Professional Development & Learning Services

Put Your Oxygen Mask On FIRST!

Put Your Oxygen Mask On FIRST!

Small business owners often wear many hats. As leaders, if they are not working in their business, they are working on the business. Because every waking moment is precious, some of these hard-working entrepreneurs mistakenly believe taking time off for personal reasons or professional development is a luxury they can’t afford. After all, how will things get done in their absence?

Photo by Brodie Vissers

Believing they are indispensable and must be available for business 24/7, some don’t schedule real vacations, are hesitant to enjoy spontaneous “fun-time” with family and friends; sleep is limited. These busy leaders “have fires to put out, sales leads to follow, new products and services to bring to market, and certainly don’t have bandwidth for attending an out-of-town learning conference … where other people are going to be socializing all day … No, not while there’s real work to do!” For them, such a frivolous break would be a waste of time, effort, and resources!

But this can be a costly mindset – both personally and professionally.

Investment Begins with “I”!

Luckily, there are many business persons who would disagree with such a limited focus … because they know differently. Research consistently shows the benefits of personal time away from work, which include:

  • improved productivity;
  • enhanced decision-making;
  • lower stress; and
  • better mental health.

Smart leaders recognize that taking time to recharge and get away from their daily work routine is crucial, for both their health and the well-being of their companies. Being completely away from business, even for short periods, oftentimes reinvigorate, spark creativity, and provide new perspective on old problems. Many of the most successful business leaders consider breaks a wise investment in themselves and for their companies – not a frivolous waste. Some even schedule in naps to re-energize!

When leaders encourage their teams to take their breaks, leave on time, use all their earned vacation days, and support time away from work for personal time off (PTO) and professional development, the return is usually reflected in happier employees, less absenteeism, happier customers, more productivity, and higher profit margins for the company. 

It All Starts and Ends with You!

Think about this:

As the plane is preparing for takeoff, your flight attendant instructs: “In case of emergency, put your oxygen mask on before helping others.” At first, this seems counter-intuitive, until you realize the truth; should you become unconscious, you can’t take care of anyone else! And then, someone will have to take care of you!

Consider what would happen if the pilot’s first reaction was to assist his cockpit crew in putting on their masks before tending to his own.  Sounds silly when we say it like that, doesn’t it?  But this is what many entrepreneurs and business leaders do every day.

Small business owners and leaders at all levels work long hours; some report as much as 60 – 70 hours at the office per week. And even when they are not at the office, many admit thinking about work, or sneaking a little time away from the family to “finish up something” for work. Then there is the time some spent taking work calls during the commute to and from home. After all, they have tremendous responsibility for others (employees, customers, contractors, suppliers, their families, and communities). The future of their companies is determined by their decisions and actions. 

This responsibility may become burdensome over time for those whose first instinct is to always make sure everyone else is okay, before taking care of their own needs. Burnout is the ultimate price; and it can lead to poor decision-making, lack of energy, and major mistakes.

Photo by Sydney Rae

We all need downtime to recharge and stay healthy, to enjoy the fruits of our hard work. Leaders, you are a role model to others – so take care of yourself FIRST and encourage others to do the same for themselves. When you reserve downtime for yourself, protect that break from work as you would the time set aside for a crucial business meeting with the largest client your company ever had. Yes – it’s that important! 

People who do not follow this basic “self-first” principle, inadvertently become part of the problem instead of being part of the solution. Planned time-off for a specified duration is a better business strategy than unplanned time-out indefinitely; the latter can potentially cripple your company! Ensure you will be around, and able to take care of others when needed. But also recognize you should not be so indispensable that business will come to a screeching halt if you are away! Have a back-up person(s) and a back-up plan. 

Small business owners and seasoned leaders know it’s not easy disconnecting completely from work. Solo-practitioners, especially, have the hardest time stepping away; and they are also the group most prone to burnout. When leaders worry that business will suffer if they are not available to make decisions and help customers 24/7, they won’t be able to reap the benefits of being away from the office for any substantial length of time.

As leaders, you set the standard, the direction, and the commitment that your people will follow. So, do it right!  Unless it’s a matter of life and death, business can get along without you if things are planned, effectively communicated with your teams and customers, and your people are well-trained and empowered to act in the company’s best interest.

Now, if the idea of breaking completely away from work is making you anxious, nauseous, dizzy, or causing your heart to race – try this: Start slow, and ease into it! Your goal is to make small, gradual tweaks which will eventually result in long-term gains.  Yes, taking a couple of weeks to disconnect on a vacation abroad can happen… in time!

The key is to get yourself and your teams accustomed to business running smoothly even in your absence. To get started, here are a few ideas you might try incorporating over the coming weeks and throughout the next few months.

  1. Take an uninterrupted lunch break – just one hour away from your desk and no work calls.

Start with twice a week and work up to the full five days whenever possible. Weather permitting, after eating that healthy lunch, enjoy a brisk walk to get some fresh air before heading back to work. To go one step further, try going unplugged for the hour; when you are ready, ditch the phone totally while you take your lunch break.

Also encourage your employees to eat lunch in the break room, at the picnic tables outside, or anywhere that’s away from their desk. The temptation to answer the phone and catch up on emails could draw people into working when they should be refueling physically and relaxing mentally.

  1. Reserve a few enrichment hours or some well-deserved “me-time”.

Over the next Quarter, choose a few days and block out a short time frame on your calendar for different events. You might schedule yourself to attend an on-line training program, meet with your Coach, have coffee with your Mentee, go to the gym, attend a dance class, take a walk, have a non-business lunch with a friend, volunteer at the nearby school, take a nap, learn yoga, or meditate.

If you plan to be off-premises for a couple of hours, communicate when you’ll be returning, and that you expect not to be disturbed while gone; you’ll be back soon. Set the precedence that you trust your Second-in- Command and entire team to do what’s needed in your absence.

Breathe and relax; don’t give in to your anxiety.  It’s highly unlikely your business will crash and burn if you are not in the office. Trust they will call you if it’s something so crucial that you must handle immediately.

By the way, when your employees are scheduled for training sessions, the communicated expectation should be that they are not to be interrupted for work during that time either. Their training should be planned, not a surprise announcement to the employee when they arrive to work that day. As with vacations, cross-train for their coverage ahead of time. Personal enrichment and professional development should be protected time away from work; exceptions might happen, but should not be the rule. Allow people to focus on learning, and not stress over the work piling up on their desks.

  1. Occasionally, change your start or end time at the office.

Energy levels and concentration fluctuate with stress and will affect productivity. If you are consistently working longer hours, eventually you will hit a point of diminishing returns. Adjust accordingly. It’s acceptable to begin your day at noon or leave the office at 2 pm if you are exhausted. And when you finally schedule those doctors visit you didn’t have time for previously, leave the work at the office. Allow your blood pressure and heart rate to go down. Turn on your phone’s “Do Not Disturb” if needed. Voicemail is a great business tool that we sometimes overlook or forget to use effectively!

Your people are your most important asset – take care of them.  Consider surprising your team by closing the office early once or twice a year, especially if you notice they have been working long hours and are approaching burnout themselves. Force the work break if necessary. If business commitments require you to keep some people at work, ensure those that stayed this time get their time off in the very near future. Be fair and consistent.

Photo by Park Troopers

  1. Celebrate wins and good efforts.

When you achieve an important or difficult business goal, reward yourself with impromptu “fun time”. You work long and hard, so take time to enjoy life.

Similarly, when your team hits a project milestone, launches a new product or service, or someone has an anniversary, graduation, or birthday – celebrate with a luncheon, pizza party, or ice-cream break. Take your entire team to the ballpark, game room, or bowling alley. Acknowledging their hard work and efforts build teamwork, create trust, foster loyalty, and increase morale.  Ensure you include everyone in the celebration, especially the person usually left answering the phones, and the one who refuses to leave their desk because they fear falling behind with work. It’s a team win – and team celebration!

Encouraging others to take care of themselves might seem challenging at first, but worth the effort in the long-run. It strengthens the entire team.

Bottom Line: Work Smarter…Not Harder!

Taking downtime for yourself is not shirking your leadership responsibilities to the business. (Yet, depending on others to make important decisions in your absence, even for a short duration, might still make you uneasy.) As the leader, you also have a responsibility to enhance your team’s talents and this is a great opportunity to build experience and expertise, strength and skill, at every level within your company.  

  • Trust your team. You hired the right people, so you know they are qualified to act on behalf of your company. You do not have to wear all the hats all the time.
  • Train, develop, delegate, coach, and empower everyone to make decisions within certain parameters. Not every decision needs your final approval.
  • Be accountable and hold your people accountable for their actions and inactions. Lead by example. Set the bar.
  • Expect and accept things may go awry; that outcome is possible even if you made the decision! Communicate clearly, stay positive, be supportive, and encourage individuals to develop strategies to put out their own fires.
  • Be proactive. Take immediate action once you notice the early signs of burnout in yourself or your people.

Your business should provide for a healthy and bountiful lifestyle – not consume or strangle the life out of you or others. Recognize that your oxygen mask is dangling within reach – and the next move is yours.

Here’s to your good health and continued success!

Author: Julie Ramdial, President of U Learn Enterprises, Inc.