First Aid for the Leadership Long Game: Seven small changes that can make a big difference

Last week, I received a link from a client to a Globe and Mail article entitled Working from home is causing breakdowns. It echoed a conversation we had just had about a general sense of creeping malaise he had been experiencing. As I read it, I thought, “This is how a lot of people are feeling right now.” 

In the article, Tim Kiladze and Tamsin McMahon cite a number of troubling trends. According to Statistics Canada, there was a sharp increase in stress leaves in 2020, while hours spent on vacation dropped 20 percent to a nearly 40-year low. Insurance company, Sun Life Financial, reported that the number of searches for a local psychologist on its free health app, recently hit 2,000 a day, double the number from February 2020.

Ironically, all this bad news comes as spring has just arrived, the days are getting longer and vaccines are being deployed. At the very moment that we can see tangible signs of the end of this long and difficult COVID season, many of us are hitting new lows.

This is akin to what runners refer to as “hitting the wall”. In marathon running, this is the phenomenon that usually occurs around mile 20 of a 26-mile race, when your body is out of glycogen and can no longer fuel your run. Much like what many of my clients and colleagues are reporting now, it sneaks up on you and what one minute feels like a bit of a slog, the next can feel like a hard stop. It’s not the end of the race; but it can be the most difficult and sometimes most perilous part.

Like in a marathon, physical and mental training can help you avoid the wall. But what if you are already there?

For some, this could be signs of serious burn out signalling a need for professional support including therapy and / or medication. If you suspect you may be there, the most responsible and effective thing you can do is to seek help, get evaluated and get on the road to recovery. This is good leadership – knowing when you are at your limit and getting the help you need.

For many leaders, however, a little first aid in the form of some small but mighty changes can be enough to get you across the finish line and to a place where you can recover, refuel and retrain for the next significant challenge you will face. Below are seven small changes, doable for even the busiest leaders that can make a big difference.

1.      Begin each day with one small victory.

In his commencement address at the University of Texas, Admiral William McRaven, said “If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another…. Making your bed will reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. And if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made… If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”

There are three things I love about this advice. 1) It’s an accomplishment, a little victory; 2) It’s the same thing every day, a morning ritual that sets you up for the day; 3. It’s small and doable, increasing the chances that you can make room for it every day. It doesn’t have to be making your bed. It could be a morning walk, yoga, 10 minutes of meditation, or a sit-down breakfast with your kids. Whatever it is, start your day with a small routine that feels like a win.

2.      Find what feels good.

My on-line yoga teacher has an app called FWFG, it stands for “Find What Feels Good”. I’ve learned that there’s a difference between what you think feels good and what actually feels good. And if you don’t pay attention, you can do things that actually make you feel worse. Case in point. I used to think that a large glass of red wine at the end of a hard day felt good. And yes, there are few things yummier than that first sip. But then I noticed that I tended to nod off in front of the T.V. afterward and then later, when I went to bed, I’d wake up at 2 a.m. and not be able to get back to sleep. The next day, I’d feel like crap. So, I replaced the red wine with a wine glass of sparkling water and a wedge of lime. I was surprised at how much better this tiny change made me feel.

Find the simple pleasures in life that improve your sense of well-being, not just in the moment but afterward as well – morning yoga, hanging out with your kids, listening to your favourite music. Replace one of your numbing out activities with something that actually feels good. Savour it and treat yourself every day.

3.      Move

When you are ruminating, feeling stuck or just feeling off, movement is one of the best ways to shift perspective and get out of your head.

Maybe a bracing morning run is your style. If so, go for it.

If you are already pushing hard with exercise, perhaps you need to slow it down. Keep moving but make it easier, less punishing. Maybe try a 20-minute yoga routine to start your day.

Here’s the thing. To give yourself a lift, your movement doesn’t need to hurt, it doesn’t need to be long, it doesn’t need to be hard. You simply need to move. Get up from your chair often, stretch, walk around.

Move your body, change your mind.

4.      Take yourself outside at least once a day.

Like many of you, I live in the Great White North. At this time of year, the increase in daylight, the rising temperatures and just the presence of sun can make you feel euphoric after a long cold winter. But you have to get out in it to feel the lift. If you are spending long hours in a dark basement, the change in light or the additional sunshine cannot work their magic. Try to get outside for a minimum of 30 minutes at least once a day. The exercise is great but the hit of vitamin D, the feel of fresh air hitting your lungs and some time in nature, priceless.

Not only can it give you a mood lift, it can also improve your focus and productivity when you do return to work. 

5.      Change the scenery.

When organizations first closed their offices and asked employees to work from home, many of us assumed it would be very temporary – a few weeks or months at most. Some people set up shop at the kitchen table, others worked from their bedrooms, some took a dark windowless corner of the basement and a year later, many are still there. Are you working in a Jury-rigged environment with an uncomfortable chair, a desk that makes your neck hurt and no privacy? All these things affect your focus and your mental and physical health.

We tend to pay a lot of attention to what we do and very little attention to where and how we do it. The conditions in which you work are more important than you think. Small shifts in your working conditions can make a very big difference. A new chair, a window that opens, a door that closes or a simple change in lighting can bring relief from stress.

My husband recently installed a background slide show on my laptop. It includes about 30 photos of our kids and grandkids from the ages of 0 to 5 years. Now when I boot up my computer or close down an app, up pops one of these photos. All of them are adorable, many of them are funny and because I never know which one will appear, they give me a giggle and a little hit of joy EVERY SINGLE time.

What small change to the scenery could you make to give yourself a lift? 

6.      Create more space and genuine connection in your day.

We made many adaptations to our work and lives to enable working from home. Not all of them were helpful. Have you replaced your morning and evening commute with extended hours of work; do you agree to back-to-back Zoom meetings without a break; when you get on these calls are you greeted with real smiling faces or dark screens and photos of colleagues who are off-screen and likely multi-tasking? All these things affect your sense of well-being and theirs.

Schedule breaks between meetings throughout the day and use them to get up from your desk and move. If there are others in your household, use these breaks to check in and connect with live human beings. If you already have back-to-back meetings in your calendar for the foreseeable future, negotiate ending them early. What you can do in 60 minutes, you can do in 45 or 50 minutes if you create an intention to do so. For longer meetings, suggest a short break every hour. 

Remember there are real human beings on the other end of that video call. Make eye contact. Ask them how they are. Have an intentional conversation with colleagues you meet with frequently about how you could make your video meetings easier on everyone’s sense of connectedness, well-being and mental health.

7.      Support someone else who is struggling.

A lot of people are struggling right now. Sometimes it’s hard to see, especially if we are not working in the same office or if we are focused on our own hardships. A highly effective way to improve your own sense of well-being is to turn your focus to someone else in need. Take a few minutes to ask your colleagues how they are doing. Show some kindness to a co-worker who is struggling. Studies show that performing small acts of kindness, significantly boost your own sense of well-being.

Small changes; big impact.

In any marathon, there are first aid stations with volunteers placed strategically around the track. That’s because runners sometimes stumble, sometimes fall, sometimes cramp up. A bandage, a glass of water or just a moment of rest and compassion can be enough to get them back on their feet and across the finish line.

What first aid can you deliver to yourself today?

~ Image by Peggy and Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixaby

Posted in
About the author:

Cathy Jacob

Cathy brings a unique skill for deep listening, an unwavering belief in her clients and a gentle sense of humour to her coaching practice. She opened a full time coaching practice in 2004 and in 2009, she co-founded Fire Inside Leadership to expand the impact of leadership development and coaching in her community and beyond.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.