Self-Care Should Start at Work

foot massage.jpg

A few months ago, I was asked to lead a workshop for senior level non-profit staffers. The workshop was called “Self-Care for the Non-Profit Executive.” As I prepared, I found lots of reading material on self-care. Every time I opened a women’s magazine, I spotted an article on self-care. Self-care is a prominent buzz word in the business press as well. There were blogs and articles on regular exercise, eating right, and getting enough sleep. And there were products and services. The right aromatherapy oil or massage was guaranteed to provide optimal self-care.

All this advice is worthy, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with a relaxing massage or a soothing essential oil, but it seemed to me that the things we do to take care of ourselves at work had the potential to be more effective and sustainable than scheduling a massage every time the stress becomes too intense.

Too many people these days are embedded in workplaces (or home routines) where frantic activity has become something of an extreme sport. As executive coach Jerry Colonna has put it, we live with “a work ethos that says, ‘I am not really working unless I am panting.’”

We can invest in self-care outside work, but if our days are still overscheduled and frenzied, we’ll still suffer. That’s why I focused my workshop on ways we can better care for ourselves at work. By making our workplaces more humane for ourselves and our co-workers, by making better use of our time at work, we can create more space in our days.  We can do our work at work instead of taking it home, and then we can feel less frazzled. I offered the participants some guidelines for self-care at work, and I’ll repeat four of them here:

1.    “Can I get back to you on that?” should become your default answer when someone makes a demand on your time and energy. Say “Thank you for asking. Let me check my schedule and see how that fits in with all the other commitments I have on my plate. I’ll get back to you.”

Delaying an answer gives you time to reflect on whether you should say “yes” to that request. Too often, “yes” becomes our automatic response especially when the request comes from a boss or a client or a customer. Of course, it’s not always possible or desirable to say “no.” And sometimes, you want to say “yes,” so how do you evaluate the requests you should accept?

First, think about the relevance of the request.  Is it relevant to the core of your job or is someone just trying to dump a project on you? Is it worth doing, or is it a project that won’t benefit either you or the requester in the long run? Is it something you are uniquely qualified to do, or is someone else just as capable of completing it? If it’s not directly related to your job or it has little value or someone else is qualified to do it, the task is likely to be a distraction, and if possible, you should say “no.”

Second, remember that saying “yes” to something means saying “no” to something else. (Check out my earlier blog post on this topic.) Each time you say “yes” to a meeting, you are saying “no” to time to finish a report or a grant proposal. Taking on a new project may mean you give your existing commitments short shrift. It may mean saying “no” to family or personal time. You may need to consult with your team to have a full understanding of the implications of a commitment for your organization, but before you say yes, stop to evaluate: if I agree to do this, what am I saying “no” to? Take the time to pause and reflect.

Third, if the person making the request is someone you report to, put the ball back in their court. Say, “I have X and Y and Z on my plate right now.  Which of those things would you like me to delay in order to work on this project?” This strategy may not work with every boss, but it often helps refocus your boss on the priorities of your position and your organization.

Fourth, practice saying “no” to small things.  You’ll learn that the world usually won’t end if you say no.

2.    Schedule time for reflection and reflective work.  Not every job requires reflective work, but these days, most jobs do. This is part of your work, and you should prioritize it as part of your work day. Put it on your calendar just as you would calendar a meeting. Maybe that’s a half-day once twice a week or maybe it’s an hour every day, but it’s important to schedule and prioritize thinking time.

Part of the reason we get so frazzled at work is that we spend too much time in meetings and not enough at our desks doing deep work. (Check out Cal Newport’s book Deep Work.)  Not getting the good thinking time we need at work often means that we then take that work home, aggravating our stress levels and crowding out the time with loved ones and the down time that are essential elements of self-care.

3.    Pulse and pause. Make it a habit to spend and renew your energy. If you have to spend 90 minutes in an exhausting meeting, take ten minutes to walk around the block or do some deep breathing. Do some chair exercises.  (Some of the five-minute sequences on Yoga with Adrienne’s YouTube channel are prefect ways to pause during the work day.) Instead of having a short one-on-one meeting in the office, invite the person you are meeting with to take a walk with you.

If possible, get outside for a brief bit. Studies show that most Americans spend 93% of their time indoors, but that spending as little as five minutes a day outside can have a measurable positive effect on your mood and your mental health.

No matter how you choose to do it, be sure to punctuate the work day with pauses that will restore your energy. You’ll be less stressed and more productive.

4.    Find strategies to reduce telepressure. Psychologists writing in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology coined the term “workplace telepressure” to describe our urge to immediately respond to emails, texts, and other forms of communication. The researchers found that telepressure is a major cause of stress at work, which over time contributes to physical and mental burnout.

Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow, author of Sleeping with Your Smartphone, calls this vicious cycle the “cycle of responsiveness.” Once bosses and colleagues experience an employee’s increased responsiveness, they increase their demands on the employee’s time.

“Being caught in this cycle has profound implications not just for our work lives but also for our work processes,” Perlow wrote in Harvard Business Review in 2013. “When we are trapped [in this cycle], we don’t think about better, faster, and more effective ways of working. Rather, we just keep working more and more, perpetuating and amplifying the bad intensity in our work — those unnecessary iterations, the lack of communication and alignment, the last-minute, late-night changes and those weekend ‘emergencies’ that get in the way of doing our best at work and having time for life outside of work.”

 Unplugging from telepressure is an essential component of self-care at work. If you are an organizational leader/manager, be a role model. Don’t respond to non-urgent communications in non-work hours because doing so sends the message that you expect this of others. And if you’re not a manager, try to unplug whenever possible. When you take time to unplug—whether it’s the weekend, a vacation, or simply that scheduled time to do deep work, don’t respond to emails and texts. Don’t interrupt yourself. Close your email and Facebook and Twitter. Turn off notifications for those things on your phone or put your phone in a drawer on silent.

Set realistic expectations with those you work with. Let employees, bosses, and clients know that you are trying to be more mindful of your use of electronic communications in order to work more effectively. I know someone whose email signature includes a note that she does not respond to non-urgent communications after 6 pm or on weekends. On occasions when a client asks me for Saturday or Sunday appointments, I explain that I have made a commitment to myself to model the behavior I suggest to clients by minimizing work on weekends unless it’s urgent. Clients have respected that and planned accordingly. Not long ago one client said that my declining to meet on weekends gave her the permission to protect her own weekend time more carefully. 

(If you’re still so addicted that you have trouble overcoming smartphone use, try an app like OffTime or Flipd that allow you to block some distracting apps at certain times of day and filter your communications.)

What about you? What are your best suggestions for practicing self-care at work? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.