The five foundations of self-care

27 May 2020 By Doug Upchurch

By focusing on the key elements of self-care, leaders can help their teams safeguard their wellbeing during the pandemic, says Doug Upchurch

The coronavirus pandemic is a crisis unlike any of us have ever experienced. It is challenging us to question how we want to be as leaders, and how we can guide, inspire, comfort and serve our colleagues and our businesses during unprecedented and fearful times.

I like to talk about four manifestations of leadership: results, visionary, relationship and centred. Results leaders are able to give clear direction and purpose to their teams, raising performance levels and delivering results. Visionary leaders are able to engage, motivate and inspire colleagues to achieve desired outcomes. Relationship leaders have an innate ability to create a more inclusive, respectful working environment and positively role model respectful ways of working. Centred leaders have the ability to apply critical thinking and lead from within. 

In the current crisis, leaders are drawing on the relationship manifestation more than ever before – something that may be more stretching for some. They are needing to connect, be present and practise empathic listening at an emotional rather than just an active level. 

The key areas of self-care

So as a leader, how can you have empathetic conversations, tuning in to what team members need to make sure they are practising self-care? There are five foundations of self-care, which can help you have the right discussions with team members:


In times of crisis the foundation of self-care is self-awareness. Remember that your version of self-care may be different to other people in your team, so pay extra attention to this by encouraging individuals to think about what self-care looked like before lockdown and what they need right now in this unprecedented situation. 

It is also helpful to expand your view of self-care from just the physical, to the emotional. Historically self-care has been something we ‘do’ – for example: ‘I’m going for a run to clear my head.’ In these highly stressful times, when we are experiencing brand new emotions, it is also about how to ‘be’ with ourselves in a self-compassionate way. 


To get the best out of people you need to carve out ways for your team members to be authentic and honest about what they need. This could be a break for their mental health or different working hours to accommodate homeschooling commitments. Being vocal may be harder for some people than others depending on individual preferences. So aim to nurture psychological safety, so team members feel comfortable to speak up if they are struggling. Remember, you may see behaviours that are different from usual, because people are adapting to new methods and experiencing extreme emotions. 


Help team members to tune in with their internal engine and question where it needs to be. Are they running at 100mph or 20mph? Though we often hear about employees needing to ‘slow down’, they may in fact need to speed up if they aren’t going at a pace they would like. Can you find a project to keep them engaged if they are struggling with motivation? Also, remember that people may be experiencing brand new emotions they need time to process, which could impact on their pace. 


While of course you can’t become deeply invested in people’s personal lives, you can encourage them to reach out for support when they need it and make it clear you are thinking of them, particularly if family members or friends are unwell. Though you should maintain close contact with individuals, it is important to sense whether or not this may be too much or too little, depending on how that person likes to operate – one style does not work for everyone.


There are a lot of things we can’t change right now, so we need to turn our attention to things we can. Ultimately, as a leader, you can inspire teams to think outside of themselves to what they can collectively change. Is there something you can be doing as a team to raise money? Can you volunteer in the community? Can you support food banks? 

Practise self-care yourself

The final key point is that to raise a group up to be more than the sum of its parts takes a transformational leader who not only knows their team but also themselves. If you don’t hold yourself accountable it is going to be hard to try to hold others accountable. This means understanding your strengths and weaknesses, your interpersonal preferences and how you come across to others. All these foundations apply to you as a leader, as well as your team members – otherwise you may find yourself unable to lead effectively.

Doug Upchurch is chief learning architect at Emeritus for Insights

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