Put your own oxygen mask on first.

My six-year-old daughter is a flying veteran.  She’s racked up more in-flight miles in her short life than I did by the time I was thirty. 

If you read my previous post, you know that my family made the journey to my hometown for a two-week vacation.  During the safety demonstration on the return flight, my daughter noticed the instructions to adjust one’s own safety mask before helping someone else.  The illustration on the safety card showed a woman with her oxygen mask in place assisting her child.  She had never noticed this before.  Or perhaps this was the first time she realized the significance of it. 

“Mom, why do you have to put your own mask on before helping me with mine?”

I looked into her beautiful face and wondered if, in an emergency, I would actually do that. 

“Well,” I said, “if I don’t get mine on first, I might get woozy or pass out, and then I wouldn’t be any use to you!  I would get mine on very fast so that I could be all set to take care of you.”

It occurred to me that those of us in the business of helping others would do well to heed this advice.  Those who are involved with a charitable organization, be it as a donor, volunteer, or staff person, know all too well how draining it can be to continue to face the Big Need every day.  If you’re a frontline worker, you’re particularly vulnerable. 

This extends beyond the charitable world, of course.  People who come to mind are health care professionals, teachers, emergency workers, law enforcement officials – the list could go on and on.

It’s critical that we keep our own reserves stockpiled so that we can deliver our best selves to our causes.  We have to get enough sleep, take our vacations, spend our free time doing what brings us joy, take our vitamins, drink enough water, and do all those things that we know we must do. 

 Attending to ourselves isn’t selfish.  In fact, it’s selfish not to.

Consider the addictions counselor who can’t be fully present when a desparate client needs someone to encourage and believe in her.  The over-extended board member who fails to do necessary research, resulting in a poor board decision that costs the organization’s clients access to critical services.  The nurse who is dead on her feet and accidentally administers the incorrect medicine.  The fundraiser who fails to read important non-verbal signs from a potential donor.

Take a quick mental inventory of your reserves.  If you had to pull an all-nighter tonight because of an emergency, how well would you function?  If your campaign appears to be critically short of goal, do you have the energy and the creative juices to maximize all opportunities and be alert enough to recognize last-minute new ones?  Or are you slogging away, hoping for the best?  If the number of clients who walked through your door each day suddenly doubled, do you have the capacity to respond, make fair decisions, ferret out new resources, and take your advocacy work to a new level?  (Better yet, do you have the energy to keep on top of trends to be proactive?)

Are there any changes you could make today?  Could you take a walk during lunch instead of plowing through at your computer?  Eat more vegetables?  Go to bed earlier?  Start kicking the caffeine habit?

Those of you who lead organizations, take heed.  Encourage your staff and volunteers to take care of themselves so that they can be better and stronger.  Read up on leadership so that you can foster the best in your people.  And most of all, take care of yourself.

The plane landed without a hitch, and my daughter was relieved that we didn’t need to use our oxygen masks. 

And in a few moments, I’m going into the office.  It’s my first day back.  I needed this vacation.  And now I need to get back to work!

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