Our NHS People

Caring for your own wellbeing and balancing your life

This article explores why senior leaders need to pay attention to their own wellbeing to overcome overwhelm and return to balance. In Greek mythology, the Greek God Atlas permanently holds heaven and earth apart as a punishment. The Goddess Themis, on the other hand, balances order, fairness and custom, her Scales of Justice representing balance and pragmatism. Senior leaders might often be feeling like Atlas whilst wishing to be more of Themis. Sounds familiar?  

The stress within the NHS where leaders are holding everyone else to account while being held to account themselves creates a culture of cumulative behaviours, some positive and some not.  For example, workplace culture can so easily be focussed on presenteeism and ‘being there’ rather than ‘rest and recover’. There is recognition that front line staff need to be given permission to rest and recover for their own wellbeing. This applies to leaders too.  

Research has shown that poor mental health including swings of mood, and poor physical health or high stress have been shown to reduce our capacity to experience empathy for others and so can become barriers to effective leadership. In evolutionary terms we are team players, and teams will perform best when they thrive together. 

Self-compassion matters 

We may feel we do not deserve the ‘luxury’ of self-compassion and self-care when others around us at home and at work appear to need it even more than we do. However, one does not exclude the other. In fact, appreciating and acknowledging our own vulnerability and wellbeing needs, allows us to respond with more empathy and understanding for others. In turn this builds a culture of emotional honesty, congruence, and authenticity. Taking control of our work and out of work life balance could be fundamental to your own ability to lead effectively. 

We might worry that we are going to feel more vulnerable by acknowledging our own wellbeing needs to ourselves or others. Of course, that might happen, coaches and psychotherapists call this ‘being with your feelings’. It is not always comfortable but sometimes we have to identify and name the emotions, thoughts, and feelings we are experiencing to acknowledge we need to make changes for ourselves or to decide to ask for the support and help we really need. 

There are biological and physiological determinates of brain and body health including our genes, hormones, and our immune system however there are wellbeing strategies which are within our control and which support us to perform at our best e.g. good nutrition, exercise, rest, sleep, and hydration.  

Below are some quick wins to start a process of self-compassion and at the end of the article are some links to resources available through the NHS wellbeing services where you can seek advice, support, coaching or therapeutic interventions.  

There is also an exercise at the end of the article which can provide a framework for identifying whether your life feels well balanced and what you want to do about that situation.  

  • A two-minute walk (exercise) every 30 minutes maintains optimum blood flow to the brain and so cognitive function throughout the working day. If you look at a screen much of the day, moving around is a bonus for eye health and wards off stiffness and fatigue too. At the very least set a timer, get up stretch and move every half an hour. 
  • Take a ‘mental health micro break’ and look through a window at a green environment. Research shows visual contact with the natural world can help top up your energy and mood resources – it is called biophilia. Investing in a pot plant for the office can also support your wellbeing and even looking at a picture of nature on your phone can help. 
Photo by Martin Rancourt on Unsplash
  • We naturally sigh when we are tired or fed up. Try taking a shorter inbreath and letting out a longer outbreath. There is evidence to show this ‘shape’ of breathing when repeated a few times leads to a reduction in blood pressure and heart rate. (Not recommended for anyone with low blood pressure or breathing issues.) This is a quick way to set up for a challenging call or meeting and even consciously relaxing your shoulders, jaw and hands helps de-stress in the moment.  
  • Remember to hydrate regularly yet avoid any caffeinated drinks after midday: caffeine has ¼ life which means by midnight you could still have the equivalent of ¼ of a cup of black coffee in your bloodstream if you drink coke/coffee with your lunch. This can affect your ability to fall asleep and reduce your sleep quality.  
  • Take a walk outside in daylight around lunchtime and you will sleep better. A lack of bright natural light exposure during the day can result in disruption of the circadian system and lead to feelings of depression, poor sleep quality, lethargy, and even illness.  
  • Go for a lunchtime walk with colleagues and enjoy the social aspects of this shared activity. Sharing a meal together in the sunshine would be a bonus. 
  • Rest can be active: reading, walking, painting, or passive, watching the TV, listening to a podcast. ‘Busyness’ is not a badge of honour and we will never complete our to do lists so taking a rest does not equate to being lazy rather it is the chance to be mindful or to shift our attention from work to self. Turning off our mobiles when we are resting will make this even more powerful. 

At times of extreme pressure, we may feel we just do not have the energy to focus on anything but ‘maintenance care’. Constant coffee or energy drinks, snacking on sugary foods and having alcohol to help us relax in front of Netflix can be great to get us through a challenging time. However, we must beware of using ‘maintenance care’ as a long-term strategy. If you are stuck in a habit like this try some small changes first, too much change in one go can be destabilising.   

You can access the following resources and support or try the exercise below.  

Life balance exercise to complete by yourself in 10-15 minutes or with someone who will ask the questions.  

  1. Thinking of a specific moment in time recently when your life did not feel well balanced answer the following questions giving as much detail as possible before moving on to the next question. 
  • What did I see that let me know life was not well balanced for me? 
  • What did I hear
  • What were the feelings in my body?  
  • What thoughts did I have (what story did I tell myself?) 
  • How did I feel (my emotions)? 
  1. Thinking of a specific moment in time recently when your life felt really well-balanced answer the following questions giving as much detail as possible before moving on to the next question. 
  • What did I see that let me know life was well balanced for me?  
  • What did I hear? 
  • What were the feelings in my body?  
  • What thoughts did I have (what story did I tell myself)? 
  • How did I feel (my emotions)? 
  1. Now think about what you can take away for your work/life balance. 
  • What do you know now about your work/life balance?  
  • What do you want to have happen? 
  • What will you do now about your work/life balance? 

Aim to identify specific actions you can take and write them down as commitments to yourself.  

Based on work by Tamsin Hartley’s Experience Mapping Process https://www.thelisteningspace.co.uk/coming-to-calm-workshop 

References: 

Grinde B and Grindal G (2009)  Biophilia: Does Visual contact with nature impact on health and wellbeing? IJERPH. Vol 6. Issue 9. 10.3390/ijerph6092332.   

Hammond C. (2020) The Art of Rest. How to Find Respite in the Modern World Age. Canongate Books Ltd ISBN 97817892829. 

Lee K, Sargant L D, Williams K, Williams N, Johnson K (2017) Green micro breaks: Viewing workplace nature improves mood and performance. Academy of Management Vol 2017, issue101. Jan2017 

Walker M (2017) Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN: 9780141983769