Being a leader* who promotes self-care.

How can you encourage the self-care of others?

Quite some time ago, I was asked to write about how leaders* can promote the self-care of those they work with. (Apologies to the reader who asked me to do this, for how long it has taken me to get to this). I had so much to say about this topic that I needed to organize my thoughts.

*IMHO we are all leaders in the sense that we all have a zone of influence on others. Let’s not think of leadership in a hierarchical way. Instead, I encourage us all to think about the places in our lives where we have an influence.

First, you care! Congratulations!

Heidi Klum clapping and jumping in celebration on America's Got Talent while confetti falls.

Let’s pause a moment and celebrate everyone who wonders how they can promote and encourage the self-care of others. Just by wondering, you are already taking huge steps in the right direction and swimming upstream against our productivity, efficiency, performance, and achievement culture. This is not small potatoes. This is a BIG DEAL that deserves some celebration.

By wondering how you can encourage and support others’ self-care, you are already likely creating a huge change in your group or organization, and that’s fabulous.

Leaders need not have perfect self-care.

Second, it’s important to know that you don’t need to have “perfect” self-care (Spoiler: No such thing exists) in order to encourage the self-care of others. In fact, you don’t even have to value self-care yourself to value self-care in others. You can have terrible self-care and still make space for and promote the self-care of those around you! If we all waited until we had things “figured out,” we’d never get anywhere. Self-care is a journey, not a destination.

What The West Wing taught me about leadership.

Character C.J. Cregg from the show The West Wing saying "It sounds pretty straightforward" at the podium of the White House press gallery.

From The West Wing where I learned the saying “a fish rots from the head,” which emphasizes the importance of leadership in an organization. If leadership is [insert negative thing here], it will trickle down to the rest of the organization and its people.

On the flip side, leadership has a powerful position to influence the positive behaviour of a group/organization as well. Leaders send critical messages about what’s important and valued.

It is important to note that unspoken messages seem to matter most when it comes to self-care and wellness. For example, in my lab’s research on training programs for professional psychologists, participants appear to place more value on the organizational norms and “hidden curriculum” to interpret how much their self-care is valued. That is, no matter how many Wellness Bingo** cards and lectures people receive about the value of self-care, if their organization is run by workaholics who drown their leadees (is this a word?) with too much to do, people will conclude all the talk about self-care is meaningless. The fish rots from the head, after all. Actions mean a lot more than words.

**If you know, you know.

Step 1: Ask, converse, and reinforce.

So you care, you understand that you don’t need to have the world’s best self-care (which doesn’t exist) and you understand that you set the tone (fish rots from the head) and that your behaviour will be more important than what you say. Now what?

The first step to any organizational culture shift is to make the invisible visible. You must begin talking about self-care to promote and encourage self-care in others. You need to ask about others’ self-care and discuss your self-care journey (the good and the bad). You need to create genuine, substantial space for these conversations to happen and listen to what the people around you have to say. And when people engage in self-care you need to support, praise, and reinforce that behaviour. It needs to be acknowledged as hard to do.

Remember, that’s only the start.

As I said, there is so much to say about this topic – I promise there will be more to come! And if you are a leader* who starts more conversations about self-care with the people you influence, I’d love to hear how it goes.

In self-care solidarity,