Why I will never work full time again
International conference speaker, Lucy Bloom, walked away from her third CEO role in 2017, never to return to full time senior executive life again. Here she explains why she made that radical decision after 30 years of full time work, and has never been happier or healthier.
I remember the exact moment I decided that running companies was bad for my health. I was on the bus to the city from my apartment by the beach on a warm Spring morning. I watched as a perfectly good beach disappeared into the distance out the back window of the 374. I was exhausted, grumpy and unhappy. And this bus was headed in the wrong direction, towards an open-plan office on Elizabeth Street, where I ran a business that was sucking the life out of me. Every business had, since the advertising agency I created and ran for 20 years, to the international aid charities I led in Ethiopia and Cambodia. I was teetering on the edge of serious burnout.
On the bus I buried my face in my phone and read an article that pushed me to make a decision that very day: to quit c-suite life. The article listed some serious health problems, all related to full time work and the pressure of executive leadership.
It said that working more than 55 hours a week increased my risk of heart disease. A friend of a friend had just dropped dead of a heart attack. She was the same age as me – in her forties with three kids, working full time, and had a massive heart attack at the wheel.
Studies show that longer work hours cause an increased risk of depression. I was already on antidepressants. Anxiety was also on this list of doom due to workplace conflict as a fixture in many CEO roles. I used to dread going to the office when the owner of the business came in to terrorise me and my team. Her favourite game was called ‘move the goalposts’. Adrenal fatigue and burnout were also listed as common in high pressure leadership roles. As was poor sleep quality.
I recalled the day my GP told me I was risking my health a few years earlier. When I brushed her off she gave me a stern look and said, ‘Righto, which autoimmune disease would you like, Lucy? You can have Multiple Sclerosis. What about Type 1 Diabetes? Here’s a good one: Lupus!’
That conversation came back to me on the bus as I recognised every symptom on this list of health problems. It felt like a CEO death wish and no job could possibly be worth it. So I quit. Right before Christmas, with no job on the horizon.
Boss life can be isolating and the first thing I noticed was that I could reconnect with the humans in my life. According to a 2017 study by Harvard Business Review, 61% of CEOs feel lonely in their roles. Bugger that! I’m a people person and I thrive on human connection. Isolation is not good for the soul.
One of my rules of life is that when you are in a pickle, go to your strengths. My number one superpower has always been storytelling. Stories are a far more effective vehicle for information than bare facts and stats. Your voice oscillates differently when you tell a story compared to plain old information.
So I focussed on that skillset as my main revenue stream and five years on I am an international keynote speaker – a cross between a motivational speaker, stand up comedian and expert presenter.
I work less hours than I ever have, but earn more than I did as an overworked CEO. This career change has been much better for my health than 60+ hours at a desk stressed to the eyeballs, battling with a board.
Now I only battle boarding passes and the logistics of getting from Invercargill in the far south of New Zealand to the Gold Coast in one day. I might give three speeches one week and none the next.
The health benefits are radical. I sleep like a machine. I have no depression or anxiety. Burnout be damned. I have time for exercise in the form I love: walking the dog and hiking in cool places like Tasmania’s Maria Island. Japan during the blossom season is next. Speaking takes me to places that are so much more memorable than an open plan office: Uluru, Fiji, Longreach, Kalgoorlie. Sometimes the USA or Europe. And I’ve found the human connection I love with audiences who laugh so hard I have to pause to give them time to take a breath.
I said in a speech this morning that my idea of success is having all the freetime you would like to have. Work certainly gives us a sense of purpose and fulfillment. It’s just the long hours and heavy responsibility that undid all that purpose-finding joy and messed with my health. I love the little squirt of dopamine I enjoy when I complete something. I recently spent four days in a recording booth doing the voiceover for my novel. That was hard work but felt so good to complete. Work is good, just not too much.
Chief Executive Officer might sound important, and it is, but the personal cost is high. I would much rather be healthy than important. I now choose the beach over the boardroom any day of the week and I am much richer for it.
Lucy Bloom is a professional conference speaker and consulting CEO.