Put on Your Oxygen Mask First: 6 Tips for Self-Care on the Job

Is it time that you paid more attention to an old familiar message from the flight attendant at the start of the flight. “In the event of an emergency, please put on your oxygen mask before assisting others.”

It’s a message most of us have learned to tune out — take care of yourself in order to be effective especially in high crunch situations — and yet, one which can make a significant difference in our effectiveness. In today’s society, the demand for ever-increasing amounts of personal time, effort and energy many of us forget the most important piece of the jigsaw – ourself!

During your next ‘crunch-time’, considering grabbing one of these “oxygen masks”:

1) Focus on the physical. Nothing gives a boost like returning to the basics. Sometimes what we need is one or two good nights of sleep or eating well for a couple of days to feel like we’ve hit the “reset” button. The intent is not to add more demands to the to-do list but rather taking one small baby step to feeling physically more refreshed. Self-care on the job can quickly turn into self-neglect when we lose complete focus of our physical bodies and what we need. 

2) Reach out and talk to someone. When faced with tough decisions or business transitions, we need to have trusted people to lean on. This includes a strategic network of people you can discuss important strategic, business or career decisions. And, a set of people (might be the same people) you can privately process frustration, concern, and share candidly what is happening for you personally in the organization. Often, we buffer all the stress for our colleagues or teams without any release valve for ourselves.

3) Block-off time on your calendar. Part of the difficulty is the sheer number of meetings we attend in a given day. We open our diaries and see “back to back” commitments where we’re moving from one thing to the next. At a minimum, give yourself the first 15-20 minutes of the day to look at the day in total and consider which meetings are the most important to do some minimal preparation for. If you’re really in need for some “oxygen”, block a day or two off. Whilst appreciating that your holiday allocation is so very precious, how often do you get to the end of the year with several days still untaken? So, block time for yourself (it will feel like a luxury!) 

4) Renegotiate a deadline or give a timing heads up. Sometimes we assume people need something sooner than they really do. We say yes or break our own mental flow to meet other peoples’ requests. Part of self-care on the job is having the courage to clarify incoming requests, negotiate deadlines, or give people a “heads up.” Often a simple message of, “Confirming receipt of this. I’ll be able to get back to you in a couple of days on that” or offering to set up a time to discuss versus responding right away. The “heads up” offers the acknowledgement your colleague is seeking and buys you some extra time. 

5) Do something non-work related you care about or enjoy. Even for work we might love, too much of a good thing can take its toll. Even when you don’t feel like you have the time, doing one non work-related thing that you care about or enjoy can help to ease the pressure. Go for a hike, make it to your kid’s sports game, or spend time with friends on Saturday night. Engaging in something relaxing or fun can often be just enough of a step away to appreciate the role or work you have. 

6) Anchor in your integrity and values. Work demands can create discomfort or periods of uncertainty. Rather than feeling “blown around” due to the external circumstances of your company, we take care of ourselves by coming back to who we are and what we stand for. One of my all-time favourite articles comes from Harvard Business School Professor, Clayton M. Christensen entitled, “How Will You Measure Your Life.” He asks us to contemplate “how to live a life with integrity” and to make sure we’re choosing the “right yardsticks” against which we’ll measure our impact. I’ve seen clients slip from self-care to something that looks more like self-preservation where we’re wearing the oxygen mask in service of preserving a territory or turf versus in service of a mission or purpose we believe in.

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