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Read almost any article on workplace perks — the internet is awash in them — and you’d think that every business has an on-site gym, massage therapist, and juice bar. Some companies are fortunate enough to provide gym memberships for employees, or leadership coaching. But the reality is most employees don’t get the flashy perks. Many employees work in environments where work–life balance is not fostered. Some can’t even get a quiet 30 minutes to eat lunch.
In a fast-paced world with endless meetings, appointments, and distractions, stress can get out of control in the workplace. And there are no guarantees that employers will take the time to care for the emotional needs of employees. Sometimes, it falls to the employees themselves.
But there are free and simple (but not necessarily easy) fundamental practices you can use in the workplace to practice self-care, manage stress, and sustain high performance at work.
It sounds new-agey, right? Maybe it makes you think of standing on a mountain or acupuncture or kale. It’s really much simpler than that. “Self-care is being aware of your fundamental needs to be healthy and high performing — and then fulfilling those needs,” says Carolyn Paris, a leadership consultant and coach.
There’s nothing new about self-care, says Paris, but there is an increasing need for self-care as we increase our number of appointments, meetings, and to-dos. “We’re just adding more and more to our lives, and as a result, we have less and less [energy] available to us,” Paris says.
Think about it in these terms: for employers, encouraging self-care sustains your high performers. For employees, the concept is about making a great life, physically, mentally, and emotionally — and part of that is reflected in your work. Self-care is not something you do when you have time: it’s a state of mind, a way to make your life what you want it to be. “It really is what life is about,” Paris says. “Self-care determines the quality of your life.”
Dr. Anand Chockalingam is an MU Health cardiologist who specializes in wellness and stress reduction. When he sees patients, he’s not just looking at cardiac symptoms. He takes a more holistic viewpoint.
Stress, he says, is the elephant in the room. “If we can understand stress, I honestly believe work output would be better, family life would be better, individual health would improve so much,” Chockalingam says. “We can prevent, you’d be surprised, nine out of 10 heart attacks if we recognize and address stress.”
Stress leads to bad habits: overeating, smoking, and sleep disorders, to name a few, which lead to hypertension, diabetes, and more physical symptoms. Our increasingly fast-paced way of living contributes as well.
“I look at this as one of the most important things to address in order to get so many health benefits downstream over the years,” Chockalingam says.
Again, kale smoothies not necessary — in my own experience, sometimes a really, really delicious donut can do just as much to boost your energy. Self-care is about something more basic than your diet. “The way to have sustainable high performance is to plug into the fundamentals,” Paris says. “And the fundamentals are not sexy, they’re not easy, but they’re simple,” Paris says.
How to build those fundamental skills, though? Paris suggests setting the intent to make good choices every day, even when faced with the temptation of extra responsibilities that are thrown our way. “It’s so easy to overdo, because then we get that addiction to that adrenaline high, that fast heartbeat,” Paris says. “It’s a hard road [to overwork]. You can do it for a lifetime, but it’s a really hard road and it separates you from having a high-performing, high-quality life.”
Chockalingam’s goal is to teach patients to take more responsibility for their own health. He’s so passionate about the topic that he teaches classes on how to smile 20 times a day, how to savor food, how to enjoy life.
“I teach people about how to take more responsibility for our own health,” he says.
So here we go: some tips and tricks for focusing on self-care that don’t require deep pockets or an advanced psychology degree.
Learning to objectively measure the stress we experience can help us manage the feelings we have about it, says Chockalingam. There’s a difference between the stress of being in a car accident and the day-to-day stress we experience; that day to day stress is what he calls perceived stress.
“This perceived stress ends up being the biggest bulk of the stress that we undergo in our lives,” Chockalingam says. “So first thing is to understand what it is and to quantify the role of the stress in our individual lives. The next step is understanding that this is contributing to my way of living. Then we can address it specifically.”
If you can stop and quantify stress, smaller challenges related to that stress will seem more manageable.
In high-stress situations, Paris says, we can feel ourselves go out of our bodies and experience extreme anger or nervousness. Grounding is becoming aware of your body, and it can provide relief to strong emotions. Paris suggests literally putting your feet down on the floor and feeling the ground beneath your feet.
When’s the last time you sat comfortably for five minutes with no technology, no to-dos, and no purpose but relaxation? This can be a simple and fast gateway into mindfulness techniques.
When Chockalingam sees a patient for the first time, he might tell that person to sit quietly for five minutes each day and to think about something pleasant.
He says the next time he sees the patient, he always hears that they’ve really enjoyed that five minutes.
“This is the first step to rest — relaxation,” he says. “The next step is mindfulness, then formal meditation techniques. All this we can gradually incorporate depending on a patient’s level of comfort.”
Gone are the days of bragging about getting two hours of sleep. It’s now out of fashion to be the overworker on the team.
Rest doesn’t just mean getting enough sleep though. It’s also about stepping away from work and taking breaks, whether it’s a walk around the building a few times a day or not checking email on the weekend. Paris relates it to the sharpened saw analogy, originally used by Steve Covey, the author and business speaker.
“The blade gets dull and you have to push a little bit harder and it takes a little bit longer,” Paris says. “But if you stop and sharpen the saw, when you start back in, your blade is sharp and you can just go right back to work.”
Mindfulness might seem like a challenging concept, and meditation even more so. It’s simply a way of introspection, Chockalingam says. It’s being more aware; it’s thinking about what we’re thinking.
As life gets more stressful, he says, “The best way to cope with that is becoming more present in the moment.” This means savoring the food you eat, noticing the taste of coffee, feeling yourself sitting in your chair. Play some calming music and hear the individual notes playing.
When Paris starts out coaching a new client, often her first assignment is to practice self-awareness. Awareness will be the key to the next steps. “Until they have awareness,” she says, “there’s nothing to do.”
As you go through your week, ask yourself to notice the situations that cause you stress. When does your chest tighten? Is it often in a particular situation? Maybe jot it down in a notebook. “Once we’re able to notice it, then we can be in choice, and until we notice it, we have no choice,” Paris says.
This tends to be a tough to-do item in the workplace — it’s not typically the setting where most of us want to let our guard down. “Most leaders think that they have to be invincible and cannot show any vulnerability for fear of looking wrong,” Paris says. “That trickles down to everyone else on your team.”
But being vulnerable about your stress level or personal challenges you’re overcoming can allow others to support you through your challenges. And leaders, if you’re concerned about a high performer, you can’t expect them to be vulnerable with you if you’re not willing to do the same with them. “Share about yourself and be open and vulnerable to them,” Paris says. “Say ‘I don’t know what it’s like for you, but here’s what it’s like for me. I want to have a conversation to be able to support you through this.’”
And then, once you’ve been vulnerable with the people around you, consider also putting in place boundaries to protect yourself. Set self-imposed prohibitions on answering work questions after 5 p.m. Insist on taking breaks throughout the day — it helps you do your job better. Refuse to pretend that working 60 hours a week is giving you the fun, satisfying, powerful life you want.
Ever been in a conversation where you’re certain the other person isn’t listening, or isn’t really “there”? Paris says listening is key to being present with others. “Being present raises a level of trust, and being present allows for creativity and authenticity,” she says. Check in with yourself privately before a meeting. Close the door of your office or step outside for a moment. Who are you being right now? Are you forgiving? Are you resentful? Are you feeling generous or stingy? “We have no control over our environment, really,” Paris says. “There’ll always be challenges and circumstances . . . but how we show up is what we do have charge over.”
Being aware of our own behaviors and tendencies enables us to “walk the walk,” Paris says. Be present in your nervousness leading up to a hard conversation. Be present to irritation when coaching an employee. Be honest with yourself about your feelings. It might lead to some discomfort initially, but dealing with feelings and emotions is essential.
“Most of us try and numb out, inhale our feelings, drink our emotions,” Paris says, “and so when we show up, we have less resiliency, because we’re not in our top sustainable high performance.”
If you snicker at the idea of meditation, consider that terrible feeling you get when you’re nervous or scared and your chest tightens. Your body is not getting air, your brain is not getting oxygen. Practicing deep, cleansing breaths can be a lifelong stress reliever — and once you’ve done that, you’re basically already meditating.
It’s simple to start: pause, close your eyes, and breathe as deeply as you can. “That gives you access to a whole new level of performance,” Paris says.
“When we’re preoccupied, we tend to breathe more shallow,” Chockalingam says. “If you take a deep breath, you may find that the coffee in front of you right now tastes a little bit better. Our mind becomes more perceptive once we take a deep breath. We’re able to become more alive directly with a deep breath.”
Yoga is a good way to practice breathing, but you can also just sit and take 10 deep breaths. “If we fix the breathing, we can even fix the perspective of what we’re [experiencing],” Chockalingam says.
How do you create your ideal working situation? Your ideal life? You envision it. Paris suggests creating a full, descriptive picture of what a fun, satisfying, powerful life looks like for you. Maybe it’s achieving an advanced degree, or getting home at 5:30 each night instead of 7:00. Whatever’s missing in your life, create action items that will help you head in that direction.
And don’t keep that information to yourself. Paris suggests sharing your goals with a trusted friend, mentor, or coach. They’ll help hold you accountable, and they may even share the same goal. “So many times, people try and do it alone. You have your goal setting and it never works out,” Paris says. “Cynicism and resignation about people leads to laziness in our leadership.”
Self-care doesn’t have to cost a dime, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. Mostly, it’s about taking time for yourself and learning to be aware of your feelings and reactions. Simple, but not necessarily easy.