused are you on the needs of others? Probably not much.
I know that when I’ve been at my most stressed in my career, my immediate focus has been on myself, rather than the people around me. This is damaging because your team need your support.
When you are distracted by your own concerns, you’re less likely to show interest in the welfare of others. Empathy suffers, because you are more wrapped up in your own problems than those of your team members.
This can cause a situation where your team members feel like you don’t have their backs. They are less likely to come to you for support next time, because it seems like you just don’t care.
3. A Lack of Self Care at Work Causes Leaders to Lose Respect
I used to have a boss who was really capable, fun and a pleasure to work for. Unfortunately, the pressures of the workplace and toxic behaviours from her own boss caused her to lose confidence.
This loss of confidence caused her to second-guess herself and feel like she was getting things wrong all the time. She ended up working longer and longer hours, trying desperately to fix the problem.
I wanted her to stand up for herself and to back her own capability, but instead she continued to feel worse about herself and her leadership suffered. Eventually I left that job, as I couldn’t see the situation getting any better.
Leaders need to look after themselves. Team members can see when their boss is struggling. When this situation persists for too long, team members start to wonder why they continue to put up with it, and why they don’t fight back.
Making sure you are being the best leader you can be gives your team confidence in your leadership.
How Leaders Can Focus On Self Care at Work
Self care matters for leaders both inside and outside of work. We come to work as a whole person, not just as the label that our job title gives us.
If we had a car accident, family troubles or a fight with a friend, we bring it all to work with us. As much as we might like to, we can’t completely leave everything at the door and stop it impacting our mood and behaviour at work.
To put yourself in the best position to support your team at work, I recommend taking the following simple actions.
1. Get the Basics Right
The basics of self care are simple and you would have heard them all before.
Managing your diet, getting regular exercise, maintaining positive relationships and taking time out to relax are some good examples.
These are really about your life as a whole, not about work. But when we neglect ourselves outside of work, we are more likely to show signs of stress, overwhelm and fatigue that can impact our leadership.
I’m not going to lecture you about the basics. You can find plenty of resources to help you get these right elsewhere. I just thought it would be remiss of me not to include them!
2. Monitor Your Workload and Time Spent Working
Many people believe that because leaders get paid more, they should spend more time at work than everyone else. I believe that this is rubbish.
Leaders are paid more because they have more experience, take on more responsibility and need to stand up and be the face of their teams, departments and organisations.
Working long hours is not a badge of honour. In fact, it’s often a sign that you aren’t managing your workload well, or that you aren’t pushing back on unreasonable demands.
Some leaders actually enjoy working long hours, because it is part of their self-concept. In other words, it’s something they use to define themselves as a person. For example, you may take pride in saying to yourself “I’m a hard worker”. This is fine, as long as you’re aware of the impact this can have.
Questions for Self-Monitoring
One of the best things you can do to promote your self care at work is to monitor your workload, stress levels and working time. Instead of just unconsciously going through the motions, take notes:
- How many hours did you work this week?
- What tasks are sitting on your todo list that just aren’t getting done?
- How are your stress levels?
- Do you feel calm, anxious, overwhelmed?
Over time, you should be able to see trends. Working long hours for an important deadline is OK, but doing it all the time is not healthy and likely to lead to burnout.
If you’re one of the people who says to yourself “I’m a leader so I just need to put up with more crap than anybody else”, I think you’ve got it wrong.
If you have more than three priorities on any given day, I’d say it’s too much. If you are in an environment where “everything is a priority”, well that just ain’t going to work.
Prioritising helps you to focus, and it also helps you feel like you have accomplished something in your day. Unexpected events and issues may pop up from time to time, but this is OK. That’s why you limit your priorities to three – to make room for other things.
When people try to put things onto your todo list, you can negotiate. Which is most important? What can wait? These are important questions to answer.
Prioritising as a daily habit will help you to feel more calm, in-control and competent. It also helps you to monitor your workload and make sure your todo list isn’t getting out of hand.
4. Take Breaks
Taking breaks is another area where many leaders just haven’t got it right. I used to work at a company where all the senior managers had their lunch brought to them each day.
This may sound great, but you know what it really means? It means they are staying at their desk in their office working, while eating lunch. Instead of walking five minutes to the cafe to get it for themselves.
So much research has been done to show that taking breaks is beneficial.
We all know it, but many people ignore it. We feel like working continuously helps us get more done, but it simply means the quality of our work decreases.
I’ll be honest, it really annoys me that so many leaders fail to take regular breaks. If you think you are so important that you can’t get away from your desk for 5 minutes, you’re mistaken.
TAKE REGULAR BREAKS!
And you know what? When you take breaks, it means your team members feel like they can take breaks too. You’re improving productivity throughout your whole team. Cool huh?
5. Know Your Limits, and Know What You’re Getting
Self care at work is all about knowing your limits, so you don’t explode past them. It’s also about having self-respect and knowing what you’re getting out of your current role.
Whenever somebody asks me whether they should leave their current role, I ask the question “What are you getting out of this role, that you couldn’t get elsewhere?”.
This is an important answer to understand. If the answer is “I don’t know” or “Nothing”, then I tell people that it’s probably time to go.
The reason this is so important is that it helps to set boundaries for yourself. If you are working long hours to achieve a promotion and this is valuable to you, then this might be fine.
If you are working long hours for no real benefit or future goal, then you really need to question what you’re getting out of it, other than being able to keep your crappy job.
Respect yourself, respect your limits and understand the choices you are making, and you’ll be on the right track to managing your self care at work.
Self care at work is not something to be sneered at. Your mental health and wellbeing is important not just for you, but for your team too.
After all, if you won’t take care of yourself, who will?