Resilience needs leaders who put their own oxygen masks on first

The go-to panacea for many leaders in times of uncertainty is to do more. When the going gets tough, we put more hours in. It’s no accident that we are now facing an epidemic of fatigue across a workforce that is already stretched – emotionally, mentally and temporally.

Culture is a top-down phenomenon. As leaders, we get what we set, and if we are modelling working in unsustainable ways, then we will create a workforce built on similar ways of working.

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Take a moment to reflect on the statements below. Note down where you agree or disagree with the statements to see whether your leadership might be adding to, rather than remedying, the overwhelm epidemic:

  • I rarely work beyond my contracted hours
  • I have not lost my temper or felt emotional or anxious in the past 10 days
  • I do not answer work emails at weekends
  • I am able to identify the best use of my time and can prioritise effectively
  • I have clear boundaries between work and home
  • When I leave my desk I can switch off psychologically
  • I sleep and eat well
  • I do not check my phone for work related business during family time
  • I make time for small breaks during the day to refresh and re-energise
  • I am looking forward to the next 12 months professionally 

If you disagree with six or more of these, it is likely that as a leader, you are at risk of derailing your own performance and that of those who work with you.


Put your own oxygen mask on

One of the hardest things to do when we are operating at full capacity, when our systems are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol and our decision-making ability is impaired, is to slow down.

But the ability to pull the hand brake when we are close to running on empty is crucial. If we don’t, or can’t, we risk real, emotional and physical burnout and the consequences can be incredibly far-reaching.

If you recognise that some of your ways of working as a leader are not optimal for you, or for those who work for you, you are on your way towards being able to remedy the situation.

Here are six things that you could think about doing to put your own oxygen mask on.

  • Be honest with yourself: An internal reality check may be the hardest part of making things better when it comes to self-care and constructive time management. Imagine there is a third party watching you as you go about your working week. How would they critique your work-life balance, your personal effectiveness and the messages you are sending to those elsewhere in your organisation?

  • Write it all down: On a blank sheet of paper, write down everything you have done at work for the past three days. Note all the meetings you have attended, the reports you’ve read, the emails you’ve sent. Using a different colour pen, write down all the things you have done outside of work for the last three days – include exercise, sleeping, eating, watching TV and seeing friends.

  • Highlight the high impact: With a highlighter pen, mark anything on the page that you would consider has had a ‘high impact’ either in terms of your performance at work or your personal wellbeing.

  • Batch it up: Look at what hasn’t been highlighted. How much space do these actions take up on the page? Consider setting two hours a week aside for low-impact activity. Experiment with different days of the week and find a time that works best for you.

  • Be seen to say no: The most effective leaders are those who are able to prioritise rigorously and sometimes ruthlessly.

  • Recognise extraordinary effort from others and yourself: Going above and beyond is a culture that works well for many organisations, but it is a short-term game. Recognising extraordinary effort from your team, and allowing for breaks after busy periods is vital. Include yourself in this and tell your team when, and what, you will do to personally re-balance. 


Beth Hood is founder of Verosa Leadership