Benchmark MD Louisa Harrison-Walker tells Jill Theobald how self-care and re-evaluation of work/life priorities during a period of poor mental health helped her ‘re-set’– and boost her business

‘I am an incredibly resilient person and not fazed by changes or hard work.’

How many SME owners can relate to the above statement?

Most if not all, I’m guessing.

‘I over-committed, took on too much and didn’t want to let anyone down.’

And how many to this comment?

About the same, even if they wouldn’t necessarily want to admit it – as I find out while grabbing a coffee with Louisa Harrison-Walker, MD of Benchmark.

Louisa’s story is a must-read for all SME owners as the lessons she learned after losing a dear friend forced her to ‘re-set’ and ‘reboot’ to re-focus her time and energies – which had far-reaching benefits for her business, too.

“When Benchmark launched almost 15 years ago to provide recruitment and retention services to the region, my business partner Amy and I were sharing a house and were free of a lot of responsibilities.

“But as life goes on you acquire more and more – in both our cases a husband and two children and as a business owner a duty of care to ten staff, and not just financially with their salaries but also to their own health and wellbeing, too. Plus you never stop being a daughter, sister, a friend.”

Add to that already considerable work/life balance Louisa also wears a lot of different hats outside the home and business – she’s Chair of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce Council, on the Sheffield Business Together steering committee, chairs the regional advisory board for  Common Purpose, is a charity trustee , and is also on the board of the Higher Education Progression Partnership.

“Like a lot of SME owners, I am an incredibly resilient person and not fazed by changes or hard work but it’s easy to underestimate how all-consuming that role and lifestyle can be,” she explains.

“I’m a high energy person and was always doing everything at full pelt and trying to be all things to all people. I thought that was sustainable – it isn’t.

“The catalyst for me was the death of my close friend James. We found out the night before my 40th birthday his cancer had come back and everything just unravelled for me, I was so very sad.

“I was operating with little capacity for contingency so when James died it was just too much to handle. It was devastating – he’d left behind his wife, two children and so many loving friends, he really was one of life’s great guys, so it seemed so unfair. I had no reserves so all the plates I was spinning just became too much to handle.

“I didn’t want to engage with anything – I didn’t get out of bed for two weeks. At that point you’re on the edge of the rabbit hole and you don’t know if you’re at the start, middle or end of depression – you ask yourself ‘Am I going to be well again?’

“I found myself in a position I hadn’t been in before, I wasn’t sure who to talk to about it as I couldn’t really explain how I was feeling, and  I was nervous about being vulnerable, it’s not something I am used to and saying you are struggling is not something you feel comfortable to reveal.

“I didn’t realise how much I wasn’t coping until my dad came to visit and asked if I was okay. I said yes. He said, ‘But are you really?’ I’ve since learned that whenever you ask someone who you think might be struggling if they are okay you always ask twice because people are rarely honest the first time.

“I realised after nearly 15 years of running the business I hadn’t had a proper break. Even my maternity leave for my first child was 12 weeks and I only took 20 weeks for my second. I was truly exhausted.

“I went to a retreat in York for five days – it was basically a way to re-set and reboot. I learned that my mode of operation was outdated, and now wasn’t working for me. Trying to be all things to all people had led to burnout. I was fearful of letting people down – but I wasn’t going to be any good to anybody burnt out.

“Life is so busy and noisy, and we all wear so many so many hats – the retreat was a time to take all of the hats off and just be me.

“The biggest thing for me was giving myself permission to look after myself. I had always prioritised my kids, the business and my team first.  I needed time to switch off – to update my anti-virus software!

“I did things that were good for me and my mindset like cutting out alcohol and lots of yoga, walking, meditation and mindfulness.

“It’s been almost a year now since I took this time out to rest and recuperate and I can’t tell you how different I feel now. I didn’t think it was possible to enjoy life as much as I am now, the balance I have between running my business, serving my community, and raising my family is perfect. It’s taken 18 years for me to nail it, but I have finally got there!

“If you’re not looking after yourself and prioritising a bit of self-care then as a boss you’ve not got a lot in reserves, you’re going to become over-drawn. When we are not operating in a healthy way drinking too much – a drink to celebrate, a drink to commiserate, alcohol is part of the British culture in that way. But alcohol is also a depressant and really no good for you if your brain isn’t firing on all cylinders – it just perpetuates the problem and eventually you short-circuit.

“As an MD if you’re down and troubled in the office that has an impact and sets the energy for your team, too, so I had a very honest conversation with my management team. And while I had felt I couldn’t be vulnerable, they already knew I was struggling – it was obvious to them, they told me I’d had my ‘game face’ on.

“I had some really honest chats with Becca my ops manager – she has been with me for six years on the journey and she was an incredible support. It can’t have been easy working around me when I wasn’t in a good place.

“It was incredibly heart-warming to sit with my team, they just sprang into action and we talked through what needed to be handed over so I could take some time off and out between October and December last year. I trusted them all entirely to manage the business. I’ve known for a while they are better than me at lots of things but taking time out to rest and recuperate gave time and space for my colleagues to grow and develop – so when I came back it was really important I didn’t stifle them, we discussed very openly and honestly our strengths and weaknesses and how to redesign our roles to play to them. We shared responsibilities, and the opportunity to step up has proved incredibly beneficial for the them both professionally and personally.

“This allowed me to return to work and re-focus my time on those activities I am best at and generally get better balance.  Based on what I’d learnt from my own experience I led the team through a number of changes concerned with improving all of our resilience.  I encouraged everyone to think about how they work – what times of the day are they most productive, do they like to be in the hustle and bustle or a quiet corner, are they making time to get a healthy lunch, come in late / finish early so they can get to the gym, make date night with their partner.

“They’re empowered to make calls that achieve the right personal and professional balance.  This wasn’t as easy as it might sound – it took some encouragement to adopt these new ways of working, to gain the trust of the rest of the team that they weren’t leaving the others short.  During this time the team have had some really challenging personal situations to work through, but these new ways of working have really helped to smooth out the challenge that work can be when you’re consumed with personal grief.

“The challenge I faced, of getting the approach to work right for me (I don’t like to say work-life balance as it shouldn’t be something that is balanced, but rather stable and positive) comes up in 90 per cent of the consultancy work that I do.  It’s a challenge for everyone these days, so let’s start the conversation, be honest and brave, and develop an approach to work that is fun, productive and sustainable.

“You’re expected to work like you don’t have kids and parent like you don’t have a job, you’ve got to compartmentalise as a working parent. I was determined I wouldn’t go back to those same routines and habits, so Monday is now mummy day. I can take the kids to school and pick them up, don’t take work calls. I also have some me time – a massage, reflexology or yoga.

“My bullet journal has ‘must do’ and ‘could do’ daily tasks and if I don’t get through all of the ‘could dos’ I don’t beat myself up. I have Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday in the office and do consultancy work with clients on Fridays.

“I make time for gardening and regular walks in green spaces like Blackamoor or Endcliffe Park with friends because that’s great for your mental health. The Japanese prescribe ‘time with trees’ so getting out into nature is a weekly commitment I made to myself – we live in the greenest city in Europe so it’s pretty easy to get stunning, perspective forcing views around here!

“I’m currently 100 per cent tee-total – it makes life a lot simpler and me a lot more positive generally. It wasn’t easy at first – work functions, dinners, parties, by default you just have a drink but it’s a habit I needed to break, especially as I have always been someone who doesn’t do moderation! I also go back to the retreat every six months because it’s important that we maintain good mental health – it’s an ongoing process.

“I feel so much more tooled up now to signpost people that face periods of poor mental health.  There are also some amazing services out there raising the topic of mental wellness – Westfield Health have a 24 hour counselling service for example and the South Yorkshire Chaplaincy Service provide a listening service. Plus there are the amazing resources for individuals and employers provided by Sheffield MIND with whom we have run business workshops on managing mental health in the workplace. As a result, we have also launched a charity division where we offer a discounted rate to all third sector clients as a way of giving back.

“At the end of his life James had been in a hospice on Nottingham. They gave him a graceful death which was so important to his wife Laura and his children and his friends. The care was wonderful and the support they gave his family afterwards, too. I didn’t realise the value of a hospice until I was in one at a bedside.

“St Luke’s Hospice had approached me about becoming a trustee just before James passed, and once he did, I knew I wanted to get involved. But I was also reluctant about taking too much on and managing expectations – mine and others – so I knew if there was a new hat, I’d have to take one off which sadly meant I had to stop my work as a trustee at Whirlow Hall Farm.

“I got the call from St Luke’s to say I was on the board on what would have been James’ 40th birthday – so it felt like fate and it means something tangible has come out of it all. It feels good to be putting my energies into a hospice like St Luke’s in memory of my dear friend James