Invest in your wellbeing to become a healthier, happier and more effective leader.
In short bursts, this kind of compromise may be acceptable or even necessary – say, when a long-awaited new product is being rolled out, or in the early days of setting up a new office from scratch, or during a major transition. However, I am realizing that in the longer term, this is not sustainable. The cost of self-neglect is extremely high, impacting your physical health, peace of mind, relationships and quality of leadership.
This is why at Ndiema we have defined ‘Whole Self’ as one of the pillars of our employer brand – because we truly believe that unless you can be your best, whole self, you won’t be able to bring your best to work. Our people policies and practices are aligned to encourage this as much as we can.
So, this week, my message focuses on how self-care can transform your health and leadership for the better.
The effects of self-neglect include:
- Lack of alertness and energy. A poor diet and sleep routine reduce focus and create constant fatigue.
- Compromised decision-making. Sleep deprivation, in particular, takes away from your ability to prioritise, respond appropriately and handle crises – all key components of leadership.
- Increased physical health risks. A lack of exercise and nutritious food, combined with overwork, dramatically increases your risk of serious conditions.
- Poor mental health. Without adequate self-care, you become more vulnerable to mental health issues (such as anxiety and depression), which are worsened by workplace stress.
- Weakened relationships. Lacking rest and renewal, you bring your worst self to loved ones. Be it your partner, kids, parents or friends, all relationships demand attention and authenticity, which are severely compromised when you’re exhausted.
- Limited innovation. Research shows that feeling tired and emotionally drained traps you in a fight-or-flight mindset, making it tough to think creatively and come up with imaginative solutions.
- Setting a bad example. By not taking care of yourself, you are indirectly telling your team members that it’s okay to ignore their personal wellbeing. Following your lead, they will be more likely to overwork and burn out.
- Lacklustre leadership. When you’re overwhelmed and stressed, your behaviour towards team members tends to be less than ideal – snapping, shouting, missing important signs, forgetting to celebrate achievements – due to a lack of mental bandwidth.
In How Self Care Can Improve Your Performance as a Leader, the author explains that self-care is strongly linked with your ability to inspire and manage people effectively, making it a crucial practice for leaders:
Ignoring the needs of one’s mind and body hurts one’s ability to think, focus, and help others in need. Conversely, engaging in self care boosts the mind, body, and spirit, which lifts those in proximity up as well…. leaders who practice self care will have more energy to help employees. With enough rest and restoration, leaders can prioritize their workload to set aside time for helping others, honing these crucial leadership skills. With a workforce committed to self care, everyone benefits – and so does productivity.
For a while, you may be able to pull off working relentlessly at the expense of your own wellbeing.
At some point, the cumulative damage catches up in a way that cannot be ignored, like a nervous breakdown or heart disease or a broken relationship. Instead of waiting for something drastic to happen before you take action, start making self-care a way of life.
As Amy Jen Su explains in 6 Ways to Weave Self-Care into Your Workday, published in the Harvard Business Review, genuine self-care comes from a place of love, not harshness:
Self-care can feel daunting or unattainable. But the intention is not to add more to your already full plate, or create a reason to beat yourself up. Self-care doesn’t originate from judgment…. Instead, self-care flows from an intention to stay connected to oneself and one’s overall mission: Who and what can support and be in service of the positive contribution I hope to make?
What are some steps you can take to start looking after yourself?
Here are seven self-care investments that you should consider:
1. Create windows of renewal
Block periods of “me time” in your schedule, which do not involve laptops or smartphones. Use this time to think, laze, paint, meet friends, stroll, play a sport, read…any activity that gives you joy and renews you.
2. Start small, now
How many times have you made up your mind to begin working out, eating better, meditating, etc. – starting tomorrow? Don’t wait for the perfect conditions; instead, start immediately. Spend just five minutes a day doing something good for yourself, like stretching, making a smoothie, deep breathing, or sitting in a green space. Increase this duration slowly until you reach a number you’re happy with.
3. Optimise your workspace
In the article mentioned above, Amy Jen Su advises updating your work zone as a means of self-care:
Your environment and workspace can have a significant impact on productivity. Gain more mental clarity by cleaning up your desk. Put up pictures, artwork, or images that inspire you or remind you of the people and things that matter. Your workspace should feel like a reflection of your best self.
4. Track your health
Like you follow weekly sales figures and know your KPIs by heart, you should also get familiar with your key health metrics, like cholesterol and blood pressure. Schedule regular check-ups to know what’s good and what needs attention. As an organisation, we are committed to helping you take time to address physical as well as mental health issues. It’s one of the reasons why we introduced unlimited sick leave – because you can’t put a number to when you fall seriously ill.
5. Recognise warning signs
Watch out for indications of burnout in your own behaviour: irritability, impatience, cynicism, significant changes in eating and sleeping habits, and inexplicable aches and pains. If you notice these signs, act immediately and ensure rest and recovery. Look out for these red flags among your team members as well.
6. Incorporate restoration into your routine
While it’s important to make time for self-care outside the office, don’t overlook opportunities for renewal during the workday. Simple things can help replenish your reservoir of energy and focus: hold walking meetings, choose healthy meals over junk food at the cafeteria, step out for coffee with a colleague, and read or listen to music instead of staring at your laptop during your commute/business flights.
7. Create a self-care strategy
To build a better quality of work and life in the longer term, you need a plan. Reflect on where you are, and where you’d like to be. Which areas of your wellbeing are getting neglected? Which workday habits are taking the worst toll on your health? What is one wellbeing goal you’d really love to achieve over the next six months? Build a realistic strategy for yourself, based on your workload and personality.
As a busy leader, you may put self-care at the bottom of your to-do list. But looking after yourself isn’t a luxury, and it shouldn’t be an afterthought. As Executive Director of The Jane Group, Jane Perdue puts it in Combining the Power of Self-Care and Leadership:
Many of us spend lots of time on work and too little on ourselves, thinking self-care is something for self-indulgent sissies. That’s a thought to let go of. Years ago, when I mapped out what I wanted from life, being a statistic for heart disease wasn’t on the list. Had I been as diligent in learning about self-care as I was about leadership, I could have avoided becoming a heart statistic.