Health and WellbeingA culture of health and wellbeing is important, but it all starts at the top

A culture of health and wellbeing is important, but it all starts at the top

Instilling a culture of health and wellbeing among a workforce is important, but this cannot be done effectively if those imposing it are not of sound mind and body. Ally Nathaniel, speaker, best-selling author and founder, AN Consulting, outlines how leaders can look after themselves in order to influence those around them.

Though health and wellbeing in the workplace has been discussed before, the past few months have really woken us up to the fact that in many ways, physical and mental health are one and the same, and should be recognized in equal measure.

Remote work stresses the need to pay attention to employees’ psychological wellbeing, but in order for this to be achieved, it must begin at the top. Therefore, leaders must receive this same level of care.

As the head of your team, department, or company, you will not be able to maintain wellness on a larger scale to support the workplace unless you’re mentally and emotionally healthy. Taking care of yourself as a leader is now a matter of necessity.

Quite simply, stress compromises leaders’ ability to function. According to the American Institute of Stress, work-related stress is among one of the most common and pervasive. This can be caused by factors such as pressure to perform, fear of being laid off, long work hours, and lack of control over how you do your work, and can elicit emotional and physical symptoms. Such symptoms can include headaches, fatigue, increased or decreased appetite, physical discomforts such as back pain or gastrointestinal problems, and sleep disturbance. All of this affects leaders’ performance and contributes to bad decision making and a lack of productivity.

According to research by Neil Schneiderman, Gail Ironson, and Scott D. Siegel about stress and health: “The relationship between psycho-social stressors and disease is affected by the nature, number, and persistence of the stressors as well as by the individual’s biological vulnerability (i.e., genetics, constitutional factors), psychosocial resources, and learned patterns of coping.”

This means that unless leaders decide to pay attention to their mental and emotional health and wellbeing, it will affect both their personal and professional life and increase the likelihood of burnout.

A useful analogy comes to mind: when receiving the obligatory pre-flight health and safety brief, you will always be reminded to ensure that your own oxygen mask is secure before offering help to another. Similarly, in the workplace, since one of your jobs as a leader is to take care of others, your mission must be taking care of yourself first.

Some tips for taking care of your mind and body as a leader

1. Sleep – this plays a vital role in maintaining mental and physical health and wellbeing. Getting enough sleep is crucial in protecting your mental health, physical health, and ultimately your quality of life. Researchers think cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) may flush toxic waste out, literally “cleaning” the brain during sleep. Unfortunately, we exist in a culture that promotes doing over resting, and tend to sacrifice a healthy sleeping pattern for the sake of ‘being more productive’. This is frankly paradoxical in nature; it is that very lack of sleep that ultimately damages productivity in the first place.

Arianna Huffington once told me: “The best decision I ever made was committing to getting eight hours of sleep a night.”

2. Discuss and express emotions – The first step in building emotional resilience is emotional awareness. It is about looking inside and developing self-awareness. It is about having a deep understanding of how feelings contribute to your actions and what to do about it.

I recommend you find a ‘listening partner’ with whom you can express your emotions to get a fresh perspective about what ‘activates’ you as a leader. You can download a free copy of The Emotional Business IQ here.

3. Drink water – This one might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised at how often it gets neglected. Our bodies are comprised of roughly 60% water, and therefore, drinking enough of it is crucial to maintaining both physical and mental wellbeing. What’s more, it plays a crucial role in ridding your body of unwanted toxins and chemicals. As Medical News Today states, “dehydration can affect brain structure and function”. It can also cause physical and cognitive impairments, such as difficulty performing tasks that require attention, coordination, and executive function.

It is recommended to drink between nine and 11 glasses of water each day in order to stay sufficiently hydrated and maintain good health and wellbeing.

4. Make room for downtime– Your brain needs to rest in order to function properly and be as creative, productive, and efficient as possible. Downtime helps reduce mental pressure and therefore allows fresh ideas to form. A LexisNexis survey stated that on average, employees spend more than 50% their workdays receiving and managing information rather than using it to do their jobs. Your brain needs downtime to organize and prioritize that information to become a better leader.

Here are some examples of downtime that you can work into your daily routine:

  • Meditation
  • Walking or exercising as frequently as possible
  • Regular breaks throughout the day
  • Listen to relaxing music

5. Seek and value affection – Though it might sound slightly more leftfield, this is proven to help promote both physical and mental health. A hug that lasts at least 20 seconds will stimulate your brain to release oxytocin and dopamine, reducing cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and helping you feel more grounded and relaxed. Find someone you trust (e.g. a spouse, sibling, or friend), and make them aware of how they can help with this when you feel stressed, overwhelmed, or disconnected.

As you work these things into your daily routine, they will help you sustain your mental and emotional health, and crucially, will allow you to more effectively and authoritatively encourage this behavior among your team.

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