Memo to Managers:
The Importance of Putting Our Masks on First

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By Micol Zimmerman Burkeman

While it’s been a while since I’ve been on an airplane, the instruction is still vivid in my memory. “Oxygen masks will drop down from above your seat. Place the mask over your mouth and nose, like this. Pull the straps to tighten it. If you are traveling with children, make sure that your own mask is on first before helping your children.” 

That last line never made sense to me. Put your own mask on first? It was antithetical to everything I had always understood as the role of parents or care-takers. Their job was to first and foremost take care of those that depend on them, those that can’t help themselves. As I got older, the announcement began to make more sense. Can one who is not taken care of effectively care for others? Can we put others’ masks on if we can’t breathe ourselves? 

This understanding became all the more amplified when I started working with educators, clergy and other Jewish professionals whose job it is to take care of others. And who, in an ironic twist, seem actively committed to community-care, child-care and staff-care, at the expense of their own self-care. In my time both serving as a Jewish educator and in my role as a coach and consultant, there are two incontrovertible facts I have learned about Jewish professionals. 

  1. We care deeply for our communities. 
  2. We do a lousy job of caring deeply for ourselves.

At what point between exiting a plane and entering our roles do we forget that we have to put our masks on first? Or worse, do we remember, and just choose not to do it? Maybe we decide there’s no time. Perhaps we fear how it will look if we spend any time taking care of ourselves – matching our own unrealistic expectations of ourselves are the unrealistic expectations of others. It could even be that we’ve decided to take an active stance against self-care in our professional world. Sure it makes sense on an airplane, but in the Jewish professional field, the same rules don’t apply – we’re taking care of an entire community after all. Of course, intellectually we know that isn’t true, and we understand that we are most effective for others when we take care of ourselves. But the chasm between what we intellectually know and what we emotionally feel is wide and very often impassable. 

These are all possible reasons why we disregard self-care. Some may ring true for you and others may not. There is, however, an absolute truth about employee self-care in the workplace: when a manager prioritizes self-care, both for their team and for themselves, employees are more likely to participate in it and prioritize it. This will in turn result in a more productive, more invested and more motivated team. 

What does it mean to prioritize self-care and how does one do that as a manager? Below I list a few ways to explicitly make self-care a priority in the workplace and help ensure your team is putting their masks on first. 

Encourage Boundary-Making and Respect Them

We are living in a strange time where our personal and professional lives are completely and inextricably blurred. Our homes are our offices, our offices are our homes, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the two. Therefore, it is all the more important to encourage your team to create boundaries. For some that might mean that during certain times of the day, they need to make themselves unavailable barring emergencies. For others, that might mean taking some things off of their plates that are unfeasible in the current situation. It is up to managers to not only respect staff boundary-setting, which includes taking “no” for an answer, but to also encourage it. I am fortunate to work for an organization that encourages boundary-setting; and especially during these unprecedented times, it has decreased my anxiety and increased my investment and motivation. Many employees don’t feel that they have the permission to set boundaries, to share their needs or concerns or to say “no.” By explicitly encouraging your staff to set boundaries, you are not only giving permission, but you are also making a statement that boundary-setting and self-care is a part of their job. 

Model Creating Your Own Boundaries

One of the most effective ways to encourage boundary-setting is by modeling it yourself. If a manager tells their staff that boundaries are important, but neglects to create their own, their words are empty and priorities are made clear. Successful managers model the behavior they want to see – it is a sign of what’s important, and a sign of what’s not. I encourage all managers to think about how they engage in their own self-care, and then to consider how they make it visible to their team. What are the boundaries you create for yourself and how do you communicate that to your team? If you do not set any boundaries, perhaps this is a time to dig deep and ask yourself why, and to consider the possible effects it could be having not only on you, but on your team as well. 

Lead with Compassion

This is an extremely trying time for everyone. No one has escaped the impact of the pandemic, whether the effect has been large or small. Staff need compassion now more than ever. They need to be reminded that their organization cares about them and not just their work. Leading with compassion and empathy could not be more important. When leaders at Disney are asked about the secret behind their exceptional customer service, their answer is simple: “One thing we know at Disney is that the extent to which you genuinely care for your people is the extent to which they will care for your customers – and each other.” Sometimes the most simple truths are the most profound. The more you care for your employees, the more they will care for their community. Schedule time for regular check-ins. Ask staff how they are doing before asking about their work, and actively listen. Follow up on anything they’ve shared. Model compassion and empathy and your team will follow, and they will thrive. 

With the many challenges that this pandemic has brought us, it has also brought opportunities. We have an opportunity to make a statement as a field that we prioritize the physical, emotional and spiritual health of our Jewish communal professionals. We have an opportunity to lead the pack as organizations that prioritize compassion, empathy and menschlichkeit first and foremost. There is a reason that every flight leads with an announcement about putting one’s mask on first; we need a constant reminder. How are we announcing to our staff and our communities that they must put their masks on first? And is our mask on when we tell them?  

Micol Zimmerman Burkeman, MAJE, has worked to elevate and reimagine Jewish education and teen engagement for the last 15 years. As a coach, consultant and designer and facilitator of professional development, she works with educators, clergy and Jewish communal professionals to help them increase their impact and maximize their potential. She serves as Recruitment and Leadership Development Associate at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.