Your own oxygen mask first: A strategy for flourishing at work and in life

A growing body of evidence tells us that women are experiencing burnout to an alarming degree. An everywoman study, for instance, showed that 76% of women in the male-dominated domain of technology have had an experience of burnout, highlighting an urgent need for self-care strategies tailored to our experiences and challenges in today’s world. 

The ‘juggle’ is real, with many of us attempting to grow our careers in a professional world still grappling with gender disparities, while simultaneously taking on a lion’s share of the caring responsibilities in the home. In this environment, feelings of overwhelm can all too easily become the norm. The metaphor of ‘putting your own oxygen mask on first’ encapsulates a simple truth about the relationship between our capacity and our wellbeing. So, what’s it all about, and how could it enable you to thrive? 

Exploring the metaphor

Drawn from the pre-take-off instructions given on commercial flights, the idea of your oxygen mask first’ is a call for ‘self-prioritisation’. It asks us to acknowledge that we cannot achieve our goals, let alone effectively care for others, if our own wellbeing is compromised. It’s an apt metaphor that can be particularly helpful to anyone who wrestles with guilt about self-care. For women, who often occupy multiple roles—mothers, partners, caretakers, colleagues, people managers, organisational leaders to name a few—this advice is particularly pertinent.

Thinking beyond the self-care basics

It’s essential to understand self-care in its full spectrum. It’s not just about spa days, a bubble bath at the end of the week or a pay day treat; true self-care demands a holistic approach, factoring in key pillars such as physical health, mental and emotional resilience, and professional learning and development.  

Physical health is the bedrock of wellbeing. Regular exercise, balanced nutrition, and adequate rest are not acts of indulgence but crucial investments in your capacity to grow, lead and inspire. For those in management or leadership roles, prioritising physical health sustains energy levels and acts as a defence against burnout. 

Mental and emotional wellbeing are critical to navigating the highs and lows of career advancement. Mindfulness and meditation practices can enhance emotional intelligence—a key leadership trait. They can help foster a mindset that is resilient, adaptive, and empathetic—all qualities that enhance decision-making and professional relationships. 

Personal development is seldom thought of as an act of self-care, but investing in your professional growth and the acquisition of new skills is more entwined with your wellbeing than may appear on the surface. Upskilling doesn’t just enable you to progress up the ladder, providing financial stability and personal fulfilment; it also equips you with the tools that you need to navigate biases other challenges that act as suppressors to your wellbeing.  

While these key pillars are universal, there are numerous other ingredients that will differ for individuals when it comes to self-care. Elements such as work-life balance, cultivation of hobbies and interests, job security, social connection, financial stability, community engagement, and even spiritual growth may also be vital to an individual’s wellbeing to various degrees.  

The power of boundaries

Central to the idea of putting your own oxygen mask on first is an ability to set clear boundaries. For women who are programmed to say ‘yes’ to whatever’s thrown at them, it can be useful to reframe boundary setting as an act of self-preservation and self-respect. It involves defining limits within which you operate effectively and healthily. This could mean delegating tasks, turning down non-essential meetings, or simply dedicating time to disconnect from emails. Boundaries help in maintaining focus and energy on tasks that align with personal and professional goals.

PRACTICE: A simple method for effective time management

One of the challenges of self-care is that it can feel like yet another task on an already overflowing to-do list. The key is to regularly devote a little time to allocating slots for those aspects of self-care that matter most to you. By taking this time to understand your self-care priorities and, crucially, diarising them so that they cannot be usurped by someone else’s priority, you stand the best chance of ensuring they don’t fall by the wayside.   

To facilitate this process, everywoman has designed the PRACTICE method: Prioritise, Reflect, Allocate, Cut, Time-block, Integrate, Check, and Evaluate. This method encourages a proactive and reflective approach to managing your commitments and ensuring that what matters most to you is safeguarded in your schedule. 

All you need is some quiet time and access to your diary. Here’s how it works… 

Practical application: Using the Priority Matrix

This tool helps you visually categorise tasks and activities based on their importance and urgency. Here’s a simple way to set it up. 

  • Quadrant 1: Important and Urgent (Non-negotiables that need your immediate attention). 
  • Quadrant 2: Important but Not Urgent (Activities that contribute to your long-term goals and self-care). 
  • Quadrant 3: Not Important but Urgent (Tasks that demand attention but can be delegated or minimised). 
  • Quadrant 4: Not Important and Not Urgent (Candidates for elimination). 

This visual aid, combined with the PRACTICE method, offers a structured approach to time management. It allows you to systematically evaluate your commitments, ensuring that your schedule reflects your true priorities and that time for your non-negotiables is protected. By regularly revisiting and adjusting your Priority Matrix, you can strike that all-important balance between personal wellbeing, professional growth, and the myriad roles you inhabit. 

A role in gender equality

As we grow our careers, the wisdom encapsulated in the advice to put our own oxygen mask on first is a strategic imperative. It acknowledges that personal wellbeing is just not a luxury; it’s a necessity for sustained success and impact. By embracing a holistic approach to self-care, setting clear boundaries, and investing in continuous growth we can navigate our careers with greater passion and vigour.  

This approach is, however, more than just about individual wellbeing. In setting a powerful example for others to follow, it can also contribute to a more inclusive and empathetic professional landscape in which a female burnout is a thing of the past. Imagine the transformative impact on society and culture if we all adopted the ‘oxygen mask first’ approach. It’s well worth considering how your individual workplace, community or family might evolve if you were to prioritise your own wellbeing and self-care—not as an act of selfishness, but as a foundational principle for empowering those around us. 


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