Unit 2: Self-care as a Contributor to Ethical Leadership

The first general principle of the APA Ethics Code, Beneficence and Nonmaleficence, ends with the following admonition: “Psychologists strive to be aware of the possible effect of their own physical and mental health on their ability to help those with whom they work” (APA, 2017). In a similar vein, the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics states that, “Social workers should not allow their own personal problems, psychosocial distress…or mental health difficulties to interfere with their professional judgment and performance or to jeopardize the best interests of people for whom they have a professional responsibility” (NASW, 2008). The importance of being aware of one’s own state as an ethical psychologist, social worker, or leader is clear. 

When will-power has been depleted, or one feels physically, mentally, or emotionally drained, one is more likely to make poor decisions. Citing the work of several other researchers, vanDellen and Hoyle (2010) write, “An extensive line of research treats capacity for self- control as a resource that can be depleted through use, reserved for later use, and restored” (p. 252). If you’ve had a particularly tough day at work, it may be harder to resist the siren call of the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through on the way home. It’s easier to squash the day’s struggles with the sugar fix you’ve been craving than to prepare a healthier meal at home. However, operating in this depleted state can have more serious consequences than extra calories. It can also leave us prone to ethical pitfalls; we may be more likely to cut corners, opt for the easy way out, or return to favorite vices and temptations, any of which may or may not be ethically sound. 

This is where self-care comes in. Self-care strategies can help maintain self-regulation, beginning by simply bringing awareness to one’s vices (PSU, 2019) and mental state. “Awareness is the key element for practicing self-care, and it involves becoming consciously alert to one’s physical, mental, and emotional reactions in different situations, especially the ones that are stressful” (Crane & Ward, 2016, p. 389). In those stressful situations, Crane and Ward suggest taking a self-inventory of questions such as, “What are my thoughts?” “What is my physical reaction to being upset?” and “What is my emotional reaction?” (Crane & Ward, 2016, p. 390). In the same way, leaders should go through a self-inventory when a challenging or ethical issue arises, particularly as these two often overlap.

Awareness is the first, but not the only tool in the arsenal of self-care. Researchers also suggest practices such as breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, meditation, as well as committing to proper exercise and nutrition (Crane & Ward, 2016; Pignatelli, 2015). It’s less important what you do, but that you find something that works for you and make it a habit. Doing so will better prepare you to meet ethical challenges with full capacities and resolve. Researchers recommend that,

“individuals submit to a set of practices designed to cultivate one’s ethical conduct and fortify one’s resolve to exercise agency in the midst of the ebb and flow of power, practices intended to support an ethical subject’s capacity to avoid the undertow of desires and habits that erode the capacity to ‘master the appetites that risk engulfing you.’” (Pignatelli, 2015, p. 199)

Practicing self-care makes it easier for leaders to maintain awareness of their physical and mental health, as the APA Code of Ethics insists, as well as how this affects those around them. It will go a long way toward preventing professional responsibilities and judgments from being compromised. Self-care also sets leaders up for success when facing ethical dilemmas. Crane and Ward (2016) observed that, “Through his or her own self-nurturing and self-care, the conscious leader demonstrates that attention to this important component makes resolution of other pending issues less challenging” (p. 388). A self-care practice can support an overall practice of ethical psychology, social work, leadership, and more. 


American Psychological Association. (2017). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct: Including 2010 and 2016 amendments. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/

Crane, P. J., & Ward, S. F. (2016). Self-healing and self-care for nurses. AORN Journal, 104(5), 386-400. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/docview/1832213742/fulltext/269863E38AC04234PQ/1?accountid=13158

National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of ethics. Retrieved from https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English.aspx

Pennsylvania State University. (2019). PSY 833: L02 Preventive Measures and Solutions. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1963919/pages/l02-preventive-measures-and-solutions?module_item_id=25808379

Pignatelli, F. (2015, Fall). Ethical leadership development as care of the self: A Foucauldian perspective. Schools: Studies in Education, 12(2), 198-213. Retrieved from https://www-jstor-org.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/stable/10.1086/683214?pq-origsite=summon&seq=13#metadata_info_tab_contents

vanDellen, M. R., & Hoyle, R. H. (2010). Regulatory accessibility and social influences on state self-control. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 251-263. Retrieved from https://journals-sagepub-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/doi/pdf/10.1177/0146167209356302

One Comment

  1. Ginamarie Spiridigliozzi February 21, 2019 at 8:55 PM #

    Hi Holly,

    This is such a wonderful ethical standard to pull from the APA code because, like so many other ethical standards in that code, it is widely applicable to all other professions. A similar principle also shows up in the AMA ethics code under the physician wellness section in chapter 8. That section states that “[p]hysicians have a responsibility to maintain their own health and wellness, broadly construed as preventing or treating acute or chronic diseases, including mental illness, disabilities, and occupational stress. When physician health or wellness is compromised, so may the safety and effectiveness of the medical care provided” (AMA, 2000). It is clear why both these professions specifically call out wellness and self-care in their ethics codes. Both professions serve the public, and they make decisions that can affect the lives and well-being of their patients. It is of upmost ethical importance that professionals in these fields practice self-care because the decisions they make can decide the fate of those they serve.

    But outside of the medical and psychological context, I really enjoyed how you related this standard to all leadership situations. Any decision can be impacted by things like burnout, sickness, and poor mental health. And even decisions that don’t determine the direct outcome of one’s life should nevertheless be taken seriously – because each decision adds up to larger impact, be that to a team, a company, or even something larger like the environment. Not practicing self-care will inevitably weaken your resources for effectively dealing with conflict and tough decision making.

    I see applications of this concept in leadership situations of all kinds, like teaching, construction, software, and sales, where there is a direct correlation between negative outcomes and a missed opportunity for self-care. Imagine a construction worker who is burnt out and stressed about a personal situation at home. He’s losing a lot of sleep because of it and comes to work tired, but because of stigma he doesn’t get the proper help to deal with this issue. However, this person is still bringing that same mental space to work, and since he could be working with heavy machinery, there could very well be a direct tie between his mental state and the safety of others. But if he was able to ask himself some of those self-inventory questions, and to get the help he needed to work through the personal situation or resolve his sleeping problem, then self-care would step in to remove the potential for a dangerous work situation. But this situation just re-emphasizes the points you made in your post about the ethical responsibility professionals have when it comes to self-care.

    American Medical Association. (2000). Code of medical ethics: Professional self-regulation. Retrieved from https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/ethics/code-medical-ethics-professional-self-regulation


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