Stress and pressure are all part and parcel of being a leader. But it’s not difficult for the day-to-day pressures of leadership to become overwhelming. Looking after your own mental health first and foremost will leave you in the best shape to continue to give your all to your business and employees. And as we argued earlier in this series, being honest about the impact stress can have on your health and wellbeing is actually good leadership.
So how do you take a moment for yourself when balancing the many and varied pressures that come with helming a business?
For Kate Hull-Rodgers, Vistage speaker and Director of HumourUs Limited, simple changes can get us there.
“If somebody has risen to leadership, they will already have positive rituals. They will know how to look after themselves and keep themselves focused – by taking time for the gym, going for a walk, for example. But some other simple things, like how much taking a deep breath can make a difference, gets forgotten.”
Building positive habits into your routine when things are going well will set you up for stressful moments that will inevitably arise.
Putting regular reminders in your calendar to take a break – to breathe, meditate, or step away from your desk – is a great place to start, says Kate.
“By taking responsibility for your mental health and your wellbeing and looking after yourself – whether that's going for a power workout and breaking a sweat, or taking a gentle walk – learning to put good routines in place and listening to your body to tell you when to stop is vital.”
Learn to breathe
Continued high levels of cortisol from stress can actually make it harder to think straight and make those all-important decisions.
“Simply to stop what you’re doing, close your laptop, put down your phone, close your eyes for a moment, and breathe,” says Kate. “In through your nose and out through your mouth slowly for a count of three.”
This forces the body to release endorphins and other positive chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, which all buffer the cortisol and help you to relax.
“If you’re having a difficult time, it can be biochemical. By simply breathing, you can counter that.”
Kate continues,“In our world, if we sigh someone will immediately ask us what’s wrong. But actually this can just be a release of tension – a positive, good thing your body is doing to reduce stress. Sometimes we think that having stress is a sign of weakness. But even leaders have vulnerability.”
Value your downtime
Respect your own downtime as well as that of your employees, and establish rituals that signify the end of the work day.
“Some people reach the end of their work day when they turn off their office computer. Some don’t really stop until after the commute. For others it may be more fluid,” says Kate. “Creating a concrete ritual to tell ourselves 'I am now off duty' really helps.”
At the end of each day, Kate recommends visualising all the tasks that need to be taken care of the next morning.
“Visualise all those things going into a box. Then, you take the box and mentally leave it at a roundabout ten minutes away from your home. Then the next day on the way back to work, you pick up the box – and you’re back on duty.”
Find yourself a cheerleader
Take a moment to figure out who you absolutely trust and feel safe with. Make sure to talk to them on a daily basis.
“Everyone needs someone to download to – whether that’s your partner, PA or even just your dog when you take them for a walk,” Kate says. “It’s really important to have conduits to let the stress out. If we let it build up inside ourselves, we will crack.”
Take a look at your morning ritual
“Simple things like washing your face with warm water – creating a calm, stolen moment – can be good for your mental health,” says Kate. “There are also stories and so many books written about successful executives who wear the same clothes every day so that they don't have to make decisions first thing in the morning.”
This can also be a good time to calmly go over all the things you’re grateful for – setting a positive tone for the rest of your day.
“Gratitude is the foundation of a happy, fulfilled life,” Kate says. “Simply write down three things that you're grateful for each day, and challenge yourself not to repeat them. Suddenly you’re starting to think ‘I’m grateful that there’s ink in my pen and water in my tap’, framing your life positively.”
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
One of the simplest ways to look after many aspects of your health can be the hardest to fit into a busy day.
“Hydrate yourself,” says Kate. “Coffee doesn’t count – it’s a diuretic.”
Ask for help
“A wonderful phrase from Mind is ‘It’s okay not to be okay,’” says Kate.
“The stigma around mental illness – the perception that being mentally unwell is a sign of weakness – has shifted. We have celebrities and politicians talking about their mental health, world leaders leading the way and saying “I struggle”. It’s a positive that we we recognise that these struggles are not a sign of weakness.”
Building a workplace that prioritises good mental health is essential. In our next article in this series, we’ll share tips on how to business leaders can make this happen.