Your well-being matters: Moving yourself to the top of the list

Your well-being matters: Moving yourself to the top of the list

Your well-being matters: Moving yourself to the top of the list

by Pat Milligan

As I celebrate my 65th birthday, I have been thinking a lot about well-being – health, both physical and emotional, and financial well-being. I have to admit that turning 65 gets you thinking about so many issues – hopefully not just older but a little wiser – focusing on what is really important and well-being for me is at the top of the list. When you have worked hard all your life, you have to enjoy the advantages of well-being and ensuring that you are there to benefit from all you have invested in the past. I have made well-being a priority in my recent years.

Sadly, this wasn’t always the case. Like many working moms with childcare and parental responsibility, during my 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, I put everyone else’s needs ahead of my own health and well-being. I didn’t take the time to schedule regular doctor’s appointments. I found so many excuses not to work out, didn’t watch my diet and gained weight. Overall, I was doing well for my clients, my colleagues, my family – but not myself. I knew that needed to change. 

In part, this was a response to the lack of institutional support for health and for women’s outsized care-giving responsibilities. Thirty years ago, it wasn’t easy – or in many cases, even possible – to work remotely, and it certainly wasn’t common for dads to take parental leave. And at a time when working harder – not necessarily smarter – was the rule, I had a sense of having to sacrifice on several fronts in order to thrive in my career.

But in part it was just excuses and poor priority setting on my part. I realized that I couldn’t sustain this level of focus and do my best work if I wasn’t investing in my own well-being. I have always had a tremendous amount of energy but that doesn’t really mean I was taking care of myself. That changed for me when I saw my father die of a heart attack at an early age, and my mother die from lung cancer also at an early age. I wanted to be there for my husband and my kids, and not putting my well-being in the spotlight was really selfish on my part. 

Health remains on the back burner for many women globally. In the US, a 2015 survey found that 77% of women don’t do what they need to do to be healthy and almost two-thirds said that it was due to a lack of time.  We understand the pressures, the lack of work life balance – but we need to make the time. 

So beyond work, where do we women spend time that could otherwise be spent looking after our own health? Research cites that women are 50% more likely than men to be caregivers. For all of us who provide care – to our parents, our children, our pets – we know that we experience higher levels of stress, anxiety, and psychological distress for a variety of reasons, often resulting in heightened risk for depression, a weakened immune system, obesity, chronic diseases, and problems with short-term memory and focusing. In a vicious cycle, the very things that make it more difficult to take care of oneself also negatively impact physical and mental well-being.

We must recognize that we cannot be our best selves – at home and at work – if we’re not taking care of ourselves at the most fundamental level, and we must engage employers in this dialogue. Even when it’s difficult and there aren’t enough hours in the day, we have to make our health a priority.

I can’t change the barriers I faced or the choices I made in my younger years. But as a leader who is choosing to care for myself today – and by demonstrating my effectiveness, not in spite of my healthy habits but because of them – I am helping to set an example for a healthy, engaged and productive workforce.

I call on all leaders to be the change we need in the workforce. Doing so will not only make you healthier and thus more effective, but will also strengthen both your employees and your business.

And I urge every woman to banish the guilt of making time for self-care. So start walking, spinning,    eating right, sleeping, meditating and just taking the time to relax, reflect and rejuvenate. As Arianna Huffington put it, we must put on our own oxygen mask first – not out of selfishness, but in order to be our best and most effective selves.

Pat Milligan
by Pat Milligan

Senior Partner, Global Leader, When Women Thrive, Mercer

Global Leader, Multinational Client Group & When Women Thrive