Is it just us, or has work become pretty full-on this autumn, despite (or perhaps because of) Covid-19?
A lot of the people we've been working with have shared that they are feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and close to burning out thanks to the slow burn of Covid-related anxiety, the indefinite uncertainty of not knowing how long this is all going to last, and the increasing and insurmountable amount of work on their plates – work that they often believe they cannot opt out of.
This is a problem.
Human beings are not designed to operate at full capacity all the time – and yet our culture, which often equates busyness, productivity and accomplishment with being a valuable worker, partner, parent and person, appears to be on overdrive in many organisations at the moment, as if we can somehow work our way out of the uncertainty, instability and complexity we find ourselves in.
In the midst of this relentless pressure to keep going, it can feel close to impossible to put measures in place to support our well-being and resilience.
Something as simple as stopping for a lunch break or even going to the loo before we are absolutely bursting can feel much harder than we know it's meant to be.
With a long list of expectations, to dos, stakeholders, clients and projects that need our attention, taking care of ourselves throughout the day often feels negligible and can easily take a nosedive straight to the bottom of our list – even though we know that working endlessly often ends up being hugely detrimental to our performance, not to mention our wellbeing.
Part of the problem is the fact that we live in a culture that disproportionately values work (or the appearance of work) – what The Atlantic calls "the religion of workism." More on that another day.
But a much smaller (and luckily, highly manageable) issue is the assumption that taking care of ourselves takes up too much time.
Self-care is often associated with acts of self-indulgence rather than acts of fundamental respect for what it means to be human.
For example, if you google self-care, you'll probably be awash in images of candlelit baths and sprigs of lavender. Collectively, we tend to associate self-care with long lunches, spa weekends, manicures and massages – all of which are amazing, but which also require a significant break from our daily routine.
Self-care in our daily lives is actually much more fundamental and much less extravagant than this. It simply means doing small things to meet our basic and most essential needs: drinking enough water, eating nourishing food, and allowing our brains to recharge through sleep, breaks, rest, play and connection.
This is why the concept of 'micro acts of self-care' is so gently powerful. Each intervention only requires a few seconds to a few minutes at most, but can generate, in the words of Blue, "an enormous sense of wellbeing." These micro-habits are also so simple that even the most hardened task master would have a hard time arguing against them.
Some examples of micro acts of self-care...
It's drinking a glass of water every hour
It's going to the loo when you need to rather than holding it in and pressing forward with work (a surprisingly large number of people do this, in case you're not one of them and have noticed me mentioning it a couple of times...)
It's scheduling meetings in such a way that ensures you have sufficient time in between to make a cuppa and shift gears – or letting your colleagues know you'll be arriving five minutes late or will need to duck out five minutes early. Boundaries!
It's getting outside at least once during your work day, even if it's just to take three deep, conscious breaths
It's getting away from your screens (yep, that means all of them – scrolling Instagram doesn't count as a break) every 50-90 minutes
It's practising mindfulness in a simple, unpretentious way. We love the 54321 exercise here at TWP: take a deep breath, and look around wherever you are. Then, silently name 5 things you can see; next, listen for 4 things you can hear; then notice 3 things you are touching; 2 things you can smell; and 1 thing you can taste. The whole exercise takes about 30 seconds and plugs you directly into the present moment. I find it leaves me feeling surprisingly energised and connected.
It's standing up and stretching your arms up to the ceiling every 30-60 minutes, just for a few seconds
It's consciously using your breath as a source of free, instant, never-ending support, especially during stressful moments. Most of us don't breathe as deeply as we have the capacity to and we're needlessly missing out. Pro tip: making the out breath longer than the in breath activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is essential unless you want to end up as a frazzled, adrenal-fatigued mess :)
It's checking in briefly at the start of your team meeting, giving yourself and everyone you work with the chance to share how you're all doing.
It's taking advantage of working from the privacy of your own home and lying on the ground for 30 seconds in the middle of the working day, just because you can. (I do this all the time and it's amazing how it settles my nervous system).
It's slowing things down just a fraction so that there are micro pauses in between things - such as when you press send on one email and before you get going on the next. Try it! You can take a deep breath, or count to five. It's kind of fun. (Hey, there's a pandemic happening. I get my kicks where I can.)
None of these small interventions require you to make major changes to your day, but the impact they can have on your heart rate, your adrenaline and cortisol levels, your sleep, your mood and your stress levels – not to mention your productivity – can be enormous.
Once you've incorporated these small changes into your life, making bigger changes – like actually taking a proper lunch break or even letting yourself take a nap now and then – becomes easier.
If you're a leader, this has extra significance, because every tiny thing you do is amplified in terms of what you role model to the people around you. You set the tone for what is deemed permissible or unacceptable in the culture you work in.
Not to get too philosophical on you, but I think it's worth pointing out that in their own way, these tiny, almost imperceptible changes are one way that you can resist the messages that we're bombarded with that equate our worth with our productivity. We're not saying productivity isn't important. It is important, but it's not everything.
These tiny acts of agency remind you that you might be employed, but you are still in charge of your day and your life. They are a symbol and a reminder that you are, first and foremost, a human being, not a human doing.
And even if all you care about is doing your best work – even if you're not actually striving for some sort of life outside work and want to 'beat the competition' and achieve at all costs – even then, building in micro acts of self-care will help you do better work for longer.
You have permission to take a break. Self-care is essential.
Now we would love to hear from you. What's your favourite micro act of self-care right now? And what's one thing you'd like to incorporate more into your day? Leave a comment over at our LinkedIn page and join the conversation.