top of page
Search

Leading from a Place of Renewal: The Business Case for Leader Self-Care


One of the most crucial yet undervalued aspects of leadership is self-care. Effective leadership requires immense resilience, empathy, and energy—resources that are easily depleted without proper self-care. Leaders who neglect their own needs ultimately struggle to meet the needs of others.


Today we will explore the research foundation of why self-care is essential for leaders and provide practical strategies and organizational examples for how leaders can integrate self-care into their daily practice to become better equipped for the challenges of leadership.


Research Foundation: Self-Care Enhances Leadership Capacity


A wealth of research demonstrates that self-care enhances many qualities crucial to effective leadership. Specifically:


  • Stress Management: High stress negatively impacts cognitive abilities like decision-making, problem-solving, and creativity (Sapolsky, 2017). Self-care practices like meditation, exercise, and spending time in nature lower stress levels (Ratey & Manning, 2014). With lower stress, leaders can think more clearly and bring out their best selves.

  • Resilience: Resilience is the ability to withstand and recover quickly from difficulties and is a core competency of successful leaders (Avolio & Gardner, 2005). Engaging in self-care regularly builds resilience over time by strengthening the body’s stress response system (Southwick & Charney, 2012). Resilient leaders withstand challenges with poise.

  • Empathy: Chronic stress physically impacts areas of the brain associated with empathy (Cameron, 2019). Self-care—which relieves both physical and mental strain—allows leaders to remain empathetic and attuned to others. Empathetic leadership enhances understanding, culture, and performance.

  • Productivity: Insufficient rest leads to tiredness, distraction, and mistakes that undermine productivity (Mitchell & Lord, 2020). Self-care ensures leaders show up each day replenished and capable of their best work. Well-cared-for leaders help drive organizational success.

  • Retention: Leaders who feel supported and cared for by their organizations are less likely to experience burnout and more likely to stay with their roles (Branch et al., 2013). Self-care models healthy boundary-setting that improves retention for all employees.


Self-care enhances the mind, body, and spirit—allowing leaders to bring their fullest, healthiest selves to their important work each day.


Practical Strategies for Self-Care


Effective self-care strategies must be outlined and applied.


Physical Self-Care


Our bodies are deeply affected by stress and central to overall wellness. Leaders should:


  • Exercise regularly: Even light activity like walking boosts mood, energy and cognition (Ratey & Manning, 2014).

  • Eat nutritious meals: Proper nourishment fuels body and mind. Meal-prep helps avoid convenience choices.

  • Get sufficient sleep: Most adults need 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night for restoration (Hirshkowitz et al., 2015). Adjust schedules accordingly.

  • Limit substances: While occasional indulgences are fine, daily caffeine, alcohol or drug use depletes reserves over time.


Mental Self-Care


Our moods and thinking impact all areas of life. Leaders should:


  • Practice mindfulness: Even brief daily meditation reduces stress and improves focus (Keng et al., 2011). Apps make it convenient.

  • Engage hobbies: Non-work activities stimulate the brain and provide relaxation, like reading, artwork, sports.

  • Delegate tasks: Do not take on more than realistically possible to complete with quality. Say no when necessary.

  • Track progress, not perfection: Focus on growth, not flawlessness, which reduces unhealthy pressure.


Emotional Self-Care


Our emotions guide behavior and decision-making. Leaders should:


  • Spend time with trusted people: Social support boosts mood, reduces fear and amplifies positivity (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008).

  • Express a range of emotions: Suppressing feelings strains the body over time. Healthy outlets include journaling and hobbies.

  • Practice gratitude: Reflecting regularly on life's gifts induces upbeat emotions and perspective.

  • Forgive yourself and others: Letting go of past mistakes or transgressions lifts internal burdens.


Spiritual Self-Care


Our purpose and values fuel continued growth. Leaders should:


  • Engage in reflection: Daily quiet time for contemplation nourishes inner life regardless of specific faith.

  • Give back: Find ways to contribute skill sets for causes believed in outside job scope.

  • Experience nature: Being outside amid trees and scenery reduces stress, elevates mood (Twohig-Bennett & Jones, 2018).

  • Embrace imperfection: Non-judgment of oneself and others allows acceptance of humanity's shared flaws.


The above categories provide a holistic approach, but flexibility allows customizing self-care to individual needs and circumstances. Consistency over time yields tremendous benefit.


Organizational Example: Shake Shack


Shake Shack, a fast casual restaurant chain, sets an excellent example of prioritizing employee self-care and wellness. Their leadership recognized that happy, healthy staff translates directly to great customer service and outcomes.


Shake Shack provides fully-paid healthcare with mental healthcare coverage for all employees, which is rare in the service industry. They offer a team of wellness coaches also, to address issues discreetly.


Locations are designed with indoor greenery and natural light to boost moods. Music playlists are carefully selected to be upbeat but not stressful. Employee dining areas encourage resting, socializing and recharging between shifts.


Paid time off is generous and leaders actively encourage its use. A no-overtime policy prevents burnout. Employee satisfaction surveys guide continual enhancements based on feedback.


These self-care investments have paid off for Shake Shack’s retention rates, productivity and popularity as an employer. Their higher operating costs are recouped many times over through reduced hiring/training and maximized workforce potential. Other companies would be wise to follow this model.


Conclusion


In today’s fast-paced business climate, leadership demands much while offering little in return without self-care. Leaders cannot pour from empty cups. Research clearly shows self-care’s positive impacts on the mind, body and skills necessary to lead effectively.


Organizations serious about retaining talent and driving excellence must recognize self-care as a necessity, not luxury, by supporting it through policies, resources and culture changes. Leaders themselves must adopt self-care strategies tailored to their needs, and model good self-care behaviors to create a culture where all staff can bring their best efforts each day.


The investments of time and attention required for self-care more than pay off through greater leadership capability, workplace well-being and business outcomes. For leaders and companies aspiring towards peak performance and sustainability, making regular self-care a priority has never been more crucial. Overall wellness at both individual and systemic levels must become a value, not an afterthought, to build high-functioning teams equipped to meet evolving challenges.


References


  • Avolio, B. J., & Gardner, W. L. (2005). Authentic leadership development: Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 315–338. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2005.03.001

  • Branch, S., Ramsay, S., & Barker, M. (2013). Workplace bullying, mobbing and general harassment: A review. International Journal of Management Reviews, 15(3), 280–299. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2370.2012.00339.x

  • Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. W. W. Norton & Company.

  • Cameron, O. G. (2019). Chronic stress alters the brain's response to fear. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(4), 1173–1174. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1821082116

  • Hirshkowitz, M., Whiton, K., Albert, S. M., Alessi, C., Bruni, O., DonCarlos, L., Hazen, N., Herman, J., Katz, E. S., Kheirandish-Gozal, L., Neubauer, D. N., O'Donnell, A. E., Ohayon, M., Peever, J., Rawding, R., Sachdeva, R. C., Setters, B., Vitiello, M. V., ... Adams Hillard, P. J. (2015). National Sleep Foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: Methodology and results summary. Sleep Health, 1(1), 40–43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleh.2014.12.010

  • Keng, S.-L., Smoski, M. J., & Robins, C. J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(6), 1041–1056. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2011.04.006

  • Mitchell, R., & Lord, R. (2020). Stress, sleep debt and leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 31(6), 101402. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2020.101402

  • Ratey, J. J., & Manning, R. (2014). Go wild: Free your body and mind from the afflictions of civilization. Little, Brown and Company.

  • Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst. Penguin Books.

  • Southwick, S. M., & Charney, D. S. (2012). Resilience: The science of mastering life's greatest challenges. Cambridge University Press.

  • Twohig-Bennett, C., & Jones, A. (2018). The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environmental Research, 166, 628–637. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2018.06.030

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



21 views

Comments


bottom of page