In her late 20s, Bella Zanesco’s life was all about work.
As a business executive for Fortune 500 companies like Optus and Pepsi, Bella knew nothing but long hours, incessant travel and dark boardrooms.
“I used to be the head of strategy and transformation for large organisations and my role was to look for the next business to buy, start or partner with. I was really looking for the money: the future money,” she tells Mamamia over the phone from her Sydney home.
She started in the business world quite young and so, she knew little else but the intensity of the workload around her.
“I started quite young and when you start something young you’re full of energy and you’re a bit naive. You jump in head first.
“At 23, I was the head due diligence lead for a three billion dollar deal, so yes, it was pretty intense. They threw me in there. At the time, I was pretty ill, I just didn’t know what it was. I thought I was just doing what every other 29-year-old did and that was work hard and play hard.
“It wasn’t until my mid-30s when everything started crashing down.”
To understand why Bella's life came to such a screeching halt by her mid-30s is to understand the magnitude of her workload.
"I was travelling non stop. For two weeks a month, I'd be in the Philippines and the other two weeks in Sydney. These were big international flights, and Manila isn't the most unpolluted city in the world. I was eating a lot of bad food, living across different time zones, not getting much sleep and working quite late.
"The other thing was that I was working in environments that were quite dark."
When Bella says her environments were "dark", she means physically. So much of her career took place in what she dubs "due diligence war rooms".
"When you're about to buy a company, you don't want anyone to know or see. Often there are confidential rooms - a physical room in an organisation hidden away - because you didn't want people to know what was going on.
"Not all the environments were like that, but for a few years in time it was like that."
She was wildly successful, but she was burnt out.
"I was fairly exhausted and so burnt out.
"I was working for a really large organisation and there were a number of bullies in the business and I found that really challenging. I was also in a relationship with someone who liked quite a lot of alcohol. I would come home from a bad day of work and down a bottle of red wine. That was just the essence of what was going on. It was a cluster of all of things at once, and all of them contributed to not being able to go to work.
"I would sit in meetings and pretend I had it all together, but I felt really sad. I felt like I didn't know who I was anymore, but I didn't know how to change it. I didn't have the tools to fix it."
The non zero day could change your life if you are feeling down. Post continues after audio.
So, after a push from her parents, in 2012, she quit her job.
"I got put on a mental health plan after I went to a doctor and he said to me, you're going to have to make some fundamental changes or you'll be a very sick women very young. So, I listened."
She took 18 months off, experimenting with different jobs and changing the fundamentals of her lifestyle. She re-trained as a yoga teacher, re-trained in cognitive therapy, swapped the red wine for a green smoothie and took up sailing again, only to become a World Sailing Champion in the Hobie class. (You know, as you do.)
In 2014, she founded Fully Expressed, a life and wellbeing strategy practice. She works with women on career, life and yes, on burn out. She understands, of course, that burn out can manifest itself from any career - not just the ones that fly you to the Philippines every month. She tells Mamamia she believes you can break burn out symptoms into four aspects:
- Mental symptoms: If one has unmanageable anxiety, feels depressed or feels bad more often than she feels good. Other symptoms include brain fog, feeling overwhelmed or taking an hour to complete a task that should take five minutes.
- Physical symptoms: Things that flare up, allergies, adrenal failure, IBS and severe period pain.
- Emotional symptoms: People who experience moodiness, irritability and anger.
- Spiritual symptoms: If you're a meditator, regularly turn up to yoga practice or do something with some aspect of looking inward and you stop doing those activities, because you can't face where you are.
Bella knows Australian women are overwhelmed and stressed. In data she uncovered in her Global Women's Wellbeing Report - where she surveyed 1,100 Australian female executives from 22-45 - 70 per cent do not have enough energy to meet the demands of their day. On top of that, 50 per cent don't take care of themselves, 60 per cent of women are living for weekends, 80 per cent are consistently uninspired and 70 per cent don't get enough sleep.
These days, Bella says there are certain things she does that are "totally non-negotiable" to ensure she manages her workload. For one, she has to raise her heart rate before she reaches for her phone every morning. She's conscious of what she eats, too, steadfast in not putting bad food into her body.
"The real key I've found from all the work I do with women, is that there's some really big patterns in the data. A lot of these women don't have something to look forward to outside of work, they've lost that ability to have fun. We need to make sure we all have a reason to leave work on time two or three nights a week, whether that be a dinner, a hobby, a relationship, or a swim. Just any desire to leave work.
"In essence, what underpins all of this, is that if you really love your life, you'll recognise work is only 50 per cent of your overall pie. Consider it as such, and the other 50 cent on your time, spend on things that matter to you, so you can turn up to work as your best self. Studies show you can perform up to seven times higher than if you didn't."
Bella adds if you are feeling stressed, try box breathing. That is, you breath in for four counts, you hold your breath for four counts, exhale for four counts, and then hold for another four counts. It's an exercise that certainly won't cure the onset of burnout, but certainly ease the pressure you feel in the heat of the moment. Also, she notes there are some foods that make you feel calmer, too, including white peaches, avocado, salmon and seeds.
Treating burn out, she says, will never come down to just changing one thing and it's far more about taking a holistic approach. She knows, however, it can be done. That you can be overwhelmed and stressed and over-worked and feeling depressed, but there's a light to work towards.
She knows this, because she found it.
Bella Zanesco is the founder of Fully Expressed a career, life and wellbeing strategy practice. She’s a keynote speaker, the best selling author of Smart Girls Screw Up Too - The no-nonsense guide to creating the life you want and the creator of the Global Women's Wellbeing Report. To learn more and take your free career and life assessment click here.