Emotionally Intelligent Leaders Take Real Vacations

Emotional intelligence begins with how you lead yourself. Effective leaders recognize the importance of being able to disconnect from their work in order to rest and recharge.

Emotionally Intelligent Leaders Take Real Vacations

Emotional intelligence begins with how you lead yourself. Effective leaders recognize the importance of being able to disconnect from their work in order to rest and recharge.
December 6, 2023

It’s been a challenging year for everyone; from front-line employees to senior leaders, it feels like the work force has been climbing one mountain after another, all while the realities of economic shifts have added to the variability and uncertainty ahead. For leaders, guiding their organization through the constantly shifting socioeconomic landscape has been like trying to steer a ship through quicksand. The stress of leading a team through such complex times would take a toll on even the most effective leaders. With the holidays coming up, it’s a good time to check in with yourself on your stress and emotional health, and develop a plan to refill your cup and step into the new year feeling renewed.

Practicing self-awareness and advocacy when it comes to your stress levels, emotional well-being, and personal needs falls under the umbrella of emotional intelligence skills. Emotional intelligence (also referred to as EQ) is now considered an essential trait of an effective leader, but we often forget that the foundational components of emotional intelligence are those related to self-awareness. For example, Daniel Goleman, a pioneer of emotional intelligence research, defined EQ using four categories:

  • Self-Awareness: The ability to recognize and understanding your own feelings and emotions, why you are experiencing them, and the effects they have.
  • Self-Management: The capacity to regulate your emotions, by understanding and managing how they affect your actions.
  • Social Awareness/Empathy: Recognizing other people’s emotions and their impact.
  • Relationship Management: Effectively channeling self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness to resolve conflict and work well with others.

When it comes to leadership, a leader’s ability to connect and respond appropriately to their team’s emotional needs is typically how their emotional intelligence is assessed; however, this neglects the crucial first two aspects of EQ: self-awareness and self-management. According to Deloitte research in 2022, 96% of C-suite executives feel responsible for their employees’ well-being and around 87% of executives are taking direct action to cultivate a healthy workplace. However, nearly 70% of C-suite respondents also said that they were “seriously considering” leaving their role to find a job that would better support their own well-being. Executives are trying to be there for their employees and create environments that support their emotional well-being, but the story isn’t the same when it comes to recognizing and fulfilling their own emotional needs.


Assess Your Emotional Needs

The importance of C-suite executives and leaders practicing introspective emotional intelligence cannot be overstated. If you’re not sure where to start, here are some quick and easy steps to check in with your emotional state:

  1. Perform a Two-Minute Burnout Checkup: Burnout is caused by chronic stress in some or all of the following areas: workload, values, reward, control, fairness, and community. This Two-Minute Burnout Checkup explains how stress can arise in each of these areas, and what you can do to address it. Performing an internal check like this is most effective if you consistently repeat it every couple of weeks so you can track where your stress is growing and where it’s receding.
  2. Recognize the physical symptoms of stress: Especially for individuals in high-stress jobs, stress can become so normalized in your mind that it’s hard to assess your mental state. Instead, pay attention to the physical manifestations of stress that you may be feeling in your body. Common signs of stress in the body include muscle tension and pain, headaches and jaw pain, skin rashes, unexpected weight fluctuation, gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, increased heart rate and blood pressure, dry mouth, chronic fatigue, and changes in appetite and sleep habits.
  3. Notice changes in your behaviour: Chronic stress can cause symptoms of anxiety and depression, which can have significant effects on your day-to-day behaviour. These effects can begin gradually, so you may not have noticed them initially. Warning signs that you may be struggling include rash decision making, avoidance or procrastination on stressful tasks, irritability or impatience, highly critical responses to self or others, lack of attention to detail, and forgetfulness. Since stress can cause self-confidence to plummet in response to growing self-criticism, it can be easy to blame yourself if you notice behaviours like this. Experiencing these symptoms of stress is not your fault. Try to approach this activity as an impartial observer assessing your well-being, not criticizing your performance.
  4. Start conversations with your colleagues or friends and family about stress: The people around you have likely noticed if you are experiencing serious amounts of stress, so they can be a great resource to use as an outside perspective. As a leader, opening honest dialogues around well-being and stress is also helpful for your team because it establishes that the workplace is a safe space for conversations about mental health.


Refill Your Cup

Practicing self-awareness by checking in with yourself is a great first step to take as an emotionally intelligent leader. Next, it’s time to practice self-management. High-EQ leaders who are skilled in self-management understand that emotions are your body’s way of communicating its needs to you. Stress can result in heightened emotions such as fear, anxiety, anger, or frustration. After recognizing the stressors that are the root of these emotions, you need to identify ways that you’re going to practice stress recovery, the process of recharging emotionally and decreasing your symptoms of stress. There are ways that you can bring stress-recovery activities into your work day, like taking micro-breaks; however, one of the most important ways to recover from stress is to spend time psychologically detached from work.

This is extremely hard to do, especially since research has revealed a “recovery paradox”, a term coined when it was observed that our ability to practice stress-recovery activities, like taking time away from work, is significantly impaired when we are already in a high-stress state. As a result, nearly half of US workers fail to use all of their allotted vacation days, even though burnout survey results indicate that we really need the time to rest and recover. Furthermore, Forbes research found that over two thirds of people still work while on vacation, because they worry about falling behind.

Thinking about work or even just having your work cellphone nearby can reduce the positive effects of detaching from work, so setting boundaries around your time off is crucial. If you are a senior leader or C-suite executive, it may feel unrealistic to be fully disconnected from your team for multiple days. In this case, consider switching off your work notifications but informing your colleagues that you will be checking email once at the same time each day, so you can practice detaching but if there is anything urgent that needs your attention then you can still be reached. If you have an assistant or trusted colleague who is working and could filter your messages for you so you only receive urgent news, then this can also be a good way to take a step back without adding additional stress about missing important communications.


Practice Setting Boundaries

The holiday season is the perfect time to practice setting boundaries around work, since in many industries it is the most common time that people already expect their colleagues not to be working. Especially in the digital age, it’s hard to step back from your work; however, this means practicing healthy detachment is even more important, especially if you’re the boss. Here are a few research-supported reasons why setting boundaries to protect your time away from work will help both you and your company:

  1. Stress is contagious: Humans are highly social and empathetic creatures, which means that we naturally read and mirror each other’s emotions. Stress can easily propagate throughout a team, especially if you’re a leader in your team, making everyone less productive and more like to burn out.
  2. Performance is improved by rest and detachment from work: Research has shown that employees who can successfully detach from work during off-hours tend to experience higher life satisfaction and remain engaged at work, whereas employees who work on weekends or vacation time tend to have decreased intrinsic motivation levels, meaning that they don’t feel that their work is meaningful or satisfying. What does this mean for the bottom line? Employees who don’t take time off from work are more likely to become disengaged, and disengaged employees hurt company performance and profitability. As a leader, you play a crucial role in setting expectations for when and how employees take vacation, and whether they are able to truly detach from work outside of work hours.
  3. Protect your physical health: Chronic stress can have significant negative effects on physical health, from musculoskeletal conditions to hypertension to migraine disorders. In addition, research indicates that working long hours increases your likelihood of premature death. For example, working 55 hours per week instead of 35-40 hours per week was associated with a 35% increase in likelihood of having a stroke, and a 17% increase in likelihood of dying of heart disease.
  4. Employees look to leaders as the example: A 2014 HBR study found that only 25% of employees believed that their leaders model sustainable work habits, but for those employees, their responses indicated that they were 55% more engaged, 72% higher in health and well-being scores, and were 77% more satisfied at work. When leaders take vacations, they are setting the standard that everyone should be able to take time off from work. Well-being is a company culture issue, and how the top leaders behave has a disproportionate effect on the rest of the company. According to Deloitte research, 84% of employees agree that when executives are healthy, their employees are more likely to be healthy too.

For senior leaders in 2023, emotional intelligence is more critical than ever. Developing your EQ doesn’t just mean connecting emotionally with your team. First, you need to connect with yourself. Take the time to check in with yourself this holiday season, and practice setting boundaries to promote healthy detachment from work. It’ll all still be there when you get back, so do what you can to come back to work refreshed and ready to tackle the challenges that the new year may bring.

At STRAAD, we help leaders and teams step into their emerging future with the best of strategy, culture and leadership. If you’re looking for support on designing and living out your improved leadership in 2024, send us a note at [email protected].

Authored by:
STRAAD intelligence™

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