Setting Standards for Self-Care

I remember being the lone person standing at a meeting for new assistant principals, indicating that I was the only person who was answering yes to a question that was asked.  It felt awkward and uncomfortable as I glanced around the room and saw the looks on my colleagues’ faces.  Of course, there were a few people who just didn’t seem to care.  A few looked pleased, some looked amused, and there were quite a few that looked downright spiteful.

The facilitator was reading through a list of tasks and we were supposed to stand if we were doing them regularly.  The tasks were things like staying late at work several times a week, skipping lunch, mediating disputes between students, and handling conflicts between parents and teachers.  Most of us were continually standing up for each task, then sitting back down waiting for the next item to be read aloud.  But when the facilitator asked if we were exercising at least twice a week, I was the only person that stood.  I muttered something about not having kids, half excuse/half apology that I thought should make it more acceptable for me to have this luxury, before trying to disappear into my chair.  

The point the facilitator was trying to make was that our jobs were difficult and that we needed to take care of ourselves.  But there was an unspoken message of our culture that was understood by everyone.  Simply asking the last question about exercising indicated an expectation that few people would stand up.  It indicated that the social norm for school administrators was to run themselves ragged every day.  My guilt for being the lone person standing indicated that I had somehow broken that norm, as did the expressions on people’s faces.

Many organizations have been preaching the importance of self-care for years, but their actions and expectations demonstrated that they are only paying lip service to a trendy topic.  When the pandemic hit, the shared struggles of adjusting to a virtual environment, caring for family members, and living with uncertainty and fear turned self-care from a trend to a dire need.  Organizations addressed the need, some more successfully than others.  Then, as we’ve returned to a more “normal” state, many have also returned to making statements of self-care rather than truly demonstrating support for self-care.

Self-care is something I’ve always claimed as a priority for myself and for others, but looking back on my time as a school leader I know I was guilty of perpetuating an unhealthy culture.  As leaders, our actions and words always have intended and unintended consequences.  If you truly care about the wellbeing of your team, consider what you may be doing that goes against a message of self-care.

  • Do you send emails after work hours or on the weekend?  I used to tell my team not to respond to emails I sent after hours, but it didn’t matter.  Many still felt compelled to respond or at least to read the message.  I was setting the example that it’s ok for work to consume us at all hours, and they were following my example.
  • Do you work while on vacation?  My team would encourage me to turn everything off before I’d go away.  My compromise was that I would only check emails for an hour each morning.  My intention was to make sure they didn’t feel abandoned (and also to keep from having an overwhelming number of emails when I returned to work).  Instead, I sent the message that leaders don’t really need a break.  I may have even sent the message to some that I didn’t trust them to manage without me.  
  • Do you publicly praise people who work beyond their duty hours, skip meals, or sacrifice other aspects of their self-care for the company?  Don’t get me wrong, we should acknowledge and appreciate people who care enough to go the extra mile.  Unfortunately, making a big deal can make those who aren’t going to the same extremes feel underappreciated and blurs the lines for much needed boundaries.
  • Do you preach self-care to employees rather than giving them the time, space, and flexibility to do what’s best for them?  Mandatory professional development on ways to practice self-care is almost insulting.  People don’t need to be told what to do.  They need to be supported in doing what they need.

One of the worst things leaders can do for a culture is to uphold the stereotype of the indestructible leader.  We can be strong, and still need time to rejuvenate, team members that we can lean on, and space to feel what we feel.  Now more than ever, people need leaders who set new standards in support of self-care.  What will you do starting today?

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