Are You a Self-Care Avoider? How Leaders Can Trick Themselves into Loving Self-Care

Jun 07, 2023 4 Min Read
Strategies for Leaders to Embrace Self-Care and Cultivate Personal Well-being

It was an incredibly common story, told with an unusual twist. In a small-group session on burnout, Maggie, a powerhouse female executive with fiery red hair, was sharing the challenges she had with her own self-care. Ironically, Maggie is a leader whose big heart overflows into everything she does. Her organization advocates for people with disabilities, and her staff includes many team members with physical and cognitive challenges that mirror the population they serve. What we discovered in the session is that the love and gentleness Maggie is able to gift to others effortlessly is something she’s completely unable to give herself.

“One of my team members has lupus,” Maggie shared. “When they need an hour or two to build back their energy, it’s automatic for me to give them that break. It would feel incredibly wrong not to, and they are able to give so much more when they have taken care of themselves first. Yet when I need even the smallest moment to step away to regroup, I feel guilty. I’m always reminding others to take time off, but I don’t take my own. I push myself hard to achieve our goals while I hold theirs softly.”

Maggie is an archetype I meet all the time. Her deeply ingrained, and perhaps generational, perspective on work ethic drives her hard. But her hardwiring conflicts with her intellectual awareness that her human capital is a resource to be nurtured and supported. She truly believes (and has read the studies to support the fact) that rest, sleep, self-care, balance, and ease translate into more creative, engaged, and productive team members. But inside her own head, she can’t escape the work-martyr voice telling her to do more and go harder.

There’s a concept I introduced her to called “permission signaling.” Think of it as a cousin to “virtue signaling,” but instead of telegraphing your own virtue—like how well-read you are or how charitable you are—you telegraph permission to others by giving it to yourself; in this case, it’s permission for guilt-free self-care.

I’ve learned that self-care needs a catalyst—a burst of energy, a willingness, or even a health scare that nudges us to the yoga class, the afternoon nap, or the boundary-setting coffee break. 

Read More: 30 Self-Care Strategies To Avoid Burnout

For many executives like Maggie, the push that motivates self-care is elusive. But permission signaling creates a powerful mental reframing. When you think about your own acts of personal self-care as critical signals to others to practice self-care, you actually motivate yourself to take those acts. 

This lens holds immense potential for transforming your organization’s culture and seeing your own energy rise and the mood around you lift. Here are four ways you might “signal” this permission: 

Discover: Trust: The Corporate Wellness Initiative of the Future

1. Talk openly with your team about self-care and your goals to incorporate them into your routine. Being transparent about your goals can motivate you to get started. At a small-group meeting or one-on-ones with one or several colleagues, talk briefly about your self-care culture, your own needs, and how you can support one another. You can even plan a weekly or monthly check-in to see how people are doing and reflect on your experience. Remember that when you do anything good for yourself in the public eye, you give others critical permission to do the same.

2. Take breaks during the workday (and show them off). Act as a role model by taking short breaks throughout the day, making time for an actual lunch break, or going for a short walk-and-talk meeting if you’re in the office. These permission-signaling moments will boost your productivity while creating norms for everyone around you. 

3. Set and respect boundaries. If you’re sending emails late into the night or over the weekend, this can signal that you expect the same from your team. Instead, make a conscious effort to confine your visible work activities to working hours or whatever protocol your team follows. Signal to everyone—including yourself!—that disconnecting is expected and valued. 

4. Be yourself, and be vulnerable. We all know that each of us is a whole person with friends, family, interests, and a life beyond work. But often, we feel we need to close off that part of ourselves. Opening up, however, makes us better understood and lowers stress through the beauty of deeper interpersonal connections. Experiment with showing your personal side, therefore giving others permission to do the same. 

When I think about Maggie and all of us trying to “practice what we preach,” it reminds me of how imperfect we all naturally are and how perfection is not the goal in mental health. Humanness and the acceptance of our energy limitations is the state we are striving for, and permission signaling is a wonderful way to allow others to join us at that level.

This article was also published on Juliet Funt's LinkedIn.

This article is also available in Chinese.

Edited by: Irfan Razali

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Juliet Funt is the founder and CEO at JFG (Juliet Funt Group), which is a consulting and training firm built upon the popular teaching of CEO Juliet Funt, author of A Minute to Think.

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