Paul Hargreaves, B-Corp Ambassador and professional speaker, explains how self-care benefits not only your mental health but also your business and employees.
Many of the characteristics that leaders tend to focus on relate to our outward behaviour towards others, or around those inner changes that are required for us to be better human beings. If we are not careful, though, we can become too frenetic in our self-improvement journey out of a desire to help others, which can apply too much pressure on ourselves. Without nurturing and caring for ourselves, we will lose the energy to carry on. Burnout is a common phenomenon amongst those who give themselves to others, whether in the caring professions or business; and many of us would do well to be kinder to ourselves in order to be able to give out more effectively. The Cambridge Dictionary Definition of self-caring is, ‘The act of caring for yourself when you are ill or to stop yourself from becoming ill,’ and the fact is that many of us have experienced ill health through not self-caring enough.
I spent several years living and working with a team in a poor urban community in southeast London. When some of the team moved to north London to start another project, a colleague and I decided to give ourselves a semi-sabbatical. We continued with scaled-down versions of some of our previous activities, but for at least three mornings a week, I sat alone in a church hall, reading, reflecting and noting my thoughts in a journal. I discovered a more contemplative part of myself, which had always existed but had been squeezed out by frenetic activity in trying to transform lives in the inner city. I had exhausted myself to the point of burnout; and that time and space proved essential for my starting to learn to look after myself.
Several years later, by now in the business world, I had to relearn the lesson, in a harsher way this time, when my business almost disappeared completely, with me running around like a headless chicken to try to save it. Several years later, I am in a much better place with a good balance of work, reading and writing (intellectual stimulation), relaxation and exercise. Keeping the balance between those four elements is the key to my self-care. I am now more attuned to my body and mind telling me when I am out of balance, through signals that I previously ignored for more than 20 years. If I had learned to listen a little earlier, I probably would have avoided a mild stroke a few years ago.
Knowing our own body is important, and at the peak of our performance. Corey McComb, an American musician and writer, puts this well in his article ‘How to Maintain a State of Creative Flow’: ‘There is still a strong undercurrent in our society, particularly amongst entrepreneurs, that continues to celebrate and glamorize the grind. Just like with conversations around how much sleep is best to have each night, there is an unspoken competition around who can stay in the pressure cooker, working the longest and the hardest.’ McComb quotes Ernest Hemingway, who said, ‘I always worked until I had something done, and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.’ Stopping working when I am still performing well is still something I am learning, sometimes being a slave to my ‘to do’ list instead.
A good balance of stimulation and relaxation of both body and mind is a good way to think about self-care. If you have a physical job, then the body is exercised at work and I would recommend intellectual or creative stimulation as part of your self-care, such as reading or painting. Many more people have mentally stimulating jobs these days, but without any physical component, and they would do well to ensure they exercise during the week and at the weekend as part of their self-care. Relaxation too is important for both body and mind. For the mind, this may be enjoying a novel or watching a film; and for the body, it may mean a hot tub or massage. Holidays are also incredibly important, as being away from our own domestic and work environment allows relaxation to happen on a far deeper level than when in our normal environment.
Now, you may be thinking that some of these nourishing activities cost money that you never seem to have enough of. It is true that neither holidays nor massages come cheap. I would see it as an important role of company leaders to ensure that they are paying everyone enough to have decent holidays and also giving them plenty of paid time off to be able to relax. At Cotswold Fayre, we don’t allow people to carry holidays over or to get paid in lieu, as we believe that we are being a responsible employer by ‘forcing’ people to take plenty of time off. We also have a masseur come to the office from time to time. We have recently introduced work sabbaticals, which gives people even more time off every seven years. In fact, the word sabbatical comes from Sabbath and the ancient Jewish communities would not only have one day off a week and plenty of public holidays each year, but every seven years they would take the whole year off. Now, that’s what I call self-caring.
What is it that stops us self-caring and being driven down the hyper-activity road so fast that we sometimes career out of control and off the road? Simply put, it is often not loving ourselves enough. Now, this isn’t self-love in a narcissistic kind of way, but it’s about knowing that you deserve that gorgeous meal out when travelling on business, or that you don’t need to feel guilty about spending £80 on a massage because your body needs it. Looking after yourself means that you will be better able to give to others later in the week. Clearly there is a difference between self-care and self-indulgence: the latter leads to lethargy and inactivity rather than productivity. For example, allowing yourself to relax in front of a film for 90 minutes, after which you may feel more energised, can be very different to slumping in front of a box set for five hours, after which you may feel less energised and probably guilty too. This is not to say that extended box sets are never right for anyone any time; one day, they may be just what you need to recharge yourself. The worst thing we can do in this area is to set up rules, as it is about knowing your own body and mind, and being disciplined about the food and nourishment you provide to both.
As the Dalai Lama says, self-care is about having a long-term perspective. We are here on this planet for a long time and hopefully have many years in which to create our legacy. Let’s look after ourselves so we are still as effective and creative at 78 as we were at 28.
As a leader, are you ensuring that those under your care enjoy good mental health by being able to relax their body and mind as necessary – and do you pay them enough for them to afford to do so? What are you doing in the workplace to help your people be creative and relax?
Paul Hargreaves is a B-Corp Ambassador, speaker and author of The Fourth Bottom Line: Flourishing in the new era of compassionate leadership.