The best leaders and managers are all about taking care of their team—that’s what makes them great. It’s a big responsibility that’s added on top of the business goals and targets that every manager owns. It might seem like this level of care is all about being “selfless.” But that’s not really how it works.
The most successful leaders and managers are those who understand the importance of taking care of themselves. And managers who don’t make time for self-care inevitably run themselves ragged.
If you’re suffering from burnout, you can’t be fully available for your people (our post Everything You Need To Know about Burnout At Work explains why).
In this guide, we’ll explore the importance of self-care for managers and leaders, along with our tips for developing a healthy, mindful, self-care system for yourself.
What is self-care?
The term “self-care” probably brings to mind dimly-lit moments of relaxation or maybe a morning run—and that’s not necessarily wrong. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
Self-care is about doing right by yourself and being your own personal advocate for your well-being. It’s having your own back.
There are many kinds of self-care, but as a whole, it refers to the activities and practices that we deliberately choose to engage in on a regular basis to maintain and enhance our health and well-being.
Deliberately choose. On a regular basis.
It’s not a one-off or once-in-a-blue-moon thing. To reap the many benefits, self-care needs to be a regular part of your daily life. Like your muscles, the more consistently you exercise your self-care habit, the happier, healthier, and more resilient you’ll be.
Why is self-care important for managers and leaders?
Every professional athlete treats training and recovery as two sides of the high-performance coin. They’re every bit as serious about recovery as they are about the hard work of training.
The same applies to you as a manager. If you try to stay in performance mode 24/7, your effectiveness diminishes over time. But if you invest in your recovery—if you take care of yourself—you’re available and effective for your job and your people.
Quite simply, self-care is not only necessary for your ongoing physical and emotional wellness, it helps you become a better leader. It’s hard to offer pastoral care and strong, compassionate leadership when you’re running low on energy, motivation, and mood.
In Stress and Its Relationship to Leadership and a Healthy Workplace Culture, the researchers write, “If a leader experiences stress, neurotransmitters and hormones are released and the leader may experience a short period of increased focus and reaction time. But if the stress exists for a long enough period of time, there will be negative consequences. Characteristics of these negative behaviors include (a) lack of listening, (b) over-analysis, (c) failure to make decisions, and (d) erratic, fearful, or angry emotional decisions.”
None of those things make for an effective leader. By taking care of yourself, you’re better able to provide consistent support to your team and colleagues.
What self-care can do for you (and your team)
Self-care has a domino effect. The benefits to you will also be felt by those around you. And there are many. A consistent self-care regime can help you:
- Regulate your energy levels and build resilience, making you better able to handle the stresses of life and work.
- Become more mindful, compassionate, and happier, helping you stay positive, be available to others, and enjoy life more.
- Become more consistent in your leadership, instead of letting moods affect how you work with others.
- Set a good example for your people, modeling the things you need them to do for themselves.
- Get more done, to a higher standard, achieving your objectives with less friction and inefficiency.
Those aren’t small things, they’re big. Big enough to invest in.
What does self-care look like for managers?
If you’re in charge of people, you already promote self-care to your team. (You may have even read our blog on Creating a Culture of Self-Care in the Workplace.) Now it’s time to apply those principles to yourself. Here are some of the different types of self-care, along with tips on how you can incorporate them into your daily routine.
Types of self-care
A huge part of self-care is understanding the connection between your mind and your body— not just intellectually, but experientially.
Take sleep, for example: we all know sleep is important for health and well-being—but when you’re trudging through a workday after a sleepless night, you experience the link between sleep and mental well-being on a much more visceral level.
In that same vein, if you take steps to care for your body’s needs on multiple fronts, you can experience a very real increase in mental well-being, sharpened focus, enhanced energy, and many other benefits that add up to an overall better, happier way to work and live.
Here are a few fundamental pillars of physical self-care to incorporate into your day:
- Build a rest routine. This starts with setting up a realistic, consistent sleep schedule—but it doesn’t end there. Making time for short, re-energizing 20-minute breaks for rest can reignite dwindling energy levels in the latter half of the workday.
“The thing I prioritize above everything else is sleep.”
-Lebron James, in the ‘Train Your Mind’ Masterclass in Calm
- Get moving. Movement can be a major casualty of deskbound life. If your job has you staying in front of a screen for most of the day (or even if it doesn’t), taking time for short bouts of walking or stretching can break up your day, give your mind time to process what you’re working on, and physically refresh you.
- Consider food an investment. “Eat well” is easy enough to say, but we know work and life tend to make things more complicated. Plan for including highly nutritious, low-effort foods into your daily routine. Getting the right micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals into your body—and avoiding the unhealthy foods that slow you down—can vastly improve how you feel throughout the day.
Management and leadership can be heavily emotional jobs. You’re asked to lead your team towards a common goal, to support them in times of stress, and to be emotionally present enough to recognize when they’re struggling (often before they do). All while juggling your own responsibilities and external pressures. It can be a lot.
On top of that, many managers feel like they can’t show their emotional struggles. Leadership can feel like you have to hold yourself to an impossibly high standard for the sake of your team—to be the one who’s “always okay” for those who aren’t.
But in reality, the reverse is true—being open with your emotions, sharing your vulnerability, and showing your team what self-care looks like are powerful leadership qualities. So while emotional self-care isn’t typically found in a manager’s job description, it should be.
Here are some avenues to explore when practicing emotional self-care:
- Manage your own stress levels. Talking to your own manager about your workload, being honest with yourself about imminent burnout, and setting realistic targets for yourself can help contain stress. The six tips in our recent post, How Managers Can Help Employees Cope With Workplace Stress, apply to managers, too.
- Reflect compassionately. Actively shaping the way you talk to yourself can make a huge difference to your emotional well-being. Our post How Positive Self-Talk Can Support Well-Being At Work has some great ideas about this.
- Do acts of kindness. Psychologists have long understood—and research supports—the idea that caring for others can be a powerful form of self-care. A recent Mayo Clinic article summarizes it well: “Kindness can positively change your brain. Being kind boosts serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that give you feelings of satisfaction and well-being…”
As a manager, your daily mental bandwidth can easily get overwhelmed with projects, responsibilities, deadlines, resourcing, team development, and more. So carving out some “me” time is essential.
Mental self-care means more than just physically stepping away from the desk to give your brain a break from work. It means prioritizing time in your schedule to do things that you truly enjoy doing.
While the prospect of making time in your already-full calendar for what might feel like “leisure time” may sound unrealistic—well, that’s exactly when it’s needed most.
There are many ways to help foster habits of mental self-care:
- Do you. Carve out time for things that make you happy. Take walks or bike rides. Go swimming regularly. Practice your art. It’s not an indulgence, it’s essential!
- Learn something new. Explore activities that have nothing to do with work. Pursue a new hobby. Learn a language or a musical instrument. Grab your partner and take that Tango class. Learning is great for the brain (and fun, too).
- Decompress. Time to check in with yourself is an essential part of self-care. Leadership coach Palena Neale, PhD, puts it best: “It is precisely when we’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed that we would most benefit from slowing down in order to think big, innovate, and solve the problems that are stressing us out.”
Social well-being is a critical part of self-care. We all need people in our lives beyond our work colleagues. A few ways to help foster habits of social self-care:
- Learn to set boundaries—and stick to them. In the habit of canceling social appointments because of off-hours work? Stop that. It might feel impossible to break away, but it really isn’t. And don’t feel guilty about it: self-care is essential to being effective at work.
- Identify your support systems. Knowing who to turn to when things get tough is hugely important. But if you’re feeling burned out, you may decide it’s not worth it to reach out. It is worth it. Every time. You’d be there for your friends. Let them be there for you.
- Set time aside for time with friends and family. Schedule it if you must. But make it happen. Nothing returns the energy invested with higher interest than this. Being with the people you love is self-care gold.
For most of us, connection to a deeper meaning is an important part of well-being. So it should play a part in your self-care regime, too. Here are some ideas:
- Learn to spend time alone, mindfully. Meditating, journaling, yoga, and any other mindful practices tune you into the present. That means letting go of all those worries swimming around in your head. (There’s a lot of meditation and mindfulness content on the Calm platform. Dive in!)
- Find ways to connect with yourself and nature. For many people, getting out into nature regularly can be the most effective route to well-being. But it won’t happen unless you prioritize and plan.
- Gravitate towards what inspires you. Spending some time with what lights you up is important—whatever that may be. Again, it can take prioritizing and scheduling to carve out meaningful time.
How to manage your well-being while working remotely
Working remotely—and managing people from afar—comes with its own set of challenges. Some of your people will struggle with the new way of working and will need support. You’ll naturally feel the need to be more available to them.
But while that is important, you’ve got to be careful not to lose sight of your own needs as you dig deeper for others. You’re working from home more too. So the line between work and home life is fuzzier.
A study by staffing firm Robert Half found that nearly 70% of remote workers said they now work weekends, while 45% said they regularly work more hours during the week than they did before.
As a manager, you’re no doubt careful about keeping your reports from overworking themselves—but don’t overlook your own work-life balance in the process. The ideas in our recent post, How To Consider Employee Well-Being As You Return (Or Don’t Return) To The Office can help you as a manager, too.
Creating a mindful self-care journey as a leader
Self-care isn’t a switch you flip on and off. It’s a commitment and a journey. Here are some steps to getting going on yours:
- Decide that self-care is important. Make a commitment to yourself. Let go of any notion that self-care is selfish. Understand its importance in your role as a leader.
- Identify the self-care behaviors that work for you. Reflect on what you value and need in your everyday life and during times of high stress. Figure out what acts of self-care can help you achieve this. Sometimes this means setting boundaries.
- Address the blockers. Ask yourself: What’s getting in the way of you being able to take proper care of yourself? How can you shift those roadblocks and get your self-care on track while accepting your limits?
- Actively manage your habits. Building routine is key. Self-care isn’t a one-off thing—it’s lifelong, and should be a daily consideration. If you find it’s hard to organically find time for self-care, don’t be afraid to actively block out time for it. Try scheduling self-care appointments with yourself—and sticking to them as if they were as iron-clad as meetings with others.
- Acknowledge when to delegate and when to seek assistance. Show your vulnerability, ask for help, and let go of the idea of perfection. No one really thinks you’re superhuman anyway!
- Embrace the power of the micro-break. Self-care routines don’t have to take hours. Small moments can make big differences. Mix it up.
- Keep monitoring and reviewing your well-being. If something isn’t working for you, don’t continue just because you think it’s what you should do. Actively monitor your mental well-being and review and refine the actions you’re taking as you go.
Start today with our favorite self-care ideas
Not sure where to begin? Try these simple ideas out for size.
- Find a green space near you—different from your usual go-to—and block some time in your calendar to go take a walk there. Having a bit of exercise, even if it’s just a short stroll, can go a long way toward improving your mood. And choosing a place that’s different from your usual can help to refresh your mind.
- Try working from a different space. Having different surroundings—such as working from a local coffee shop or an outdoor space—can help to re-energize and focus you. Research shows that ambient noise can actually boost your creativity and improve abstract thinking.
- Take a few minutes out of your day for uninterrupted stillness. Try and incorporate a short meditation session into your day, to reset your brain and give you a bit of mid-day calm. (Calm has lots of great content to help you do this, with different sessions to suit your needs. Book a demo to see how it can help you and your team.)
- Create a series of no-meeting days for yourself (or even for your team as a whole!) Perhaps have one day a month when no meetings are booked. This allows you to take a break from endless strings of meetings, which can be a big stress relief.
- Be mindful about switching off after work. It can be easy to lose track of time when you’re buried in work, but that’s a path that leads to stress and burnout—quickly. Do yourself a favor by choosing to mindfully shut down at the end of the work day. Leave non-urgent things to the next day—and allow yourself to recognize when things aren’t as urgent or time-sensitive as you thought they were.
- Block out regular slots in your calendar to do something small that makes you happy. Take yourself down to the store to pick up a tasty treat. Start that book you’ve been meaning to read. Water your plants. Or even just sit quietly in the comfiest spot available. Allow yourself to do something just for yourself, without any interruptions. Regularly.
- Have a non-work conversation with a colleague. It’s tough to remember to find time for simple chats when all communication is so goal-oriented. But having friendly conversations can be a big boost to your mood—and, by extension, to your mental well-being.
As a manager, part of your responsibility is the success and well-being of others. For some managers, that means putting themselves second—but that’s an unsustainable strategy. Thankfully, more and more leaders—and many of the most effective leaders in the world—build their caring for others on a strong foundation of self-care.
If you allow yourself time to practice it, you’ll find that self-care pays huge dividends in your life and your career. Best of all, your people will thank you for it!