What does self-care look like for leaders?

Published 16th April 2019 by Nickelle Neavin

Self-care is about loving who you are. It’s about treating your wellbeing and happiness seriously. It’s about looking after yourself. 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 responsible for other people in the workplace. And if leaders aren’t taking care of themselves, how can they realistically take care of other people?

Let’s look at four ways leaders can start their self-care journey. Firstly, let’s look at why self-care is so important for leaders.

Why leaders need to practice self-care

Good leaders focus on the needs of others. This comes from the heart. But unfortunately these leaders often put themselves last. Yet strong wellbeing, positivity, health and happiness are so important for leaders to be successful in today’s world.

Why? Because leaders need to motivate and inspire others. They need to keep the ship afloat when things aren’t going great. They need to build consensus among teams, develop people, solve miscommunications, look to the future and create positive change. They need to constantly make tough decisions. And that’s before they start their day job.

To do this properly, leaders need to be in a happy place. What’s leadership like when you’re in a happy place? People fascinate you. You’re open-minded and collaborative. You’re motivated by your goals. But when you’re in a bad place, everything seems to go wrong. People annoy you. You want to be alone. Decisions are impossible to make.

It’s not hard to see that leaders need to be in a happy place to be effective. That’s why self-care is so important. So what should leaders be doing?

1. Keep your energy levels topped up

People management can be the most rewarding part of being a leader, but it can also be the most draining. Why? It requires a heap of skills, such as empathy, listening, delegation, strengths-based coaching – all of which need oodles of energy. And you’ll probably need to combine many of these skills to deal with the situation at hand. You need reserves of energy for when your people need you and so you need to proactively keep energy levels topped up.

Here are your three self-care tips to keep energy levels topped up:

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.
Move the dial on caffeine – no need to go cold turkey, but if you are struggling to think straight at work or sleep at night, just have one fewer coffee or take one day off a week. Start with easy steps. Then go further.

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 your three self-care tips to help you positively self-reflect:

Don’t remember and 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 some exercise to level yourself off

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’, rebooting your brain chemistry and levelling off the highs and lows of your brain’s frazzled state, which is basically overstimulation.

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

You must prioritise 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 run 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 to 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.

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 having a pliable mind, warmed up like a muscle, with easy access to stored information and memories and 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 people management.

Here are your 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 five minutes out or even two minutes. 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, which is why it pays to do some reading and find a mindfulness experience you’re comfortable with.
Do it at the right time – well, there’s no one right time for everyone. But bear in mind that, especially when you begin, it’s much easier in the mornings when you feel freshest. It’s an invigorating start to the day. But experiment. Do what works for you.

Leaders, are you now ready to practice self-care at work? Do you have the confidence? Delve a bit deeper into the first point, energy management, because it’s so important to being a great leader and also living life to the full.

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