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leadership & self-care: reaching your full potential | leadership spotlight

Heidi Hauer is a leadership and holistic health coach based in Switzerland, working with clients across Europe. Over the last 20 years, her professional experience and her own transformation journey led her to help others establish a good self-care foundation. Throughout her career in corporate communications and public affairs, she always had a strong calling to help others grow. Her own experience with severe exhaustion in 2013 forced her to take care of herself. She focused on self-care, nutrition and mental health, in order to reinvent how she showed up at work and unlock her full potential to achieve her career goals. This later influenced her coaching specialisation, which she practises now.

“Health isn’t everything, but without health everything is nothing. Nutrition, movement, sleep, spiritual connections and relationships are the five elements that build the foundation for everything you do afterwards.”

Q1: You experienced severe exhaustion due to chronic stress in 2013. What happened?

A: “I had low energy, bad skin, mood swings, weight issues, and felt tired and stressed all the time. I thought I needed to change what I ate, so I went on a vegetarian, salad-heavy diet, but that made it worse because it was the wrong food for me. I took a food intolerance test, but it couldn’t produce useful results because my digestion system was way off. They referred me to a doctor who told me I had a digestive-related illness and needed to take sick leave and recover.

“Immediately, I said, "that’s impossible, it’s not even an option". To which he replied, "Okay, then in 6 months I’ll see you in the hospital". This was my wake-up call that something needed to change. I’m sure many people can relate to this - I was so driven and ambitious that I had no awareness of my physical state. I thought it was something I could push through and it would improve on its own. 2 months later, I took sick leave.

“At the time, my family and friends said I should quit my job and take it easy. I thought: "No, I don’t want to take it easy. I love my job, and I want to achieve great things." Instead, I knew I needed to learn to build a good foundation so I had the strength and energy to endure tough settings. I knew I’d rather change my mindset and foundation than give up on my career ambitions.”

Q2: How would you describe the relationship between self-care, nutrition and how you show up for work?

A: “I changed my nutrition, and I changed my lifestyle: waking up earlier, having breakfast, and meditating. That enabled me to show up for work well-nourished and already feeling fulfilled. In the past, I used to rush to the office and have my first coffee there and maybe a sugary snack at 10 am. With a morning routine, I could experience a happy moment through my self-care practice at home before I even looked at emails. That fuelled me on a spiritual, emotional, and physical level, so I became more focused, more creative, and more resilient at work.

“For me, self-care brought about more balance and enabled me to show up with a more senior mentality at work, as I had the mental space to look at projects from a more holistic, long-term perspective rather than being lost in the details of minuscule tasks.

“Previously, the sugar rollercoaster throughout the day was also creating an emotional rollercoaster within me, and that made me perform worse. When I removed that, I became a better contributor and a better leader. I was able to see more clearly where I wanted to go and follow through with stronger focus and more perseverance.

“Most of us are in it for the long run; it’s a marathon, not a sprint, so we all need to take the time to build a good foundation.”

Q3: Women often tend to de-prioritise self-care and their work-life balance to go the extra mile at work, with the assumption that they are then more likely to be considered for promotion. What's your take on this?

A: “Going the extra mile is important occasionally, but it shouldn’t be the norm. Being in a constant overworked and overwhelmed state will not get you closer to a promotion. In order to be promoted, your seniors need to believe you're ready for the next step. If you’re struggling or even barely surviving with the tasks at hand, no one will entrust you with the next challenge. “To be a strong candidate for promotion, you may need to be showing up for work as if you already are in that next position. That includes and also goes beyond the advice ‘dress for the job you want, not the job you have.’ In addition to that, you need to be showing up with new ideas and talking to the people at that level. If you don’t come across as relaxed, on top of things and already contributing at a higher level, no one will consider you for the step up.

“When it comes to being promoted, women often fall into traps with these three beliefs.

Belief trap number one is: My excellent work will speak for itself. I don’t need to promote my achievements nor voice my aspirations. The notion that the more you work, the more likely you are to be promoted is simply not true. If your current work is great, but you’re not promoting yourself as ready and willing for the next step, then others may speak for you. They may say you are simply too good to be promoted and they need you and the output you produce in your current role. I’ve been in many talent conversations, where I’ve heard ‘I have no idea who could take over this role if she is promoted because she is doing three jobs in one- we can’t afford to lose her’. Talking positively and with a sense of ownership about an accomplishment you are proud of to the right people at the right time, is definitely a good idea.

Number two is: Networking is a dirty word. There are many benefits of building up a strong network; whether that’s for exchanging ideas, finding mentors, establishing collaborations, whatever it is, don’t underestimate the power of a supportive community around you.

Number three is: I am good at my work when I do everything that’s been asked of me, ideally all by myself. That’s the good girl trap. This was true of us when we were at school, but in the workplace, the rulebook is different. There may be situations when saying ‘no’, challenging the status quo, delegating, outsourcing, etc. might be the thing that really moves the needle. There are always going to be things people throw at you, and the irony is: the more you do, the more you get. In that sense, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy and you become a victim of your hard work. It’s important to set clear expectations and question them at times.”

Q4: What do you recommend to someone who wants to find self-care practices conducive to themselves and their careers?

A: “There is the big question of what YOU need to thrive. I often take my workshop participants through the process of making a 'well-being charter' by writing down what they need on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis for their mind, body, and soul to thrive. For example, when it comes to the physical level, what do you need daily to be at the top of your game? For me, it is some form of movement and a nutritious breakfast. This discovery journey is a process of trial and error to figure out what you really need and what brings you joy. Many people question what joy has to do with work and peak performance, or they fear it sounds selfish or self-centred. But it has everything to do with it because long-term fulfilment is directly linked to joy and feeling good about something. You can pull the 80-hour week for a couple of months, or maybe even a couple of years, but it comes at a cost. It is the goal of my coaching to help others move through life healthily and joyfully, whilst shining in a successful career.”

Q5: How do we ensure that those items on our self-care list don’t become another dreaded item to check off a to-do list? How do we ensure we actually want to do them?

A: Pick something that makes you feel good and that you truly enjoy. If yoga is not your thing, don’t do it. Sometimes the balance tips into self-optimisation, where you obsess about going for a run 3 times a week, for example. But if you’re only doing it because you have a timer and a box to tick on your to-do list - then this is having the opposite effect, and you’ll need another self-care practice to counter that stress. The idea is that it’s a practice that brings you joy and that you look forward to doing. If you’re going to bed dreading it at night or regularly procrastinating it, then that’s not the right practice for you. Give it up and try something else. Think of what you enjoyed doing as a child. Did you enjoy being in nature? Then maybe the self-care practice is to go into your garden barefoot in the morning with your cup of tea.

Q6: How can we actively prevent burnout with an individualised self-care practice?

A: “Each of us has the responsibility to set our own limits and no-go zones and be aware of the signs when we’re approaching them. For some people, that may be that they’re losing their hair, a common sign of high stress. For others it might be realising their hobbies and interests have been compromised - e.g. they haven’t made it to the gym 3 times this week, which they love and usually do. There need to be numerous checkpoints before reaching burnout or even breaking down, where your alarm bells are ringing, and you say "Okay, it’s been a tough week, but next week will be more relaxed." Without safety checks, it’s a clear run to burnout. It’s like in a factory, where you have so many protocols that if one thing falls out, there is a light blinking, and you know you need to do something, otherwise you risk burning the factory down. We all need some kind of protocol like that in place for ourselves. It’s not about being lazy or avoiding work. It’s about establishing a framework that enables you to show up to work as the best version of yourself and perform to the best of your ability.

This interview was conducted as part of our leadership spotlight series, in which we aim to demystify the path to leadership for aspiring leaders by sharing a variation of journeys and defining moments.

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