Sean Betts: How I strike a healthy work/life balance after my burnout

Written by Sean Betts
May 28, 2020

Sean is the Managing Director of Annalect in the UK and has worked in the media industry for 18 years.

Sean has lived with depression and anxiety all his life and in 2017 experienced burn out. Since then he has been openly talking about his experiences to help overcome the stigma surrounding mental health.

Annalect is part of Omnicom Media Group and they are responsible for all technology, data and analytics across the group. Prior to joining Annalect, Sean spent 4 years at Havas Media working as a client director on multiple blue chip clients and prior to that worked as a media planner at MediaCom for 8 years.In 2015, I started a new job at Annalect, a data and technology marketing business within Omnicon, as the Deputy Managing Director - a year later I was made MD.

It was a big step change going from deputy to the leader of a business, and I spent much of my first few months trying to get my head into the role. All of a sudden I was seen as the decision maker and expected to lead from the front. I did what I always do when I’m put in a situation outside of my comfort zone - I work hard and be as hands-on as I can, which isn’t always possible (or wise) in a position like this. 

A few months into my new role, we began a large pitch for a new account, which pushed the capabilities of the business in this area. I was leading a relatively inexperienced team, and we were trying to do things that hadn't been done before - frankly, we were making a lot of it up as we were going along.

This intense pitch process went on for six months, and included lengthy demo sessions and presentations with the clients that often lasted days at a time. I’m naturally quite an introverted person, and had also injured my shoulder at the time. Usually, a big coping mechanism for me is exercise, and without this available I was struggling. I found myself thinking “I’ll just get through the next meeting” - but there was always another meeting around the corner. 

At the beginning of 2017, after a small disagreement with my Global CEO over a case study, I absolutely lost it - shouting and cursing at my boss before breaking down in tears. I didn’t know what I was doing and felt lost. Fortunately, my boss was amazing, giving me access to counselling and support, as well as picking up my next pitch at such short notice. 

I spent much of April 2017 sleeping, before coming back to work slowly. What struck me most when I got back into the office were the amount of people who had been through similar experiences. The only thing I could think of was ‘I wish I could have spoken to some of these people before it happened’.

 

Why do we push ourselves so hard?

During my time away, I was able to reflect on pressure and the culture around work in the UK. I read an interesting book, which looked at how the people who go through high work-related stress and depression are the people who push themselves hard.

Expectations are different in the workplace now - with emails available on your phone, there is an underlying cultural expectation that we’re always available, and it takes an awful lot of effort to balance work and leisure.

There’s a phenomenon called ‘presenteeism’, where we have to be seen to be working hard in order to demonstrate our value. This is rooted in years of working practice, because, ultimately, it’s much easier to manage people based on their presence than their output. But presenteeism leads to a culture that can be quite damaging. 

To strike a healthy work/life balance you have to force yourself to step away and stop working - and this is something that I had to learn when coming back to work. 

 

Managing my work/life balance 

When I came back to work, I had to be strict with myself. At the end of the working day, this meant making sure I left the office at a specific time to get a particular train home. To help me manage this transition, I would check emails during my commute so I had something easy to do that didn’t require too much thought. Now I finish work at 5:30, and I don’t email after seven - I also don’t work over weekends - I’m strict on that with both myself and my team so we all know what to expect from each other. 

I’ve learned that it’s absolutely essential to set boundaries like this and clearly communicate them - not just with your work colleagues, but friends and family too. I live with my wife and two kids, and I’ve had to carve out time for myself in the morning to do an hour and half’s exercise. I need this time to manage my mental wellbeing, and my wife and I try to give each other the individual time we each need to recharge our batteries. 

When you start doing this it feels like you’re being selfish - but it’s important to be selfish. If you can’t look after yourself, how can you expect to show your best self and perform to your capabilities? I know myself a lot better now, and I fundamentally know when I’ve got the balance right, and when I’ve got it wrong, but it took time to find the right balance.

It’s so important to listen to yourself, and learn what does and doesn’t work for you. How you work and manage your boundaries is a learning process in itself - so be mindful of your individual circumstances and ease into it over a period of time. 

As well as listening to yourself, it’s just as important to talk to other people too - especially for men! You should talk to people at home and work - you’ll be surprised how many people are open to having the conversation with you because they’ve been through similar experiences, and the amount of love and support you will receive makes a huge difference. As a culture, we’re starting to realise that the way we have been operating for the last 10 or 20 years isn’t sustainable, and there’s now a lot more understanding around mental health - but we’re not there yet. To reach that destination, businesses must change for the better. 

 

Improving work/life balance at Annalect

In the advertising industry, no matter what you were doing the night before, you’ve got to be at your desk for 9:30am on the dot. In our industry, it’s all about building relationships with clients, so the thought has always been that you’ve got to be in the office when they are. 

Going through my mental health journey has made me a much better, stronger leader and because of my position, I have been able to behave in a way that I believe is healthier for everyone. 

A lot of what we do at Annalect is agile based - so our approach to work is all about output instead of being present at your desk. Two years ago, we introduced flexible working, which has allowed people to reduce the days they work, and mould their working day around any personal commitments they have (such as child care or medical circumstances). It’s really helped improve our team culture and everybody’s output as well. Striking a healthier work/life balance in this way helps us all feel valued at work and at home. 

It’s not just being more flexible with working hours though - I’ve also tried to encourage people to be honest with each other. It’s such a British thing to just say “I’m fine thanks”, when somebody asks you how you’re feeling, but I don’t want my team to be like this - we’re not always ‘fine’, and I don’t think people should expect you to be either. We should be comfortable with the fact that people have both good and bad days, and this doesn’t mean they’re not contributing in a meaningful way. It’s been a slow burn implementing this, because it’s hard to change deeply rooted habits, but it’s a goal we all need to aim for. 

 

How did the UK lockdown impact your work/life balance? 

All of the challenges I’ve mentioned here are particularly difficult when you work and live in the same space, and it’s interesting how some of these problems reared their heads during the lockdown. 

There has definitely been an issue with not having a physical separation between work and home. Because of what I’ve been through, I’m mindful of managing this, but I’ve spoken to people who have been working so hard they find that several hours have passed without them noticing. We’ve had to manage so much change, and it’s been extremely challenging. 

The other side of this, of course, is that certain people flourished under lockdown. For people with social anxiety, not having to deal with going out and meeting people was beneficial. 

This is essential to remember, though. Everybody is different, and for employers, it’s so important to be mindful of an individual’s circumstances. Work is a personal thing, and striking a healthy work/life balance is different for everyone both during and after Covid-19. 

 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect British Red Cross or British Red Cross Training.

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Topics: Mental health & wellbeing

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