Longevity in the leadership game depends on radical self-care and wellness
Longevity in the leadership game depends on radical self-care and wellness not overworking: Building a case for self-care and wellness as a priority
This piece is dedicated to my dear friend the late Patricia Blackett who worked on United Nations Peacekeeping Missions for more than a decade who died prematurely because she placed her self-care and wellness needs last.
On 5 September 2001, I remember my mother seeing me off at JFK airport where I would begin my first professional career as a political affairs and humanitarian affairs officer with the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC). She was nervous for me and offered this important piece of advise to help me survive the working environment, “Work hard.” At the time, the definition of what it meant to ‘work hard’ threw me off; did my mother mean work diligently or overwork?. I didn’t have the language to understand. For my mother, a diplomat who scoffed at taking holidays, working hard meant overworking doing your share and others too. I was already an overachiever whose hard work had seen me through private school, an ivy league university and law school; working hard had paid off for me. What more could I have been expected to do?
Off, I went to the DRC, naively thinking that my overworking and hard work could fix the multitude of broken issues within that mission and country. All of a sudden, I was thrust into a male-dominated military environment which required that I adopt a linear and masculine mindset to survive. I often didn’t feel valuable in that working environment unless I was cranking out reports like a machine. It was during that time that I met my friend Patricia. She was from Barbados, had the most beautiful smile and carried herself in the most dignified manner. She had a lovely gentle sing song accent. Patricia who had been on the mission in the DRC a few years longer than me, sat down to tell me the rules, “pour yourself into your work, it will keep you out of trouble here.” She explained to me that her boss was so reliant upon her that she had missed two mandatory vacations (ORB to those of us who understand UN speak). For me the message was clear, not just to work hard but to overwork. With the time difference between NY and Kinshasa, it was easy to justify the long working hours and the fear that if you didn’t keep up with the stressful work load, you would be quickly replaced and banished to one of the far regions in the country, where life was hard.
In my first year, I was often the last one to leave the office usually at 730pm along with another woman from Kenya who became my close friend and she too loved working overtime hours despite no extra pay. Then as time progressed, I was leaving 1030pm, working on weekends, from home and on holidays. I began to get a high from leaving the office later and later. I felt guilty if I didn’t work overtime. Somewhere deep inside of me I felt that I had been blessed with this type of job and had to prove to myself that my getting this position was not on a whim. My colleague Maggie who used to leave at 530 on the dot said to me one day, “they have a word for you” and I said “what is it?” and she replied with a sarcastic laugh “workaholic.” Ah, that was the word for overworking, “workaholic” but I wore that label like a military outfit.
Until, the first time my health went into crisis. I developed hives all over my body and I lost a ton of weight, all stress related. I got sick during a very critical work period and let’s just say my female boss who often worked until 2am in the morning and was up by 5am didn’t take too kindly to my needing two weekends off to recuperate. Then it happened again, I developed a bad case bronchitis from the volcanic dust in Goma and was so ill that the UN doctor would not permit me to return to the mission for two and a half months. During that time, I didn’t think about my health I just thought about the fact that I was letting my boss down and all of the reports that had to be written. I muffled my cough and feigned wellness and the UN doctor, sent me a note to return to work. Upon my return to Goma and found myself coughing for eight months straight along with being depleted and depressed. I hadn’t given my body enough time to heal.
You would have thought that I learnt my lesson when I got a new UN mission in Senegal, oh no. I worked myself so hard in those first two months that I couldn’t pick up my cargo at the airport (some of my things were stolen) and the landlord threatened to cut off my lights because I didn’t have enough time to even pick up my first check and pay my bills. During my time with the UN in Sierra Leone, I was such a workaholic that once I banged my forehead head on a wall and blood gushed everywhere, bandaged and sitting with a egg sized knot on my head from the clinic I went straight to work. It didn’t matter that I may or may not have had a concussion, what mattered was the work.
Fast forward in time, when my mission in Sierra Leone downsized in 2013, I toyed with the idea of going to Afghanistan, Mali or Sudan. However, I was mentally and physically drained. I decided to take some time off to pursue other endeavours rather than plunk myself into another high conflict or post zone. It was then that I began to notice a disturbing trend, former colleagues were dying from cancer, heart attacks or being diagnosed with auto immune diseases. Many more were also suffering from PSTD, high blood pressure and diabetes. I couldn’t quite understand the connection just yet.
My friend Patricia after several more peacekeeping stints, landed herself in Sudan. Again, she threw herself back into her overworking routine but dreamt of leaving peacekeeping, to start a textile business and finally settle down. She was honest in telling me that she was unhappy with the long hours and work environment but it was in her blood to push through.
In 2016, she decided to finally take a much needed holiday and treated herself to an aruyvedic spa in India, and it was there while taking quiet time to pause and reflect that she discovered a lump that turned out to be breast cancer. Like a trooper, Pat went to Atlanta to undergo her chemotherapy but then immediately returned to Sudan despite being told she needed more rest. She sent me photos of her and I almost cried; she looked so ashen. We spoke every few weeks and she called to say, “Jumi, I have decided to take a major page out of your book. I am not scared anymore. I am going to take a leap of faith and leave the UN mission in Sudan. I want to do something else with my life.” She sent me a note telling me not to make the same mistakes she did in just toiling around the clock whether it be for the UN or any other job. Two months later she was evacuated out of Sudan and died of breast cancer. Even more heartbreaking, I didn’t even find out until two months later because there was no death announcement.
I learnt some sobering lessons from her death and why I am so passionate about wellness and self-care:
- Leadership is about the personal relationship you have with yourself
- Leadership is about longevity in the game. If Patricia had lived and carried out her dreams, she would have had so much to contribute to the world besides just hopping from one mission to the next.
- Longevity in the game is not about being a workaholic or overworking
- Overworking in stressful environments will literally make you sick – its just a matter of when the illness will hit
- There is a difference between working hard (diligently/smartly) and overworking
- Overworking causes depletion and burn out
- Overworking can put you out of touch with your mental, emotional and physical health
- Overworking can also put you out of touch with your intuition
- Overworking can put you out of touch in how you relate to others
Some working environments are not catered towards a flexible working environment so beware
- Wellness and self-care are the cornerstones of leadership
- To be a good leader means making good decisions and emotional connections, if you aren’t physically and mentally healthy you are at a major disadvantage
- Overworking just for money or to keep up so you won’t be punished by your boss can make you lose sight of the bigger picture
- No one is going to tell you when you have overworked yourself in fact unlike an alcohol addiction, people will encourage you to work even harder
- Everyone is dispensable, if you overwork and get sick or die, someone else will be hired to take your spot
- Eating habits and exercise go out the door when you overwork
- Overwork leads to irritability and inability to care for your hygiene and personal appearance
- Overworking can lead to drinking, prescription meds and drugs to compensate for that nervous or heavy feeling inside the body
- The accumulated stress can manifest itself into aggressive health issues that can’t be fixed overnight
- Working hard doesn’t necessarily lead to promotions or success in a job
- You don’t get any awards or extra credit for working extra hard
- For women, your femininity is linked to self-care and wellness
Yes it is important to take pride in one’s work and work diligently. Yes, there are times when overwork is necessary to get the job done. However, our bodies know when it is time to stop, take a break, get some nourishment and rest. We know intuitively what happens when we push our bodies beyond a breaking point. It’s been drummed into many of us that work life balance is for dreamers and that if you don’t show physical prowess in work life you are lazy. I’d like us to transform our language around how we see a work life balance and how that ties into our personal leadership.
We are not here on earth merely to punch in and punch out on a time clock; many of us have unfortunately bought into this concept. We are not human zombies at the whims of others. We have passions, hobbies and relationships that we need to develop outside the workplace. We have to better take care of our bodies and our minds to prepare us for this next decade. As women we have so much to contribute to the world; you aren’t going to resolve world peace or fix every issue in your office because you work a 8 hours day as opposed to a 14 hours day. World peace begins within, when you are happy, healthy and whole then you can contribute to the world in a clear fashion and manifest. So much is going on in the world right now, and you have to ask yourself, does your body have the capacity to handle the daily stressors that will only build in weeks and months to come as the world begins to reorganize itself?
If any what I have said reasonates with you, let’s speak further. Together we can build a customized routine to help you integrate your personal leadership skills, wellness and self-care that will keep you in the game longer. My name is Olajumoke Adeola Osode and I am passionate about my work as a personal leadership, self-care and wellness catalyst. I have been into the wellness and self-care scene since I was 15. You can check out my website www.olaosode.com for more details or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Blessings and stay safe.