Sometimes you need to lean out
The Cohort is Poynter's bi-monthly newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.
One of the most common pieces of work advice I give women is to know when and how to put themselves first. We need to be healthy, physically and mentally, in order to be effective leaders, productive employees and empathetic coworkers.
We need the emotional capacity to care about our work and our teams and the ability to shoulder the stress that comes from working fast-paced and demanding jobs. If we can’t take care of our bodies and minds by getting enough sleep, taking time away from screens, exercising and investing in our lives outside of the office, why should we expect the same of the people we work with?
It’s on us.
At face value, that advice is simple. Who wouldn’t want to put themselves first? But it’s often a lot harder than leaving work at a reasonable hour. Deciding to put ourselves first means choosing to put others second. For women especially, that can be tough. Isn’t it selfish to focus on my own well-being when my team is struggling, too? Doesn’t my boss already have enough to deal with? What makes me and my needs so important?
It’s often not until we reach a breaking point that we are forced to focus on ourselves and stop asking those hypothetical questions. In those moments, we are so stressed out, so unhealthy, so (relatively) ineffective in our jobs, that we have no choice but to change things.
I’m revisiting this advice because I’m at my own breaking point.
Since my husband Jamie suddenly passed away two months ago, I’ve been in a fog. I’ve been going through the motions and faking the hell out of a lot of things. Miraculously, and with the help of some all-star colleagues and guest faculty, I pulled off a fantastic Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media a few weeks ago. I have given talks and coached colleagues. I’ve shown up to work, made small talk, attended meetings and responded to emails.
But my heart hasn’t been in it. Every successful day at work leaves me completely drained at home. I need to take some time to properly grieve and do some soul-searching. I need to slow down, face the silence and completely fall apart.
I have to put myself first, which means I must put all of you — the wonderful and supportive Cohort community — second. Starting April 24, I’m taking three months off of work. Poynter will continue to focus on women’s leadership issues while I'm gone. Over the next three months, you’ll get a version of The Cohort in your inboxes offering insights and resources. In the meantime, you can contact email@example.com with questions and ideas.
Life is unpredictable and sometimes awful. Just as there will be times you need to invest in your own well-being, there will be times you need to help others through a crisis. As leaders, we have to be willing to adjust and help our teams through the toughest periods.
Taking time off is an investment in my long-term performance and will help avoid short-term burnout. As counterintuitive as it may seem, sabbaticals often result in reduced employee turnover and increased company loyalty. Research shows that people who take sabbaticals not only benefit from reduced stress during their time off, but also experience less stress after returning to work.
I’m privileged to be able to take this time off. I’m fortunate to have understanding bosses who listened when I made my case. (This is important: If you’re in a position to ask for time off, have a game plan in mind. When I asked for a sabbatical, I was prepared with an outline of when I would be gone, what projects I had on my plate during that time, which tasks could be reassigned and what I would need help with.)
If you manage someone who’s struggling, there are other small but meaningful things you can do to support them. Check in often. Encourage (but don’t force) them to seek counseling and point out the resources your company offers. Model good behavior, like leaving work at reasonable hours and eating lunch away from your desk. Take a walking meeting and have a real conversation; ask them how they’re doing and how you can help.
When I started this newsletter, I had no idea what it would turn into — I wanted a way to share the Leadership Academy experience with a wider audience. I love how it’s grown, I love the feedback I’ve received and readers I’ve met, and, up until Jamie’s death, I loved how much joy and purpose it provided me. I hope to rediscover that joy and purpose, in some form or another, during the time I’m on sabbatical. And I hope, wherever you’re at in life and work, that you are finding those things, too.
Thank you for all the kind words and support you’ve given me over the past two months. Thank you for remembering Jamie. And thank you for allowing me to take care of myself.
This newsletter isn't going away. Keep spreading the word.
And in the meantime, you can revisit the archives.