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Wellbeing & Personal Development

Putting your oxygen mask on first

Putting your oxygen mask on first
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‘Put your oxygen mask on before helping others’. With so many travel bans – self-imposed or otherwise – it may be a while before we hear these words again. 

Travel or no travel, in these volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times, it certainly is sound – if not life-saving – advice to help yourself first, so that you can continue helping others.

Recently, we hosted a ‘wellbeing and performance’ webinar for UN leaders, inviting them to stand back from their day-to-day pressures and reflect on their resourcefulness, expanding their options for maintaining resilience.  

It seems that, as humans, we need a certain level of pressure in order to perform. But when that pressure becomes too much, that healthy ‘eustress’ (beneficial stress) becomes distress. How we handle pressure and where our tipping point is are different for each of us, based upon our unique combination of environment, programming and experiences. We are our own ‘Swiss army knife’, equipped with an individual set of spiritual, mental, emotional and physical resources to help us on our way. 

For many leaders, to ‘spend time’ on one’s own wellbeing, or to ‘re-source’, can feel self-indulgent, selfish or unnecessary. Yet, intuitively we know that if we look after ourselves, we will be in a better position to look after others. It is a VUCA world, full of uncertainty, but what we can control is how we respond to it.  

On a recent programme, we focused on three areas which participants identified as priorities: mind matters, time and choice, and healthy behaviours. The participants were keen to explore what each priority meant for themselves, as well as for their teams. You may also find them a useful prompt.

1) Mind matters: Our mind is an incredible instrument, but it can also cause most of our suffering if we don’t learn to control it. As the saying goes: ‘when the train of thought is coming through the station, there is no need to get on board’. If we learn to pause through mindfulness or meditation, we can remain calm on the platform and be more selective in choosing our trains. These trains may include positive thinking, taking an appreciative inquiry approach, learned optimism strategies such as distracting or distancing oneself, disputing our own assumptions and beliefs, and embracing paradox. The point is, from the platform of stillness, we have more possibilities for responding appropriately.   
2) Time and choice: Wherever we are in a hierarchy, at times we can feel out of control of our own calendar. Standing back and reflecting on our priorities with the knowledge that urgency and importance are not the same thing is a good starting point, as is taking an honest look at the attitudes, beliefs and capabilities underpinning our time management. We may find ourselves stuck in the identity of a ‘hard worker’. We may overvalue busyness and undervalue stillness. Or we may just need to become better at setting expectations and negotiating with others. 

3) Healthy behaviours: What small steps can we incorporate into our daily lives to improve sleep, hydration, eating and exercise? Getting back to basics in this way is hugely liberating and a great act of self-love. It’s also important to practice self-compassion and patience, especially when we get distracted or diverted from the intended task; all we need to do is to take a deep breath, press the reset button and start again with new resolve. 

As this recent HBR article emphasises, resilience is about how you recharge, not how you endure. We owe it to ourselves and to others to look our own wellbeing. Sustainable leadership involves sustaining your own performance and wellbeing; responsible leadership involves taking responsibility for your own wellbeing and performance.   

Penelope Mavor from Earth Converse collaborates with Impact as an Associate. Her writings can be found on