Why leaders need to put their own oxygen masks on first

This year’s theme for UK Mental Health Awareness Week is ‘kindness’ and focusing on your own self-care is kind to yourself, and ultimately kind to others around you

In April the BBC questioned whether a mental health emergency is imminent, with each of us being impacted by grief, isolation, anxiety or loss of control as a result of the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

Before this pandemic we were already potentially facing a mental health crisis, with psychological disorders such as generalised anxiety disorder on the rise globally, 1 in 4 people in the UK facing mental health problems and presenteeism (reduced productivity at work) costing businesses £21bn per annum in the UK alone.

For the remaining 3 in 4 people who may be regarded as ‘mentally healthy’ now more than ever self-care is crucial. We are each at the centre of our own universe, with a world revolving around us that includes our families, friends, teams, colleagues, neighbours and so on. If we disregard or neglect our own mental, emotional and physical health and allow that system to weaken at its core, it may manifest in an increase to the burden on our own support networks or reduce our ability to lead and support others, or both. Therefore we owe it not only to ourselves but to many others, to prioritise self-care without compromise. For leaders, the necessity to do so is exponentially greater.

COVID-19 has simultaneously highlighted our similarities and differences. We’re all impacted by the pandemic and many of us are showing similar symptoms such as being distracted more frequently, or having vivid dreams or nightmares. Yet our experiences and circumstances are unique, ranging from a sense of gratitude for spending more time with family and not having to commute, to an uneasy sense of uncertainty about what will happen after lock-down, to despair at having to attend virtual funerals for beloved family members or friends.

The reality is that there could be so many of us in that 3 in 4 ‘mentally healthy’ bracket that are being or are about to be tipped over the edge by COVID-19. And while the statistics referred to may be UK-centric, this is a global issue and one that leaders everywhere are not immune to.

Now is the time to nurture wellbeing by ‘putting your own oxygen mask on first’; redirecting the lens inwards, reflecting on what self-care means to you and subsequently identifying ways to address your needs.

Gone are the days of self-care being considered as ‘navel gazing’ and fluffy; the best leaders understand that self-care is part and parcel of wellbeing which in turn enables sustainable, effective leadership.

Read more from our learning & development expert Aran Dadswell:

About the author

I spent close to two decades in technology in investment banking, subsequently running businesses in Asia and the UK providing executive coaching and training services.