I am ending the series on the Executive Assistant and Respect with some comments on self-care. If you have read the previous posts, you have watched me paint a picture of the ideal executive assistant – one who is skilled, wise, reliable, poised, and extremely hard working. You may have asked yourself, “How does this person manage to be all things to all people, still attend to her own personal needs and stay mentally and physically healthy?”
My fictional “ideal” executive assistant is Blake, in “Madame Secretary,” a Netflix series chronicling the adventures of a woman US Secretary of State. Blake, her assistant, is the perfect example of the EA who is always one step ahead of his boss, anticipating her every need. He is integrated into her personal life, getting involved in the exploits of her husband and children (occasionally to provide levity in otherwise grim situations, and sometimes to perform the kind of salutary miracle that only a super-assistant can pull off.)
Blake is “always on,” “always ready.” His character is humanized by his quirkiness; perpetually dressed in a suit and tie no matter the occasion, while others appear in pajamas or evening wear depending on the setting. He has a dry sense of humor, making “on-target” remarks and facial expressions when the camera jumps to him amid national and international crises. He even sings and plays the piano! He can get any world leader on the phone in a matter of seconds, has his boss’ coat held at the ready before she even knows she needs to exit, and hands just the right report to the Secretary as she steps out of the elevator each morning. He is, of course, a caricature – one that is the paragon of behind-the-scenes effectiveness. The Secretary trusts him completely. Their partnership, at least for me, is one of the most ingenious and interesting subplots of the series. But, at least so far, the story has not delved into Blake’s personal life. The other supporting characters have all shown their vulnerability from time to time, but Blake remains aloof and cool – the unflappable super-EA.
Not so the EA’s I have known in real life. Not so myself when I worked in this role. Behind the scenes and sometimes barely hidden in the workday, we exhibit signs of exhaustion, mental and physical overload, discouragement, frustration, anger, and the full gamut of other human emotions. Acting in a role where one is “always on,” but perpetually “off-stage;” a role where the EA is expected to respond with a cheerful “Come in!” when a knock is heard at the door, ultimately takes its toll.
The most effective executive assistants are particularly susceptible to the self-destructive habits of overwork, the inability to say no, perfectionism, and ignoring their own personal needs. Like other professionals with these traits, they may “burn out” under prolonged stressful conditions.
In my case, the stress created by the expectations (my own and that of others) that I would be ever-efficient, continually responsive, and unfailingly reliable, built up in my body over more than 10 years until I was in almost constant pain. I decided to retire earlier than I had expected to seek relief for these physical symptoms. After retirement, I realized that stress was causing my pain, and I began the long effort to undo the damage.
The advice I am about to offer applies to everyone but is tailored to EAs specifically. I am embarrassed, truth be told, to make suggestions that I was not able to implement myself when in the furnace of a stressful work atmosphere. Knowing what I know now, however, compels me to make these recommendations, embarrassment or no.
First, create work boundaries and do your very best to maintain them. Don’t allow them to become porous with too many exceptions. Know your limits and remember that extending them may have detrimental consequences for you and those close to you. Though it may be hard to recognize or admit, you will probably breach your own boundaries more often than others will.
Second, know yourself well – look deeply into your own motivations. Know yourself as profoundly as your well-honed insight will permit, but eschew judgementalism. Reflect on your personal work-life motivations with the kindness, generosity, and self-respect that you deserve and that you would not hesitate to offer to others. Are your attitudes toward your work partially responsible for the stress and burdens you are experiencing? Must everything be done perfectly? Are you proud that you work harder than others? Do you like being the last person to turn out the lights and close the office door? Are you taking yourself and your role too seriously?
Take responsibility for your own well-being. No one else will “fix” the unhealthy situations in which you find yourself, nor rescue you from them. Identify what you need to feel mentally and physically healthy, and courageously claim it. Be prepared that others may misunderstand or condemn your “self-protectiveness.”
While making these essential changes for your sake, be kind and respectful to those who cheer and those who boo, alike. Loosen the tether of expecting approval or disapproval from others. Be completely upfront with your boss about the physical and emotional toll that workplace stress is taking on you. Ask if he or she will brainstorm with you how to change the work situation for the better – for both of you. If your boss does not understand your needs or support your decision to make changes in work patterns, it may be that you are not well-matched as a team. You may need to sacrifice an otherwise valuable work relationship for the sake of your health.
Cultivate a physical activity that can supplement the mental gymnastics that you are called to perform during the workday. Find a creative outlet that can act as a counterbalance to the routine work tasks that are essential but can be both tedious and spirit-numbing.
Find a trusted colleague or mentor who can help you to navigate the challenging and sometimes toxic work situations that you may encounter. Counter the loneliness of the “secret-keeper” EA, with supportive relationships outside the office. I was exceedingly fortunate during my working years to be able to confide in my life-partner about situations that troubled me, knowing I could rely on her complete discretion.
Beyond all this advice, I suggest a practice that has been a healing agent in my own life – meditation. I began to practice meditation shortly after retiring, as a way to ease chronic pain.
Its use in such a situation is based on the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. “Developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the 1970s by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, MBSR uses a combination of mindfulness meditation, body awareness, yoga and exploration of patterns of behaviour, thinking, feeling and action. Mindfulness can be understood as the non-judgemental acceptance and “open-hearted” investigation of present experience, including body sensations, internal mental states, thoughts, emotions, impulses and memories, in order to reduce suffering or distress and to increase well-being.” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003).
Meditation may involve sitting still in a comfortable position for periods of 20 minutes (or more) while focusing the attention on one’s breathing. The practice quiets the body and the mind, promoting relaxation, a sense of peace and rest. Meditation is not, however, a quick panacea. Commitment, discipline, and patience are necessary to change old habits and reap new benefits. For me the continuing effort is certainly worth it.
Regular meditation fosters the habit of mindfulness – paying attention to what is really happening in the present moment with acceptance, curiosity, and compassion. Mindfulness sets us free from the inclination to create storylines in which we are victims, heroes or saints. It wakes us up to the gift of life in the here and now. We can turn away from stewing in regrets about the past or worries about the future, to live as fully and gratefully as possible in the present moment. I find it to be one of the best forms of self-care in the midst of demanding situations.
Everything is constantly changing, including our thoughts and feelings about our work and all the other parts of our lives. Mindfulness creates an openness to the flow of things – an awareness of the bigger picture. It can also foster insight – a catalyst for change. The practices of meditation and mindfulness calm the body and the mind and awaken curiosity, creativity, hopefulness, and courage.
A friend of mine has written a book about the impact of the practices of meditation and mindfulness in the workplace: Mindfulness, a better me, a better you, a better world by Annabel Beerel. I recommend it highly for leaders, executives, managers, and staff. The book describes mindfulness, teaches meditation, and illustrates the benefits of both. Annabel presents scientific data demonstrating the positive effect that mindfulness has on the brain and its advantages for the individual and, therefore, for the organization in which he or she works. She suggests introducing it as a workplace change-agent and believes that it is most effective when it is fostered and practiced by all levels of the workforce.
Meditation and mindfulness have helped me, in retirement, to deal with experiences similar to those I faced during my career as an EA: feeling overwhelmed by the number of tasks on my plate, trying to juggle and prioritize responsibilities to meet the expectations of those around me, over committing, rushing, attempting to multitask, catastrophizing, and failing to comprehend the bigger picture. Meditation and mindfulness have given me the courage and energy to change ineffective habits and harmful patterns of thinking. They have increased my self-understanding and self-compassion and my understanding of and compassion for others.
My concern throughout this series of articles on the Executive Assistant and Respect has been for the health and well-being of EAs who serve valiantly and brilliantly, often behind the scenes, to promote the success of their principals and their organizations. So, from the viewpoint of a retired EA: “Whatever nourishes your creativity, authenticity, self-respect, and compassion will make you a better EA, your boss a better executive and manager, and your workplace a better microcosm of the world. Take care of yourself!”