For Better Performance, First Put The Oxygen Mask On Your Employees

State of the nation

The ‘put the oxygen mask on yourself first’ example often gets cited in reference to self-development. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment. You need to look after yourself first before you can look after others.

This metaphor is becoming increasingly applicable to businesses and how they manage their people.

The fact is that South Africa is the second most stressed country in the world. In fact, some research suggests that stress collectively costs businesses around R3 billion a year.

When people are stressed their emotional and mental bandwidth decreases. This means that they cannot focus on what they need to do for you before they have made sure that they are OK. So, someone who is overworked, stressed, anxious, and struggling to find work-life balance finds it very hard to show up at work fully engaged.

In such cases it’s in the best interest of the company to put the oxygen mask on their people first.

Employee Capacity

In my coaching sessions with top executives and entrepreneurs we often discuss their capacity to deal with the stress and overwhelm that comes with pursuing big goals. I think it’s a useful construct to also apply to employees.

There are a couple of useful ways to think about capacity. I like thinking of it as the glass vs the ocean.

Imagine you have a glass full of water and I decided to take a 20kg rock and drop it on the glass. What will happen? The glass shatters and all its contents end up over the floor. Brutal.

Now, imagine we take the same 20kg rock and drop it into the ocean. What happens? A small splash, a couple of ripples, and the ocean goes on undeterred.

Capacity is your ability to absorb the stresses of life and keep moving forward.

Which would you rather be? The glass or the ocean? Which would you rather your employees be?

Increasing Employee Capacity

Everyone can increase their capacity. But it takes work. Here are a few things businesses should consider in supporting employees in this regard:

  1. Understand the role of recovery.

Perfect work-life balance is an elusive beast. At least for most of the leaders and employees I have worked with. So, instead of obsessing over balance companies would do well to understand and motivate for adequate recovery.

Rest and recovery is underrated. In a big way. It’s evident by the fact that so many employees don’t even take their full annual leave. One of the biggest reasons this happens is because of the culture that is created in companies. The culture that says you should always be working, always being switched on, and if you do anything for yourself then you should feel guilty. Of course, it’s not that explicitly communicated but the subtext is there!


  1. Encourage self-development

People are responsible for their own self-development. This does not mean that companies should not support the effort.

Think about the typical day for many people. Early rise, traffic, work, traffic, home, relax, eat, family time, sleep. Do you blame them for not finding the time for self-development?

So, what can you do to support them in developing who they are? Skills are not the end all and be all of development.


  1. Psychologically equip

Companies in high-pressure environments should pay particular attention to this.

The reality is that most people are ill-equipped to deal with the stresses of life. Refer back to the fact that stress costs business R3 billion a year as proof. However, like I have been alluding to, stress is not the only player on the field. There is also anxiety, overwhelm, overwork, and a lack of recovery.

In the short run, stress can be quite beneficial. It focuses the mind. Prolonged stress is the real culprit. Often prolonged stress manifests itself as a result of our inability to deal with the short term stress.

So, how can you equip your team members to better deal with the stresses of life and business?

What happens before work

The punchline of this article is really this; if you want your people to be productive, engaged, and motivated then you should concern yourself with their state of mind. This is not only impacted by work but also by the demands and pressures outside of work.

So, it should be the imperative of every company to equip people with the right psychological tools to become mentally tough and resilient.

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