Michelle looked sheepish. “I am a such a big advocate for staff wellbeing and mental health. I am always pushing staff to take their breaks and look after themselves – especially after heavy workloads or emotionally taxing work. But I have just realised I don’t do it myself! In fact I come in early, leave late and never take time off for lunch – I just eat at my computer and carry on! I don’t put myself first!” 

We were doing her wellbeing audit as part of a 2-day mental health course. The opportunity to spend some time thinking about her own wellbeing rather than that of her staff was a new experience! It was opening her eyes to the way she managed her wellbeing at work – she could now see the imbalance in her life!

Michelle needed to put herself first. Trouble is she was so committed to her staff that she really needed convincing that doing this wasn’t being selfish.

You might not think so but it’s not selfish to put yourself first – think of how putting your own oxygen mask on first means you can then save others in aircraft incident. In a work setting it means you can help more staff. In fact you will be more effective at doing all aspects of your job if you recognise that you are human too and prioritise your own needs.

In the research we did as part of The Compassion Project we found that nurses were very good at putting everyone else’s needs before their own. By teaching them to look after themselves we found that they were better able to do their jobs – and less likely to burn out. In addition the teams they were part of benefitted too, as they were able to understand why people were behaving as they were and respond appropriately.

A significant part of being a manager is being able to role model positive values and behaviour to your staff. Sometimes you don’t have to say anything – just doing it is making a difference. Staff observe what you do and that creates the culture of what is and isn’t acceptable. Body language wise we know that if what you say is at odds with your body language then it is your body language that will leave the lasting impact.

After consideration Michelle agreed about the importance of leading through role modelling. She just wasn’t sure how to actually put it into action given her pressurised life.

These then are 6 things managers can do to put their needs first:

  1. Identify what in particular can raise your stress for example challenging meetings with particular people. Take a small amount of time out before difficult meetings – this may mean ensuring you set 5 or 10 minutes aside to do some breathing exercises such as mindfulness, or visualisation. In addition to checking in with your mind, check in with your body – a key place for carrying stress – ensure your posture is upright and your shoulders are back and you are able to model confidence and well being.
  2. It might sound obvious but leave your desk to eat your lunch. Recent research shows that over half of all employees don’t leave their desk at lunch. This reduces both productivity and mood – with some who skip lunch complaining that they then feel ill. Not just will having lunch mean that you will be better able to do your job but this will give your staff the message that they also need to take their lunch break. BUPA found that a quarter of staff felt they couldn’t leave their desks because their manager didn’t. Eating food that is healthy and nutritious is an important part of looking after your own wellbeing.
  3. Give your staff the message that they don’t talk to you about work during lunch. If you have a staff room ensure you give your staff the message that this isn’t the time for them to have a quick chat with you about some issue they have. Its your lunch and that means don’t talk work, don’t check emails or your mobile phone! If you can’t get that message through to your staff then leave the building for 20 minutes – either eat somewhere else or eat and then leave for a walk.
  4. Put boundaries on the length of your working day too. The average working week is now 48 hours! This will be higher for many managers. Set yourself a target of leaving earlier one or two days a week – chase any other staff home too and show that you practice what you preach! These boundaries mean no emails once you get home – this is a source of great stress to staff who feel they must reply immediately. Again this is also about you role modelling leadership.
  5. Take time off work when you are unwell presenteeism is rising rapidly but productivity is dropping. If you are unwell – show that you are human and take a few days off – you will feel better for it.
  6. What you do outside of work matters too. Sleep is one area that most of us don’t get enough of. This adds to presenteeism, low energy and a less effective manager. I have worked for managers who have had lots of energy and enthusiasm for their job and it is infectious!
  7. Finally – have someone who you get support from. Being a manager can be a lonely place and many middle managers are squeezed by demands from the top and those below. People management can be challenging. Recent research shows that only 4% managers have someone to talk to about managing an employees mental health issues. Wellbeing supervision, for example, could be really useful at helping managers navigate their own wellbeing and that of their staff. Managers also experience stress and mental health issues – just like the rest of the workforce – and need to be mindful of ensuring they have appropriate support.

Michelle needed – and wanted – to make some changes but they also needed to be achievable. It was easy to look at all of the issues with her working environment and get overwhelmed – and then do nothing! Instead we worked out what was achievable – leaving on time once or twice a week is whereas doing it 5 days a week is less so. Similarly making an arrangement to meet someone for lunch once a week means you are more likely to stick to something that is achievable. For Michelle – she made a commitment to meet up with someone once a week as she felt that this was within her control.

Mental Health Awareness week is a great time to review the stress in your life. What could you do to reduce stress? Tell others about it – even better get them involved. Let me know – I’d love to hear how you get on.


Adelle Shaw-Flach is the Director of The Sweet Potato Consultancy. The Sweet Potato Consultancy works strategically with forward thinking leaders to reduce the people, skills and financial wastage, creating workplaces where both people and organisations thrive.


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