Eight self-care tips to give your career longevity

Women at Work, one of our favourite podcasts from Harvard Business Review, always gets us thinking. Their episode on burnout and self-care was no exception, raising interesting points about self-care in and out of the workplace.

Through interviews with two academics, the episode explores what causes burnout, and how self-care can help us avoid it. In this post we’re going to focus on happiness researcher Ashley Whillans’ insights. As well as being a professor at Harvard Business School, she’s the author of Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life.

Whillans’ main point is that real self-care is about identifying who and what is important to us, then making time for those things. So how exactly do we do that?

Let’s start by looking at what self-care is – and what it most definitely isn’t.

1. Self-care is much more than face masks and baths

Self-care is often marketed as something fun and fluffy – face masks, bubble baths and scented candles. That all sounds lovely, but does it really help you avoid burnout?

Whillans explains that those treats and moments of relaxation have a part to play, but they’re not the core of good self-care. That lies in figuring out who and what matters to you, then building time into your daily life to protect and enjoy them.

“Self-care is about spending the minutes, moments, hours, and days of your life in a way that’s consistent with the things and people you care about.”

2. Small changes make a big difference

Sure, we work so hard we’re living on takeaways and never see our friends, exercise or read a novel. But we can do that when we take annual leave – right?

Whillans is not a fan of this approach. Instead, she suggests building self-care into your daily life, making regular small changes rather than infrequent big ones. Making your daily life more balanced is key if your priorities include having good relationships or staying healthy, for example. And you just can’t do that in quick bursts!

“Life is worth enjoying now, in the moment, while we have it, no matter what else we’re trying to do or accomplish.”

3. Change needs to happen now

How often have you told yourself that you’ll start looking after yourself more… once you’ve finished this particular project, or some other big milestone? And how often have you actually made those changes?

Whillans suggests making “small, simple changes around the margins” now, rather than telling yourself you’ll overhaul everything later. You don’t have to do it all at once!

“Can you outsource something, can you cancel a meeting, can you move something so that you have a little bit more time today – right now? Not five months from now, not when you get your next promotion, right now.”

4. Self-care isn’t just an out-of-office activity

When we talk about self-care, we usually frame it as something we do on our own time. But work is a huge part of life, and ideally, a source of satisfaction and fulfilment. As the podcast’s co-host Nicole Torres puts it, self-care is a “holistic thing that also includes work and interactions with people.”

If furthering your career is important to you, then putting time and energy into it is a way of caring for yourself. But it’s counterproductive to only focus on that. Ending up with burnout because you’ve ignored your other needs won’t help your career or make you happy longer term.

“[When] your work isn’t necessarily in conflict with your personal life, it’s part of a greater whole. It’s one motivation fulfilled, and fulfilling that and being fulfilled in one area, and having a diverse set of motivations will make you happier and healthier as a whole person.”

5. Good self-care needs structural support

The Harvard Business Review gave employees the day off for the 2020 US election, as a wellness day. This struck us as a great example of how companies can be compassionate and support employees’ self-care.

(And, to be honest, it was also pragmatic. No one would have been able to focus on work!)

Any organisation which says it prioritises employees’ wellbeing must offer structural support for self-care. Otherwise, each individual employee has to go out on a limb to ask for what they need. And that can feel scary – you don’t want it to be misinterpreted as slacking off.

Whillans calls this the “fear of evaluation”. To remedy it, change has to come from the top down.

“If I take that time off, if I’m the person that’s going to go to the gym in the middle of my workday, [I] have this sneaking suspicion that that promotion might go to the person who’s working all the time.”

6. Sometimes leaders need to get tough about self-care

Obviously, workplaces should encourage good self-care. It makes for happier, healthier employees who are more productive and loyal in the long term.

But the fear of evaluation is deeply ingrained. In companies where the shift to a culture of self-care is proving difficult, some tough love may be in order.

For example, Whillans notes that “the best data suggests you have to regulate people taking time off if they’re not going to spontaneously do it … Say, well too bad, I’m forcing you to, if you check Slack, if you check email, I will dock your pay. We need to set a cultural norm that that’s not okay, that’s not what the ideal employee looks like.”

Sometimes this even has to be applied on a higher level than individual companies. In 2019, a legislative change in Japan made it mandatory for most full-time employees to take at least five days’ annual leave per year. That may not sound like much, but in a work culture where karoshi (“death from overwork”) is fairly common, it’s an important step.

“The ideal employee works really hard when they’re in the office and then goes home at a reasonable time and has a really great fulfilling, self-care filled life outside of the office. Because when you have a whole self that’s not just work, you perform better.”

7. Leaders must model good self-care

Japan’s workaholic culture is far from an isolated example. A lot of people feel guilty going home on time, taking days off or even just leaving their desk for lunch. One of the quickest ways to change that is for people in leadership positions to start doing those things – very visibly.

Managers and leaders must model good self-care, so as not to perpetuate outmoded and unhealthy approaches to work.

“There’s research showing that if managers truly disconnect on their vacation, then employees are more likely to do that too.”

8. We all need to prioritise self-care

It can be tough to prioritise looking after ourselves. But even if we’ve just started a new business, are involved in an exciting project or are in a competitive work environment, we’re not exempt from the need for good self-care.

Even Emma Calvert, co-founder and HR Partner here at Springboard Future, found that she needed to remind herself of this recently. “I spend time coaching managers and leaders every day on the importance of self care,” she says. “In fact, one of my favourite phrases is ‘if the Captain goes down…’ And yet I wasn’t taking my own advice.”

Emma found herself staying at her desk for longer and longer, without moving or taking breaks. In the end, she had to stop and coach the coach.

“I had a great conversation with myself about personal responsibility, reminding myself that self-care is actually not just healthy for me but also within my control. From there I have started to make small changes – things like taking a lunchtime walk, and sticking to a cut-off time so I can spend time with my family. These small changes have really helped my overall wellbeing.”

Especially if you’re in a management role, finding the balance with self-care can feel very complicated. But we believe it’s vital to your career’s longevity, and even your company’s success. That’s why we make sure to teach the necessary skills in our middle management and management team coaching. Self-care is not about pamper sessions and expensive wellness products. It’s a practical tool every leader should know how to use.