Carers need to be selfish too

We’ve noticed that those in the greatest need of a wellness tune up are those tasked with supporting the wellness of others including nurses, carers, teachers, human resources staff and career coaches. Those working in these fields typically choose these professions because we want to help and make our world a better place. However, these groups of caring individuals are notoriously bad at taking time out for themselves to recharge, restore and re-energise.

As experts on wellness in the workplace, we are concerned about the persistently increasing rates of workplace stress and anxiety and the impact that this is having on people. In the Stress and Wellbeing in Australia survey conducted by the Australian Psychological Society in 2014, 72% of Australians reported that their stress levels were impacting their physical health and 64% of reported that stress was impacting their mental health. Therefore, unless we do something to change this pattern of behaviour, people in caring industries are going to be sacrificing more of themselves and this reduces their effectiveness in helping other people and doing what they love.

Be Selfish

The analogy that I use to help people to put themselves first is the safety demonstration on an aircraft. The safety card clearly instructs us to look after ourselves before caring for the innocent and defenceless person next to us. While this may seem selfish at first, it quickly makes sense that we need to make sure that we get the oxygen so that we can be of assistance to others. Failure to put ourselves first puts us at risk of being of no use to those around us.

The same can be said for our roles at work and at home. Unless we look after ourselves and get that oxygen, we’re no good to anyone.

Once you’re ready to be selfish, then you are one step closer to making the kind of sustained behaviour change required to be at your best consistently.

Your Wellness Action Plan

While there are many philosophies for what can be done to increase wellness, the neurological evidence provides us with a more scientific basis for action. What is clear from the data is that we are currently attempting to operate in a way in which we are not designed and as a result, the high levels of stress we encounter has  become the norm, rather than an emergency response to stimulate change.

The good news is that the evidence also guides us to the actions that we can take to be at our calm and focused best.

The Neurology of Wellness

The latest advancements in neuroplasticity and neuro-leadership have shown us that it is possible to actually shift our cognitive capacity and our thought patterns in order to build resilience, manage stress and to be at our best, both in and out of the office.

The centre point here is the battle between the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the limbic system. Your PFC sits at the front of the brain in the frontal lobe and is responsible for your complex reasoning such as problem solving, memory, learning and decision making. These are all critical functions when managing your workload and also when adapting to new situations.

Your limbic system is a complex web of structures right in the middle of the brain across both hemispheres and is the centre of your emotional responses. When this powerful system is activated (i.e. when you feel stressed, annoyed or anxious) it quickly gets very loud, absorbing all of your cognitive energy and leaving next to nothing for the poor old PFC.  As a result, decision making in this moment is significantly compromised. These are often the times when we say something we shouldn’t have said or do something we shouldn’t have done. Think of that angry email, or the angry text you may have sent in the heat of the moment!

Therefore, if we want to facilitate the best decisions in our life and career, we need to make sure that we’re giving the PFC the clear air and breathing space that it needs to work at its very best.

The following four scientific lessons highlight what we can do on a daily basis to achieve this.

LESSON 1: Make big decisions early in the day

Our PFC tires easily throughout the day so if you know that there is an important, complex or difficult task coming up, complete it early when you are well rested with a fully functioning PFC.

This is particularly important when making major decisions and the reason why the old adage to ‘sleep on it’ remains relevant.

LESSON 2: Focus on one thing at a time

An element that scrambles our PFC is the multi-tasking way in which we manage our day. The human brain works best when it is dedicated to a single task with laser beam focus.  Unfortunately, you can’t achieve this with phones ringing, client interruptions and one eye on the inbox. To unlock your cognitive potential, allocate sufficient time and space to important tasks, get out of the traffic and see how much sharper your thinking becomes.

LESSON 3: Manage your limbic threats

Regardless of your personality, experience or capability we all encounter events and stimuli that activate our limbic system every day. Learning to identify these triggers and manage them effectively allows us to take back control, make considered judgements and avoid emotional decision making. David Rock has established the SCARF model to help us identify the 5 most common threats and ways to manage these.

LESSON 4: Be mindful

While mindfulness is an ancient concept, it’s a hot topic right now in the first world and the evidence is compelling. By monitoring the brain function of high powered executives, neuroscientists at Oxford University have shown that busy people don’t switch off. They run from one caffeine and adrenaline-fuelled event to the next with their hypothalamus ‘fight or flight’ response constantly in the ON position. The outcome is what they call an ‘illusion of effectiveness’ where although the executive thinks that their decision making and creativity is outstanding, the reality is that when objectively tested, it is significantly less impressive.

Practical mindfulness techniques allow our brain to switch off and get back to neutral, reboot and recharge. Being present is the key here rather than being distracted by the past or the future.

While mindfulness meditation has proven to be highly effective, there are other practical ways for you to be mindful and it starts with switching off your technology. The incessant assault of data is our biggest barrier so find the strength to holster your weapon and be present with your partner, your kids, your colleagues, your friends and your clients.  The outcome is superior decision making through better situational awareness and enhanced cognitive function.

Dov Frohman shows that the secret to success is daydreaming.  Let’s face it, how are we going to come up with great ideas if we’re constantly running, tapping that iPhone screen and never have the time to really think or wonder? I insist that my coaching clients reserve at least 10 minutes to switch off and daydream every day (usually on their daily commute). I have found over the years and the majority of their ‘aha!’ moments and their breakthroughs have come when they have given their brain the freedom to really think.

Small Steps

As with all behaviour change, this is not about making wholesale changes to your life. It’s the small changes that you can maintain that facilitate sustained behaviour change over the long term.

So to be at your best, you need to be selfish here and look after your own wellness.  In doing so, you’ll be more relaxed, confident and effective in everything that you do.