*This year, Chief is partnering with Headspace to provide every Chief member with a Headspace Plus membership.

In our survey of over 300 Chief members, over half reported that managing others while dealing with their own challenges has been their biggest hurdle. As leaders, we’re expected to support our team’s mental health, but too often we forget about our own. We spoke with Chief Guide and Psychologist Julie Kantor, Ph.D. to better understand what leaders can do right now to support their own wellbeing.

When coping mechanisms aren’t enough:

By definition, if somebody gets to a level of executive leadership, they've already figured out to some extent how to manage their own stress. In general there's an adaptive level of coping necessary to function at that level of responsibility. But people who are good at coping are not necessarily devoid of stress, it's just that they have enough mechanisms to counterbalance it — whether via physical releases like meditation or exercising, or cognitive exercises like reframing, restructuring, and noticing how they’re labeling things.

But when COVID happened, all bets were pretty much off. What leaders really need to remember is that they need to put on their own oxygen mask before helping others. It is worth taking a step back and saying, “Time out. What am I doing for myself?” Take inventory of what you’re feeling and experiencing. Stop and recognize, “Yes, I am under stress.” If you don’t, it won’t hit you until the stress manifests physically. So many leaders will say they’re fine, but then eventually they’ll get sick, their bodies will tense up, and they’ll shut down. The paradox is that they've been trying so hard to mentally function that they end up having to take time off because their bodies break down.

Warning signs to look out for:

The most important thing to be on the lookout for right now is relative change. In mental health diagnoses, be it anxiety, depression, or any other condition, as psychologists we are looking at relative change — changes in the specificity of comments or complaints, the degree to which productivity is changing, the extent to which general mood is different than it was say, before COVID. Sometimes, major changes like the pandemic will intensify something that was already happening before. Sometimes, it will trigger something completely new. The key is noticing the difference.

What we are seeing most in successful leaders who are struggling right now is that they are having trouble concentrating, and getting less accomplished even if they’re working just as much. These are common manifestations of chronic stress. We are also noticing increased irritability. Usually when dealing with the trials and tribulations of things, leaders are able to separate out the real issues versus noise. Now, judgment is starting to go, and that’s manifesting in overreactions to issues that are relatively small.

Simple steps for less stress and anxiety:

So many people will tell me they can’t take a weekend off work, but I always push them to think, okay, if you were stranded on an Island and couldn't get back, would the company function? Usually, the answer is yes. If it’s impossible to take absolutely any time off, I’d advise two strategies to be more adaptive in the present. The first is putting yourself “on the back burner” for a couple moments a week. This could be anything from watching trashy TV to getting a manicure. This won’t address the real issues, but it will give you a little release. The second strategy is taking small actions that increase your sense of control. For some clients, that’s cleaning the dishes, re-organizing your closet, or cleaning up your desk. For others, it’s taking a few minutes at the beginning of each day to think about what’s on deck, what you need to accomplish, and what you do not.

Especially in COVID times, I encourage everyone to implement micro-transitions or rituals that help you distinguish between work and life. Previously, that might have been getting up, getting dressed, standing in the same spot on the subway platform. Now, for some of the leaders in my Core groups, it’s just putting on makeup in the morning to mentally recognize that it’s work time. Ultimately, if you don’t create these boundaries, you will not be able to sustain yourself for the long term.

These skills are essential because leaders are not only carrying their own stress and tension, but also those of their teams. It’s substantial to just acknowledge what’s happening. Start talking about it. So often leaders are so busy they don’t even stop to say out loud or even to themselves, “I’m really struggling right now.”

Read Next: Increasing Organizational Resilience: An Interview with Leadership Coach Megan Wheeler