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Self-Care Isn't Selfish — It's Essential for Sustaining High Performance. Here's How to Avoid Burning Out. Faced with uncertainty, most leaders' instinct is to double down on their time spent working, but humans aren't designed to function at maximum capacity 24/7. As counterintuitive as it sounds, the thing you might need most when your business feels overwhelming isn't more time at the office — it's a break.

By Jonathan Kirschner Edited by Kara McIntyre

Key Takeaways

  • Understanding the importance of self-care and making time for self-care aren't the same thing.
  • Use the following steps to incorporate self-care into your routine and infuse it into your organization to make consistency a bit easier.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

What's your first instinct when you feel the mounting pressures of running a business?

If you're like many leaders, you double down on your workload. That means spending more time at the office and less time on your personal health, hobbies and relationships — and that might work sometimes. You may even attribute your business's success to that instinct.

The problem is that humans aren't designed to function at maximum capacity 24/7. Working twice as hard doesn't necessarily result in getting twice as much work done. Instead, pushing yourself past the point of exhaustion has been shown to lead to less creativity, reduced working memory and capacity for problem-solving and worse business outcomes.

Unfortunately, "self-care" has become so overused as a buzzword that it has become meaningless other than as a way to sell bath bombs and expensive retreats. But self-care isn't a self-indulgent luxury for people with more time than you; it's an essential tool for high-performing leaders who want to excel in their business.

If you want to maintain high performance and effectively navigate the challenges of leading people and leading a business, it's time to shift your perspective.

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The rise of burnout in leadership

We heard a lot about burnout during the pandemic and its aftermath. Reporting from Gallup showed that the burnout rate among managers increased significantly between 2020 and 2021, leading to increased quit rates among managers and leaders and unmanageable workloads for those who stayed.

But, burnout among leaders is a perennial problem — one that existed long before the pandemic, and one that will persist in the future. For instance, Gallup polling from 2018 showed that more than two-thirds of workers were burned out, with managers reporting more stress and burnout, worse work-life balance and worse physical health than members of their teams. And, a recent survey found that even though life outside the workplace has returned to normal for most people, 70% of C-level executives are considering leaving their company and taking a new role in an organization that supports their well-being.

Self-care: Beyond the bubble bath

Of course, as an entrepreneur running two companies, I know that understanding the importance of self-care and making time for self-care aren't the same thing. Here are some practical methods for incorporating self-care into your routine and infusing it into your organization.

1. Small acts of self-kindness

Self-care doesn't require grand gestures. Instead, small investments can have an outsized effect. It can be as simple as slowing down to taste your coffee in the morning or taking a short walk in the fresh air before heading into the office.

To carry self-care through your workday, you could build a playlist of your favorite songs that plays in the background as you work. Or get a vase of fresh flowers once a week to place on your desk. If you find yourself fading around mid-afternoon, take a walk, take a few deep breaths and reset yourself for the rest of the day.

There's no limit to the amount or types of things you can do to take care of yourself at home and work. Finding ways to add elements of self-care to your daily routine is a great way to ensure your mind and body are getting the rest and nourishment they need to fuel the rest of your day.

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2. Take extended breaks, too

Vacation time should be viewed as mandatory, not optional. Completely unplugging from work is linked with increased well-being, engagement and creativity. Going on vacation can also lower stress and reduce your risk of developing heart disease. Don't believe it? Consider that Lin-Manuel Miranda credits his idea for the award-winning musical Hamilton with taking a vacation.

But, so many of the entrepreneurs and executives I work with are reluctant to take a vacation. This mindset is not only bad for you — it's bad for your employees. According to the Pew Research Center, 46% of employees in the U.S. take less time off than their company offers. Many of them don't want to burden their co-workers with extra work. Some fear they will miss out on career advancement opportunities or possibly lose their jobs if they take time off.

3. Make yourself less essential

We all know that entrepreneurs wear many hats, especially in the early days of their business. But if your company comes to a standstill the moment you step away, you're doing something wrong.

It can feel gratifying to be integral to your business's functioning, but ultimately, you're shooting yourself (and your business) in the foot. A Gallup survey found that companies run by CEOs who delegate have a three-year growth rate that is 112 percentage points higher than companies with CEOs who do not delegate.

Leadership is the act of setting a vision and then accomplishing that vision through others. Surround yourself with people that you trust and then empower them to do their jobs. That way, you can take a break without feeling the burden of your business crumbling behind you as you walk away.

4. Lead by example

As leaders, we need to remember that our employees are watching us and taking their cues from our behavior. When you ignore your own well-being, you send the message that your employees should ignore their well-being, too.

As a leader, it's on you to create a permission structure and culture of self-care at your organization. Talk about the importance of self-care at work openly and frequently, especially with your leaders. Encourage employees to set (and keep) boundaries, especially when they are working remotely and the lines between when their workday begins and ends are blurred. When leaders practice self-care, the rest of the organization is more likely to follow.

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5. Build self-awareness

Once you've created permission for you and your employees to take care of yourselves, you have to build the self-awareness to know when you're showing up in an unproductive way and the self-efficacy to take some time when you are.

For example, I recently had a day that found me spiraling into a ball of stress and burnout. So, I decided to take the next morning a little slower than usual. Instead of rushing to the office, I spent a few extra minutes outdoors, picked a few fresh tomatoes from my garden and made an omelet.

I knew I wasn't going to show up in a productive way if I just barrelled into the office all stressed out.

You need to expect the same from your employees. Forcing your employees to take care of themselves is infantilizing. They're adults. Set an example and then trust them to follow it.

Build your surge capacity

In an interview with the American Psychological Association, Dr. Ann Masten, a psychologist and expert on resilience, talked about the importance of protecting what she called surge capacity — the mental and physical resources we use to survive the stressful situations that are so common to life as an entrepreneur.

Unfortunately, she said, that capacity can get depleted. Faced with continuous challenges, we get exhausted and overwhelmed. When it does, we need to step back and try to replenish and restore our capacity through self-care.

As a leader, there will always be days when walking away from work feels challenging or even impossible. The key to taking care of yourself on the days you can is to remember that acts of self-care now will enable high-performance in the moments that matter.

Jonathan Kirschner

CEO of AIIR Consulting

Dr. Jonathan Kirschner is the founder and CEO of AIIR Consulting, a global business-psychology consulting firm. He is also an executive coach, specializing in bolstering the leadership effectiveness of CEOs and senior executives.

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