Who is looking after YOU?

Woman with hands behind head looking out to ocean

There is a lot of advice right now about how to be an effective leader during the COVID-19 crisis. You are being encouraged, and you are trying, to be empathetic and supportive of your people, all while adjusting to new ways of working. You are managing people’s anxiety about their jobs and their financial future while working to ensure productivity levels stay steady and things get done. Within all of these responsibilities, who is looking after YOU?

As a leader, it’s important to have the interests of others in mind, particularly during a major health crisis. But we also need to look after ourselves. Sometimes, we need to look after ourselves first. We often hear the analogy of the oxygen mask on the plane to demonstrate why it’s so important for leaders to look after themselves. You cannot help others to breathe if you are unable to do so yourself, so put on your own mask first.

It’s more important than ever to shift our thinking about leadership from being “doing for” our people to “doing with” them.

This example is even more appropriate now, given our experiences with COVID-19, but we must remember that the goal of leadership is not just to survive. It is to thrive. And so, while the oxygen mask is crucial right now, it’s also important to think beyond the moment. Invest in your own long-term mental and physical health so you can help your people and organization work in a healthy way too.

This requires a mindset shift about leadership.

It’s more important than ever to shift our thinking about leadership from being “doing for” our people to “doing with” them. When we consider leadership “doing for” others it can drain our energy; resentment can grow toward the position and the people we feel we are supposed to be looking after. This is further enhanced in our current circumstances. People are anxious and trying to manage home life as well as work life. While we may want to be empathetic and supportive, our ability to be so all the time can be strained. And, if we are no longer able to contain our own anxiety, grief, anger, and frustration, things happen that can have longer-term consequences on relationships with those we lead.

We need to consider leading others as co-creation. We are designing, building, and living in something we created, together. Our hierarchies often do not lend themselves well to this type of thinking. But our organizational structures are being disrupted, so why not try something new that serves you AND those you lead?

It’s a big shift for some, so it may take some time. You may experience some resistance from those used to only being responsible for their everyday role. But for the sustainability of the organization, your own leadership, and your own health, it’s important to try. Here are some ways to create an environment where you can look after you and others can do the same for themselves.

Be vulnerable

There is a lot of talk about vulnerability, and it’s important to be clear about what it actually means in leadership. Sharing your challenges and your feelings at times can be an important part in creating emotional connections. It helps the people you lead see that you don’t have all the answers—that you are human too. At the same time, be sure not to burden your staff with your stuff. You have a responsibility to help them navigate the changes right now. You can admit to being frustrated or worried, but don’t stoke the fires of fear. Being vulnerable also helps remind us that we don’t need to be perfect or get things right all the time, which in turn helps to reduce our stress and anxiety.

Trust your people

One of the best things you can do for your own self-care and your employees is to trust them. Trust that they will do what they need to when they need to in order to get the work done. Sometimes we mistake micromanaging for “looking after” and think people need us to dictate their every move. They don’t. They need overall guidance and to know what your priorities are for their work. Beyond that, let your employees figure out how to manage their days, especially now—they may have other responsibilities and need to look after their own health. That leaves room for you to focus more on your own work and well-being.

Reframe the change

We have been disrupted. Our ways of working are different, no matter the sector or industry. Health has become a major priority. Embrace it. Work is no longer first all the time, and that’s okay. Putting in more hours has never been a determining factor in productivity; it’s a habit from the industrial age, when time was the master of all work. To ensure that mental and physical health remain a priority, talk with your people about how and when they work best, what ideas they have for doing things differently. Build your new future, together.


Try to step out of crisis mode sometimes and focus on reflection. How are you doing? What are you learning? What do you need? Set aside time and headspace to address your own needs every day. Encourage others to do the same.

Play the long game

This situation feels like a sprint in many ways. Things are moving fast. We need to adapt quickly. It’s easy to have a sense of just “getting stuff done.” The reality is that we are building our futures with what we do now. We are creating new ways of working, building relationships, and establishing what may become new norms. Be intentional about what you want to take forward, including for your own self-care.

Remember that the people you hire are grown ups. You are probably seeing now, they are able to manage more than we often give them credit for. It is not your job as a leader to “look after” them. It’s your job to create an environment where they can look after themselves. And then you can do the same.

COVID-19: Get all the insights

Lianne Picot

Lianne Picot

Learning Architect at The Niagara Institute

Media Contacts

For all requests, including reports and interviews, please contact: 

Deb Young

Taylor Gadde

(From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET; after hours, please send an e-mail.)

Related research


Access our research

Access to the Conference Board’s reports is free of charge to professional journalists upon request.

Access our experts

Our experts are available to share research insights. Contact us.