Why Leaders Need to Make Time for Self-Care

UPDATED: April 20, 2023
PUBLISHED: April 5, 2023
woman exercising for self-care

Work without play is a recipe for burnout.

We typically praise the person who is last to leave the office and works during weekends and holidays. Often, however, that person is the first to fall in the war of workplace attrition.

Leadership demands long hours and great effort, but rest and relaxation are just as essential as hard work. Go-getters often feel that every minute of every day must be filled with work, but that is just not a healthy way to live. Because more does not always mean better, a leader must learn to draw a hard line in the sand when asked to take on boundless responsibilities. Learning to say “no” is a matter of self-preservation.

Leaders must take time for themselves, and they should not apologize or feel guilty for doing so. We are sons, daughters, mothers and fathers before we are professionals, and it is important not to neglect the parts of our lives that make us the most human.

Why self-care for leaders is important

The failure to embrace “white space” can result in an acute decrease in productivity as well as the quality of the work produced. Stress causes mental blocks that hamper creativity. It also increases the likelihood of careless mistakes.

From misspellings to missed details in a contract, errors caused by a lack of focus are usually avoidable. When the brain is not free from undue strain and is not functioning at its maximum potential, confusion and distress muck up the work and even the most mundane tasks become difficult.

Stress also can cause physical ailments. Headaches and high blood pressure are common in the professional world. Overeating, which is a response to stress, is another strain on the body caused by overworking. Because the mind and the body are so intertwined, when one suffers, the other does as well.

Metaphysics teaches that what the mind harbors, the body manifests, and therefore it is imperative that every leader prioritize mental and physical health as part of a daily routine.

To neutralize the stress of work, sometimes you need to forget about it and compartmentalize. Disconnect the brain and exercise the body. Physical exertion increases the body’s serotonin levels, which improve mood and memory and decrease hunger and depression. When your body and brain feel well, you perform well. Your productivity, effectiveness and attitude are each measurably better when you take care of yourself.

When you can get to your “happy place” more frequently, you are less likely to get unnecessarily agitated. Besides, when the people around you do not have to worry about setting you off with a careless word or a thoughtless act, your workplace and your home life become more tranquil.

Because of this increased positivity, your overall demeanor and performance will likewise improve. This funnel of beneficial outcomes is magnified by incorporating R&R into the rigor of the workday.

Leaders who utilize self-care have increased well-being

A leader who prioritizes downtime, relaxation and self-care discovers an increase in overall well-being and in multiple dimensions of performance.

Even though we know that work-life balance is a myth, work-life integration and prioritizing need the most time and attention. Agile leaders treat these principles with the same regard as the technical components of their work.

Knowing that they do not have to choose between a harried professional life, family or self-care to be successful, leaders create a life they hold dear that reflects their greatest priorities. By learning to relax and reboot, the most effective leaders ensure their lives do not resemble the bleakness of zero-sum games.

Taking time to enjoy life

I knew a partner at a top law firm who worked extremely hard as a young associate, which paved the way for a successful and rewarding career. Work was clearly a priority for him. He would get there early and on most nights, stay late. He frequently would take work home and work on weekends, too.

Not only that, he would also take on big projects outside of work that were unrelated to his primary specialization. Additionally, he sat on numerous corporate and nonprofit boards. One day, I noticed that he looked a little sluggish and I asked him if he was OK.

The law partner said that despite all the work he had put in over the past 40 years, all the value that he provided to others, all the personal and professional success that he collared, he had not taken the time to really enjoy his life.

Even the occasional golf games and weekend getaways did not feel like rest, he said, adding that his mental, emotional and physical health suffered because he chose not to incorporate regular rest and relaxation into his daily routine.

To my surprise, he mentioned wanting to make an immediate and significant shift in his work-life priorities. He wanted a better quality of life. It never occurred to me that someone so accomplished could feel anything other than joy and enormous pride. However, he taught me that no one, not even the most successful leaders, can be effective without integrating rest and relaxation into their lives.

Tools to help leaders incorporate self-care

Journal Questions

  1. When do you make time to unplug during the week?
  2. Create a list of 10 favorite activities that generate excitement and enhance your ability to unplug and relax.
  3. Describe your work rhythm. Do you know when to stop, reevaluate and recharge?
  4. How did this principle help you better understand your role as a leader? How will its mastery enable you to cultivate greater effectiveness?
  5. How will you use the preceding strategies to advance your commitment to unplugging and relaxing?

Leadership Challenge

Create a workweek calendar that includes time for you to relax and unwind.

When do you schedule “me time”? What do you plan on doing? Plug in blocks of time for play that complement the blocks of time for work. Now see how this new rhythm feels. After a week, assess your physical and mental state. Did it feel good to have time for self-indulgence?

Karima Mariama-Arthur, Poised for Excellence, published in 2018 by Palgrave Macmillan, reproduced with permission of SCSC. This article was published in February 2018 and has been updated. Photo by shurkin_son/Shutterstock

A leading authority on leadership development and organizational performance management, Karima Mariama-Arthur brings more than 25 years of comprehensive, blue chip experience in law, business and academia to every client engagement. A shrewd advisor to distinguished organizations from DC to Dubai, her expert insights help clients to successfully navigate today's ever-changing and competitive global business environment. Karima is the author of the internationally acclaimed and 2019 NAACP Image Award nominated leadership guidebook, Poised For Excellence: Fundamental Principles of Effective Leadership in the Boardroom and Beyond (Palgrave Macmillan), which launched at the United States Military Academy at West Point. As an extension of her work, she speaks regularly both nationally and internationally in her areas of expertise and serves in an advisory capacity on select corporate boards.