Credit: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images
June 28, 2022 7:30 AM EDT

One week into the official start of summer and it’s looking anything but slow: Air travel is a mess, the labor market is cooling, and most people agree it’s time to brace for a coming recession—all as the country reels from the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, grapples with political uncertainty from the January 6 hearings, and prepares for the midterm elections. Relaxation seems a preposterous goal.

And yet the act of taking personal time is never more essential than when the world is at its most chaotic. (As the civil-rights activist Audre Lorde once said: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.”)

Since the pandemic began, self-care has been a buzzword, typically in conversations about how to set up boundaries and do things outside of work to achieve greater balance: clock 10,000 steps during a midday walk, read a trashy novel, take a shower or bath by candlelight. But oftentimes, the source of our most constant stress—work—needs to be dealt with rather than escaped from. What I really wish for when I read yet another piece of advice telling me to go for a walk: ideas for self-care that ask less of me. The way to ensure balance and advocacy of self is to weave self-care into the way we work, rather than making it an afterthought.

In that spirit, here are a half-dozen actions worth trying this summer, with an eye toward shaping the workplace into an institution that doesn’t just allow for, but actively supports, employees taking care of themselves.

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Update your meeting policy.

Even before Covid, 71% of senior managers in a Harvard survey said meetings are unproductive, and 65% said meetings keep them from completing their own work. But over the past couple years, meetings have ballooned: Compared to February 2020, we now spend 252% more time in meetings each week, according to Microsoft research.

But simply calling for fewer meetings isn’t enough to make a sustainable difference. “Go further than encouraging employees to be efficient with their schedules. Operationalize it with policies that leverage technology” to facilitate collaboration, says Odessa Jenkins, president of Emtrain, a workplace technology and training company. Some of her recommendations: “Consider evaluating all recurring meetings and try changing 45-minute calls to 30 minutes. Require that all meetings have an agenda, and encourage the use of brainstorming models” that allow for asynchronous input and specify clear next steps in the process.

And long before the meeting starts—before it makes its way onto anyone else’s calendar—be clear about what it’s for and why it’s needed. Sheela Subramanian, co-founder and vice president of Future Forum, Slack’s research consortium and co-author of the recently published How the Future Works, says a judicious meeting culture starts at the top: “On an executive level, set the behavioral guardrails that meetings should only be to debate, decide, discuss, or develop your people. Everything else (including the managerial status check) can happen with digital tools.”

Be direct on asks.

You know those emails where you casually reach out, ask how someone’s doing, then suggest connecting—and then the two, or suddenly five, of you perform a calendar dance, eventually hop on a Zoom call, and somehow weeks have gone by before you start the actual work you needed to connect for?

Do all involved a favor and stop sending those emails. Instead, try to be explicit in the initial approach about what you want.

I draw inspiration from a tweet by Janine Sickmeyer, founding partner at venture-capital firm Overlooked Ventures:

“Here’s the best way to get what you want: ASK FOR IT! Instead of saying ‘let’s connect’ or ‘can I pick your brain?’ do this:

  1. Email the exact questions you have
  2. Put your ask at the end so the person knows what you want
  3. Follow up in 1 week
  4. Do not schedule a 1hr call”

It’s okay to be direct. In fact, it’s a gift that saves the other person time and effort.

Rethink wellness challenges at work.

Often these challenges, which aim to gamify employee well-being, focus on counting steps or other physical activity. At my startup URL Media, a network of Black and Brown news outlets, we recently had an internal wellness challenge in the month of May that included options like supporting a Black business and spreading kindness. Thus, we wove self-care into tasks people might already do, but assigned them new meaning and motivation. We also tried to align the challenge with our own values as a company.

Know that the same rules can’t apply to everyone.

Could this be the summer where we admit it’s okay to treat in-person and hybrid workers differently in some respects? Self-care for the remote set might mean a standing desk, and for those coming in, it might be a happy hour or yoga on Wednesdays.

Ferring Pharmaceuticals USA just introduced a new summer Fridays program, closing its offices at 1 pm every Friday from June 3 through September 3 while adding analogous perks for workers who can’t participate. “For those employees that need to work on-site, in our manufacturing facilities for instance, we’ve introduced Wellness Days,” says Purvi Tailor, a Ferring VP and head of human resources. “These employees receive an extra five full days off work to rest and recharge that can be used starting in June through the end of the year. Both these policies ensure that all our employees, regardless of role or location, can enjoy more time outside of work to relax and unwind.”

It’s okay to outsource aspects of life.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how loud we often get on some acts of self-care, such as going to the gym or saying no to work on weekends. But nobody tells you when they hire a home organizer for thousands of dollars to do the work they’re too burned out to tackle, or spend an equivalent amount on Ubers to get their elderly parents to all the places they need to go.

There’s been some progress on this front. I increasingly hear about companies extending help for employees to find summer camps or childcare, as well as some who contract vendors and services for parents of teenagers applying to college.

But benefits like these are hardly the norm. I wish more employers offered allowances for these critical aspects of balance, especially for women who carry more than their share of the caregiving juggle. Asking for or hiring help is a privilege, yes, but it is also an act of self-care. And it’s one way organizations can support their exhausted employees: by making that help easier to access and afford.

Add an extra layer to your communications around time off.

I recently asked Jenkins about the rise of four-day work weeks, and she encouraged being equally upfront about being unavailable and the reasons behind the extra day off. A sample message she offered: “Thank you for your email! In an effort to promote our well-being and honor a better work-life balance, we are piloting a four-day workweek to all employees. I am out of office today, but I will reply as soon as possible.”

My own out-of-office message often includes lists of books I’m reading or columns I’m especially proud of. Crafting it is a reminder to myself, as well as those reading it, that I can do those things if and only if I grant myself the opportunity to rest.

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