The weight of the world: Taking care of yourself as a leader when the pressure’s on

Right now, your shoulders are probably feeling a bit heavy. No wonder. 

Between taking care of your people (often remotely) and deciding the best route forward when the map keeps changing due to a global pandemic, it probably feels like someone has shoved an extra couple of sandbags on your back as you try and lead through a sandstorm.  That VUCA acronym for describing conditions in which we lead? It’s on steroids right now. 

I get a front row seat to the extra pressure that leaders are currently under due to my role as a leadership coach. So this week, The Leader’s Digest is all about taking care of those who take care of others. You.

What can you do when you’re leading yourself and your team through a sandstorm with the weight of the world on your shoulders?

Put a hard line in the sand when it comes to boundaries

As the lines between work and life become more blurred (especially as we work from home more), it can get real messy, real fast. You might be juggling parenting with working or finding that you’ve got to work some strange hours to get everything done. 

Now, more than ever, it’s vital that you create as clear boundaries as you can between work and your personal life. This will look different for each person. It might be getting clear on your ‘hard stops’ for the day’s work, making a dedicated space for work, or adopting the mantra “this is enough for today”. One leader I know even swapped out his commute with a short walk around the block to signal the transition to work mode. What can help you be fully present for work stuff, then fully present for your loved ones? Little techniques can help – even being aware or conscious of which mode you are in, and when, can be helpful. 

Communicate clearly to your team what steps you’re taking to create work/home boundaries and encourage an open discussion about what boundaries look like for them. You never know, sharing ideas could help you all pick up new ideas on how to do this. Give yourself the permission and space to stop thinking about work, and to enjoy the time you have with those in your bubble.  

Don’t forget to schedule in mini breaks throughout your day too! Research tells us that breaks make us more productive, more creative, more motivated, and better at making decisions. Focus @Will is one of my favourite productivity hacks and the music can be set for 45 mins to signal a time to get up and take a five minute break. 

Take care of your body

Good sleep, exercise, eating healthy, yaddah yaddah yaddah… Yeah, I know. We’ve heard it all before, but that stuff works. I’ve found my daily f45 class at 7am and making like a nanna and heading to bed at a reasonable time during weekdays might make me a bit boring, but it makes all the difference to my ability to get sh#t done and be a better person as I do it. You do you, but ask yourself, “How can I move my body each day, get enough sleep, and eat some greens (with some treats too because duh!) in a way that works for me?”  Your body, mind, and your team will thank you for it. 

Stay connected

When things get overwhelming, it’s tempting to isolate or withdraw from those who care about us. You might find the lure of your phone more appealing than a conversation or connecting with a loved one.  But it’s precisely at these moments that connecting with people is most important. The research is overwhelming on the benefits of this. 

Who in your life fills up your tank and makes you feel better? Reach out to them today. Take the time to connect with friends, or spend fun time with your family that isn’t just telling off the kids for interrupting your latest meeting. 

Recognise the subtle signs of burnout

If you’re struggling right now, keep an eye out for some of the early symptoms of burnout. The early symptoms of burnout can be easy to misdiagnose – hyper productivity, a reluctance to take holidays, over-conscientiousness, an ‘always on’ vigilance and an inability to switch off. In some cases, these symptoms are viewed positively in work cultures. 

However, there are three ‘red flags’ which can give you hints that you might be on your path to burnout. They are: 

I’m pretty passionate about helping organisations and people stamp out and overcome burnout. Recognising the signs is a big first step to do that. 

Share how you’re feeling with your team 

Research from U.C.L.A. suggests that putting your feelings into words can help you become less stressed over something that bothers you. As you talk through your experience, you both verbalise your feelings and process what happened, meaning you can continue to deal with any challenges without the same emotional reaction you might have initially had. This is easier for some people to do than others. But the research shows us that there’s little benefit to keeping things bottled up. 

What’s more, sharing how you’re feeling with your team is a fantastic way to destigmatise mental distress in our workplaces. I’m not talking about collapsing into pools of tears all the time. But having the courage to be vulnerable has shown to increase trust in leaders. If others who are lower in the organisational hierarchy can see that it’s ok to be open, they’re more likely to be open about their own challenges and to seek help. The more senior you are in your organisation, the more impactful this will be. 

Research shows us that burnout is contagious. If, as a leader you’re burnt out, your team are more likely to become burnt out as well. So, talking about how you’re finding things is not only great for you, it’s great for your team too.

Kick that harsh critic to the curb

Most of all, remember that you’re doing the best you can with what you have. That’s more than enough. Right now, it’s tough going as a leader. You’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty and trying to do right by your team. Leading well means leading yourself, before you lead others.  And that means modelling the setting of boundaries, taking care of your body, staying connected, and showing yourself, as well as others, some compassion.

If you haven’t already, why not grab a copy of my book Beyond Burnout? You’ll find actionable tools and practical tips for individuals, leaders, and businesses of all sizes, while learning how to recognise the signs of burnout, and how to treat it. Buy your copy here.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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