I recently went on a vacation with my husband and daughter. Before leaving, I made a radical decision: to actually go on vacation. I was explicit with my team that I needed to be quiet and peaceful in order to return healthier, which meant I wouldn’t be opening email, responding to texts, or answering phone calls. I left my phone in the hotel room. I was direct in my out-of-office response about my intentions, making no apology for delayed responses. Much to my surprise, I got overwhelmingly positive reactions from colleagues and coworkers about my decision to fully commit to vacation.
It should not be some glamorous, revolutionary act to fully disconnect or to invest in healing and personal care. As leaders, we must demonstrate and uphold this behavior as exemplary. Additionally, we must allow and encourage our staff to mirror our behaviors and commit to their own acts of restoration, and we must respect their boundaries in the meantime.
Ten years ago, my self-care practice was virtually non-existent. I would regularly lose sleep over work, and I expended an abundance of mental energy stressed about office problems. I went a year without a single restful 8-hour night of sleep, lying awake worried about the days and weeks ahead of me.
In December 2017, my younger sister died unexpectedly at 47 years old, shortly after my father was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. As my father’s situation progressed, my husband and I became his primary caregivers. He moved in with us, and I watched him grow weaker, more feeble, and more dependent upon us. We grew closer, we laughed, we cried, and my attention was diverted from what I thought was non-negotiable (work) to what was actually non-negotiable: my family. My father died after nearly a year battling cancer in August 2018. I realized again and again that the relative importance of life’s responsibilities shifts significantly when you remember we all die. I made the decision to commit to my healing and building a practice of self-care, while encouraging my team to do the same. Because of this, I humbly extend a few lessons learned to fellow leaders, working women, and anyone who needs a reminder of what really matters:
Take advantage of every opportunity to create and practice a boundary
Work to retrain yourself and your staff on vacation etiquette. If a colleague is out, remember to give them space and allow them to respond in their own time rather than bypassing polite out-of-office replies with text messages or phone calls. If you’re an executive, practice boundaries as a model of healthy and productive behavior, and give people permission to create boundaries for themselves. I schedule workouts and grief counseling on my public calendar and it is understood that time is sacred. I want my team to know taking care of themselves physically, emotionally, or spiritually is acceptable and encouraged. Don’t let care be the last item you get to, or get to only if there’s time. Schedule in non-negotiable activities and treat them as though they are as immovable as client or team meetings — they should be.
Remember you are only one part of a larger team — you can actually assign things to other folks and let it be
Executives especially need to remind themselves that they are one player in a team sport. Trust your team to take care of what needs to be done while you are making space for yourself, and, in turn, they will know the same is true for them. When we collectively rely on colleagues and remember we are not alone in the efforts of your organization, things shift quite naturally into balance. Encourage healthy relationships and shared responsibilities by simply asking your colleagues what they need or how you can help.
Allow yourself to single-task
Give yourself permission to focus wholly on the tasks at hand during the work day. Leave your phone at your desk when attending meetings with colleagues. Ensure your colleagues know you see them, hear them, and are listening to them. The constant distraction of screens in our work life can leave us feeling frayed and unable to focus, which, in turn, makes us feel guilty when we attempt to narrow our focus to self-care and restoration wholeheartedly.
Protect your time and use it efficiently
Continue to ask yourself if things are a worthy investment of your time, and protect your time. I’ve turned a lot of in-person meetings into calls, and a lot of 1-hour meetings into 20-minute meetings. Not every person that wants to meet with you needs to sit in front of you, in-person, for an hour or more. It is okay to be discerning and create boundaries with meeting time. Protect your “working time” as opposed to “meeting time” so completing tasks does not cut into every weekend and evening.
Give your team time off during the holidays
To me, this is the simplest self-care win, especially if you have single-handed decision-making power. Use it as an acknowledgment to your team that it’s okay to take time off to be with family, to sit around in pajamas, and to rest. Commonly, people worry about the “loss of productivity” by giving this time off to employees. I would argue that the benefit of a fully restored, rested staff far outweighs the few lost hours of productivity.
It is important we pursue strategies that allow for fully realized self-care practices for everyone in our organizations, regardless of their status or title. We deserve joy, rest — and to protect time in pursuit of joy and rest. I implore fellow executives to be unrelenting in the protection of their joy and in the extension of that protection to their team. To succeed at work, we must necessarily take care of the person doing the work first.
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