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Put your health first to be a better leader

4 min read


This post is adapted from “Are You Fully Charged?: The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life,” by Tom Rath (Silicon Guild, May 2015)


“If you want to make a difference — not just today, but for many years to come — you need to put your health and energy ahead of all else.”

Some of the most caring people also tend to be the least healthy. This is what I observed, time and time again, while spending the last few years focused on health and well-being. After writing the book “Eat Move Sleep,” I heard from thousands of people who were struggling with their personal health and a general lack of energy.

Surprisingly, workers in the professions I admire most, such as nursing, are often the least healthy. One study found that 55% of nurses are overweight or obese. If there is any group that needs to be healthier and set a good example, it is people working in healthcare. As I listened to the stories of workers across professions, from educators to business leaders, it was clear that some of the most mission-driven people have spent a lifetime putting everyone else’s needs before their own.

While this is admirable on many levels, it is a costly mistake. Even if you are determined to be the least selfish person on the planet and do nothing but serve other people, you need the daily energy to do so effectively. When I spoke with hospice nurses who were always putting the needs of terminally ill patients and their families first, the last thing they were thinking about was their own health and energy. Yet when I asked them what it took to be their very best at helping people during this time of need, they acknowledged that they could be of far more service if they invested time in their own health and energy.

A study of more than 30,000 nurses across Europe found that those who work long shifts (more than 12 hours) are 32 percent more likely to rate the quality of care on their ward as poor, compared with nurses working eight-hour shifts. They were also 41 percent more likely to report failing or poor standards of safety on their ward. In many cases, working longer hours is a disservice to those you intend to serve.

I have seen this phenomenon in businesses all around the world. There is often an implicit pressure, for leaders in particular, to be the first ones in to the office, to work the longest days, and to claim they need very little sleep. Yet the last thing businesses need is star performers in the workplace burning out because they have a routine that is unsustainable. The research my team conducted on this topic found that people who have very high energy levels in a given day are more than three times as likely to be completely engaged in their work that same day.

If you want to make a difference — not just today, but for many years to come — you need to put your health and energy ahead of all else. If you are wiped out from working around the clock, subsisting on food from a vending machine, and not making time for daily exercise, then there is no way you’ll be effective at helping your friends, family, colleagues, patients, or customers. The good news is that making choices to improve your energy does not require a complex grand plan. It all starts with the next choice you make.

Tom Rath is an author and researcher who studies the role of human behavior in business, health, and well-being. His most recent work includes a feature-length documentary film, “Fully Charged,” which explores the key elements of energizing one’s work and life through personal stories and interviews with the world’s leading social scientists. Rath has written six New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers over the past decade. For more information visit his website.

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