The COVID-19 global pandemic has left us feeling isolated, insecure, and struggling to find motivation. We fear for our health. The economy is shutting down, and unemployment is at record highs. At the same time, our nation continues to grapple with race and equity issues, as we watch Black people, immigrants, and people of color subjected to violence, while our government ― at all levels ― wrestles with demands for systemic change.
In these uncertain times, taking care of our mental well-being is that much more critical. Yet it’s clear that when left to ourselves, many of us do not undertake self-care. Our understanding of care and what we need is dramatically impacted by personal resource constraints, our perceived lack of time, and beliefs that deem self-care as a sign of weakness.
Organizations that invest in personal and group self-care strategies are helping build leadership skills within their employees, increasing their resilience in a volatile, uncertain, and complex work environment.
That’s why organizations need to go beyond providing coverage of only physical health through healthcare insurance, and invest in structured programs and policies that support self-care as a way of day-to-day life. Some assert that paid vacation time and sabbaticals are part of an organization’s self-care toolkit. But the reality is that these benefits also put the burden on employees to take, and pay for, their self-care.
Organizations that invest in personal and group self-care strategies are helping build leadership skills within their employees, increasing their resilience in a volatile, uncertain, and complex work environment. Holistic self-care helps people perform at their highest levels, prevents burnout, and leads to greater clarity in decision making. Interpersonal skills also improve, which makes for a better work environment.
Anese Cavanaugh, who’s an author, leadership advisor, and creator of the Intentional Energetic Presence Method, makes the case for understanding self-care as a way of being and a set of skills that can be learned. She asserts that by adopting a mindset that responds to chronic stress, employees are better able to avoid burnout. They cannot be effective if they are running on fumes. Self-care isn’t a one-time pampering; rather, it is a series of habits that promote preventive health.
Going deeper, psychologist Rick Hanson talks about the three parts of the brain: The oldest part, the reptilian brain, is about helping us avoid harm and keeping us safe; the mammalian brain helps us understand incentives and how environmental cues shape our approach to rewards; and the primate brain is about healthy and supportive attachments. When we look at our biology and hardwired needs for security, satisfaction, and social support, we begin to understand that the fulfillment of our individual needs is inevitably tied up in our connections with others. (This is what makes physical distancing so difficult as a COVID-19 response. We literally are going against our own nature.)
Some organizations have built meditation rooms and wellness lounges and sponsor meditation groups, knowing that this practice can contribute to a person’s overall physical and mental well-being.
If we accept that self-care helps employees act and perform like leaders, and that self-care is maximized in the context of a supportive community, then it stands to reason that organizations should invest in supportive policies and programs that help employees fulfill core needs. The Leader Self-Care Project, an initiative I founded that provides skills training and strategies to organizations seeking to support employee self-care, maps the core needs of security, satisfaction, and social support onto strategies that individual employees can do on their own and strategies that an employer can sponsor.
What might these strategies look like? Some organizations have built meditation rooms and wellness lounges and sponsor meditation groups, knowing that this practice can contribute to a person’s overall physical and mental well-being. In the nonprofit sector, there is a growing movement to support grant-funded sabbaticals for executive directors, so they can take time to recharge, reflect, and return to work with new vision and energy. Google famously started a “20 percent time” policy, advocating for employees to spend part of their workday on side projects that could benefit the company. The time and space to think and reflect in different ways is an important form of self-care, and the policy has resulted in new product ideas for Google.
With the pandemic allowing so many people to work from home, organizations can offer other forms of self-care support for employees. Routines like building in break time during the day, for example, and encouraging employees to use this time for nonwork activities, which can be as simple as walking, reading, or talking with coworkers, can help employees destress. Organizations can ask employees what onsite and online classes they are interested in ― yoga, meditation, painting, learning a new language ― and then offer them at various times to accommodate schedules. Virtual water cooler conversations and sponsored support groups for parents provide important points of social reinforcement and connection. From organization-sponsored mindfulness groups to providing space for creativity, these paradigm shifts in self-care can help an organization build leadership capacity in employees.
COVID-19 has taught us a lot about what we need as humans ― that self-care is a necessity. Organizations can choose to create spaces and promote learning that empowers employees to meet their core needs, thereby making them feel more secure, fulfilled, and connected. By expanding our understanding of self-care, we are taking our first steps toward putting the employee at the center of an organization’s success.