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10 Min Read

How Leadership Can Reap Big Rewards By Creating A “Self-Care Culture”

Elisa Silverman

We used to just call them “mental health days.” Those days when you just need to get some separation from the daily grind, refresh yourself, and do whatever it takes to get a break from multitasking and workplace tech.

Of course, now we understand more clearly the link between employee happiness and outcomes like higher engagement, increased productivity, and business growth. We also know that there’s a link between workplace stress, burnout, low productivity and employee turnover.

Company leadership that fosters a work culture of self-care is more likely to find itself with happier people and higher employee engagement. So as you set your strategic company objectives every quarter remember to focus on your culture as well as your revenue. Or as management expert Peter Drucker is reputed to have said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

Regardless of whether he actually said that, the sentiment is true. Company culture either supports your goals or it’s undermining them. Company leadership needs to proactively set the framework for its culture. Otherwise, an ill-defined work culture will develop organically that may not be one in which people and the company can flourish.

Here are five ways you can establish and foster a culture of self-care at your organization.

Insist People Take PTO

Employee burnout is huge driver of employee turnover, evidence that the value of “mental health day” still holds. Sometimes, the greatest self-care a company can offer its employees is making sure they step away. Sweden requires 5 weeks a year of vacation, and many tech companies like Buffer have used internal data and surveys to understand the ideal number of days and weeks off an employee should take to stay fresh.

But don’t feel like you have to implement an unlimited time off policy because all the cool companies are doing it. Unlimited time off has its pros and cons, so find a system that works for your team. Maybe start by requiring employees to take off a certain amount of days each quarter, or limit how much unused vacation time an employee can sell back to the company.

Create Space For Mistakes

I had a mentor years ago who told me, “No one comes to work with the goal of messing up.” When things go awry, as they inevitably do, your company can have a culture that looks for solutions or one that seeks to lay blame.

Which of the two work cultures strikes you as the one where people will feel more permission to share their ideas, get creative, or take some calculated risks? Companies want those qualities in employees because they foster a broader culture of innovation and collaboration.

Start all post-mortem meetings with the assumption that the employee had the company’s best interests at heart, a mindset that will help prime managers to think positively about solutions rather than placing blame. Suggest concrete steps to mediate or fix mistakes, or discuss retraining or coaching if a deeper systemic problem presents itself.

And if an employee just isn’t made for the role they have – put them where they can play to their strengths, if possible. Employees who feel like they’re really using their skills are more productive and less likely to leave.

Value People’s Time

Valuing people’s time shows that you value them as individuals, not just as employees. As a leader you can model the following behaviors for the team or entire company:

1) Limit the number of large meetings, whether scheduled or ad hoc.

2) Minimize meeting durations by creating agendas and collecting relevant information beforehand.

3) Set communication time zone boundaries. Unless there’s a bona fide emergency (e.g. something’s on fire or about to be), nobody needs to be sending emails or messages at 2 a.m. Certainly nobody should expect a response at that time. If your workflow can manage it, let employees set their own communication no-go zones that best mesh with their work style.

4) Try to eliminate TPS reports and other unnecessary paperwork. Use a business intelligence tool with data visualization dashboards that communicate progress toward ongoing goals so that teams don’t waste time writing reports that never get read.

5) Encourage employees not to eat lunch at their desks. Lunch provides a perfect time for employees to socialize and take a break from staring at their screens.

Physical Health Is Part Of The Self-Care Culture

Physical discomfort and exhaustion interfere with our energy and focus. While everyone knows this, employees may not feel comfortable taking steps at work to see to their physical health. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to show them otherwise.

This could be as simple as making sure there are healthy snacks in the vending machines and common areas, or encouraging them to get away from their desks and take short walks. Those workers who stand all day can be provided ample opportunities to get off their feet for a bit.

If your work environment is lucky enough to be near a green space like a park, you can start a walking club where employees can walk together at fixed times. If there’s space and interest, providing short onsite yoga or meditation classes can help. You can also hire vendors who provide worksite massage chair services that can help reduce employee stress.

Many companies offer workplace health benefits that reimburse workers for all or part of gym memberships or workout classes. Check with your health plan to see if it covers proactive health benefits and reimbursements.

Solicit Employee Feedback

While it’s always useful to start with general principles and best practices, it’s also important to find out what a genuine self-care culture looks like for your unique organizational culture. Solicit information from your people about the attitudes, habits, and other factors that they feel your organization lacks. Work with them to discover ideas on how to improve your self-care culture.

This doesn’t mean you have to implement every idea proposed, as some just aren’t feasible. But at least listen and acknowledge each response. Even the process of listening to your people and working with them to create and promote a self-care culture contributes to its realization, since giving employees a voice improves their emotional wellbeing.

By definition, much of your work culture isn’t written down or formalized. Some of these suggestions can take the form of policy, like vacation time and communication time zones. However, much of the self-care culture you create will be modeled by your own behavior.

You build culture not so much by what you say, but through intentional acts and how you treat people. These acts start building the habits and attitudes of self-care in others, which then manifests in informal social patterns and mindsets. This virtuous cycle simply reinforces a self-care culture that’s meaningful for employees and valuable for your company.