The Importance of Self-Care for Leaders

“A stressed-out CEO is not going to be an effective CEO.”

Nabil El-Ghoroury

A tenet fundamental to our company is that the health and success of an organization starts at the top, with the executive team. Over the years, we have worked with many high achieving leaders who have impeccable work ethic and determination. They often pride themselves on being able to work harder and longer than other people and can sometimes value their worth by how much they can accomplish. However, although proactivity and endurance are essential to leadership success, too much of it can put you into overwhelm mode which isn’t beneficial to you or those you lead. 

With the unrelenting demands of modern companies, so many executives are tired, stressed and approaching burnout, which we’ve seen trickles down to the rest of the company. When you go nonstop you don’t give yourself time to rest and recharge, which is essential for optimal brain function. According to Joseph Bienvenu, a psychiatrist and director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital, busyness has become a widespread health issue:

“Emotional distress due to overbusyness manifests as difficulty focusing and concentrating, impatience and irritability, trouble getting adequate sleep, and mental and physical fatigue.”

As a leader, it’s easy to think that 15 hour work days are the key to success. However, if you are able to dedicate more time to take care of yourself and chill out, you’ll be more centered and better equipped to lead your people effectively. 

Self-Care Practices

So what does self-care look like? You don’t have to get a massage or a facial (although those are both nice things to do if you’re into it) to take care of yourself, and self-care can look different for everybody. Maybe it’s a run or yoga in the morning, maybe it’s practicing meditation at the end of a busy day or maybe it’s just turning off your phone and for a few hours every day. At it’s core, self-care is about cultivating practices that allow you to rest and recharge and that are wholesome- good for me, good for you, sustainable. Here are some self-care practices to try: 

Relaxation & Rest

Unnaturally, relaxation and rest get a bad rap in our culture of busyness. Many of us unfortunately think that by allowing ourselves time to relax and rest we are wasting time, or even being lazy. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Neuroscientists used to believe that the brain was essentially inactive when we were doing nothing. However, recent research has revealed that idleness actually supercharges our brains. According to researcher Andrew Smart, idleness means “a healthier, happier, more creative brain.”

“How we spend our non-working hours determines very largely how capably or incapably we spend our working hours.”

-Berti Forbes

Also, when we know how to relax, we become safer, more approachable people. The people we lead feel that they can talk to us. We are more predictable and more stable. Conversely, if we are tense and tight, our body contracts, our mind contracts, and we are less flexible in general. Do you want to work for a leader like that? Of course not.

Presence

Nabil El-Ghoroury, CAE, executive director of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, has a Tibetan “singing bowl” in his office that he consults when he needs a little self care during the day. When he’s feeling stressed out, he takes a small hammer, taps the bowl, and uses the soft hum as an opportunity to let his mind reset and return to the present moment. “I’ll hit it just to remind myself to slow down,” he says. Although not everyone has a singing bowl in their office, this small presence practice allows him to reset and focus more effectively and you can achieve this same sort of self care through other equally accessible presence practices that rely on reconnecting with your breath. 

Time in Nature

Spending idle time in nature has amazing restorative powers, and neuroscientists and psychologists have documented the value of walks for stimulating creative insight, and of time in nature for restoring emotional balance. Taking a walk outside is also a great opportunity to practice presence!

Exercise: Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

Silicon Valley consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, says exercise is one of the best ways to restore the mental energy we need to perform at peak levels.“There are so many people who find that a workout, a long hike, clears their minds, helps them calm down, gives their subconscious mind opportunity to think through problems,” Pang told Scientific American. “What all of that teaches us is that exercise is a really important form of rest.”

Sleep

There’s no better and easier way to take care of yourself than allowing yourself to get enough sleep, and when we’re busy this is the first thing that tends to go. However, all of the research points to sleep being an essential and important restorative process for our minds to work optimallly. In fact, many researchers have found that REM sleep is particularly important for performance. For example,in a study looking at anesthesiology interns and anesthetists, researchers found that after a couple of weeks of having night shifts or on-call duties, their work performance declined significantly. Not only that, but a sleep deficit of less than an hour per night led to declines greater than those seen in comparable groups tested in a sleep lab, suggesting that scientists may be underestimating the consequences of sleep loss in the real world. 

Many leaders think that they don’t have time for self-care.  However, it’s probably not that you don’t have time, but that you don’t make time.  Schedule some non-negotiable “me” time on your calendar and make it an appointment with yourself that can’t be cancelled. The better you take care of yourself, the better you will be able to show up for the people you lead. 

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