Peta Sitcheff, Corporate Business Coach and Author of ‘My Beautiful Mess’

Episode 6 is brought to you by Peta Sitcheff, corporate business coach and author of ‘My Beautiful Mess’. Peta is a passionate advocate for mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

Peta Sitcheff

Speaker You’re listening to Allied Health Podcast, talking all things Allied Health with your hosts, Danielle Weedon, physiotherapist and Clare Jones, occupational therapist.

Danielle Weedon Peta Sitcheff joins us on her podcast today. Welcome, Peta. It’s great to have you with us.

Peta Sitcheff Thanks, Dan. Thanks, Clare. Thanks for inviting me to be a part of your podcast.

Clare Jones Now, for those of you who don’t know Peta, you wear many hats, don’t you, Peta?

Peta Sitcheff I do.

Clare Jones You’re an individual and corporate business coach and author of My Beautiful Mess. It’s a very raw, real and inspiring memoir of your experience of and recovery from burnout after 13 years as a sales consultant in the medical device industry.

Peta Sitcheff In a nutshell.

Danielle Weedon Peta, do you want to start with telling us a little bit about your career in medical device sales?

Peta Sitcheff Yes, sure, I will. Thanks Dan. So medical device sales was something I somewhat stumbled across after a degree in Bachelor of Science, where I majored in exercise physiology and then realized halfway through that really I had more of a business mind and was more passionate about business as opposed to science. From there, exploring pharmaceutical sales was certainly a path that I became incredibly curious about and thought it was a nice marriage between what I had studied and what I enjoyed. So pharma sales for a couple of years and then I moved into medical device sales where the bulk of my career was spent selling spinal prosthesis and what’s called computer assisted navigation. Or in short, it’s a form of robotics to 20 of Melbourne’s spinal surgeons, most of whom were neurosurgeons. I had no idea, it was something I really stumbled into, which I describe in the book. And at the time, the career for the type of person I am, or I was at the time was just a perfect fit. It was very early days in the industry. There were few players in the industry back in 2003, as opposed to now. And essentially the job is a sales role. You have a sales target. I was out there selling prosthesis, which are, you know, the nuts and bolts, if you like, that patients have in their back when they have a spinal fusion. And the bulk of the role, though, on top of the sales was the service component. And that component meant most of my days was spent in the operating room as your educating nurses and surgeons on how to utilize the equipment. You’re also troubleshooting more complex cases with surgeons at the time. So yeah, majority of your time is spent in the operating room.

Clare Jones So Peta, it requires a really high level of technical knowledge.

Peta Sitcheff Yeah, it does. And a lot of that knowledge, I mean, back in the day when I started, there wasn’t a large amount of training, but a high amount of technical knowledge. Yes. In terms of the content, understanding anatomy, understanding the procedure, the operating procedure, operating technique, really understanding your equipment. At the end of the day, you’re almost like a walking, talking instruction manual for your equipment. That’s the content side of it all. However, probably what is even more important and certainly what I reflect on as my biggest gain from the industry, is it really isn’t somewhat of an education in life with the skills that you get, you know, being able to survive and perform within an operating room, a very it’s a privileged place to be and to be invited into. You have to be a trusted partner to be invited into such a high risk environment. But being able to negotiate the unexpected in an operating room, respect to the environment that you’re in, understand your place in that environment. But then also being able to navigate and manage what, let’s say, are some very, very complex personalities under stress. And often extreme stress is certainly something that I found came quite naturally to me at the time and has certainly set me up well for being able to utilize those skills now and I know will moving forward as well. So I call it an education in life because it really is an education on how to connect, read and work with people. Something we all have to do.

Clare Jones Yeah, yeah. Now, after 13 years, you did suffer burnout in that hyper environment.

Peta Sitcheff I did. I sort of.

Clare Jones What were the contributing factors that led to the experience of burnout?

Peta Sitcheff [It’s really interesting, Clare. Burnout was not something that I noticed happening. It’s really sneaky in the way that it presents. And I think initially, you know, I should also mention that a really big part of that role means that you work when the surgeons work and patients don’t present between nine and five. So essentially, for 13 and a half years, I was on call for those surgeons when they needed me and when they needed me in the operating room. In conjunction with that, you’ve also got a personal life that you’re trying to manage. You know, I was married in that time and I had a child within that time. Unfortunately, I also became a single parent during that time as well and then had to manage that work roster on schedule and those customer demands as well as trying to meet the corporate demands of the sales number whilst managing life as a single parent. So you know, externally there were a lot of pressures there. However, what I would say with regard to burnout is it had probably more to do with what was happening inside of me that I didn’t realize. So, I was in a role for 13 and a half years, which, you know, paid incredibly well. And that’s one of the reasons why a lot of people do stay in the industry. And sometimes you can feel a little bit trapped in the industry as a result of that because you don’t know what to jump to when you have a lifestyle to maintain that’s dependent on that outcome. I felt a lot of pressure to really clutch on to that income. They call it the golden handcuffs because you don’t know where to go. That created a lot of pressure when inside of me I could feel my life’s priorities were changing. I could feel my son was needing me. I could feel myself becoming more agitated. I could feel myself becoming resentful for being called out. On a Saturday when I wanted to be spending time with my son, I could feel myself feeling guilty for having to ring and ask people to help me with childcare. When I was off working, and I didn’t want to burden my colleagues to ask them to help me because they were already making sacrifices in their own lives as well. So, I think, you know, the signs of burnout there is the day to day stress. There is the exhaustion side of it. There’s also the tedium side of it as well, which is really interesting. I’ve done quite a bit of reading on more recently around just the repetitive nature of what we do and the contributing factor that in itself is burnout. And the reality is, is even though operations are very different from time to time, particularly the complex ones, is the goal is always to try to keep them as constant risk free and as standard and as expected as possible. So, the tedium of that day to day, there was no there was no investment in myself. I was not investing in myself. I was not aware that I needed to invest in myself. And I guess I was operating at such an a fast-paced level. It was almost a bit like an out-of-body experience. It’s like this life was sort of, you know, racing along on this hamster wheel or on this highway, but yet it was sort of outside of really who I was. I wasn’t connected to that life.

Clare Jones Yeah. Yeah. And that automatic pilot.

Peta Sitcheff Yeah, it is. It’s on autopilot. And at no point and I thought I was doing the right thing, you know, I thought I was being responsible. I was doing the best I could as a parent. I was serving my customers, I was serving the organization. But the person I wasn’t serving was myself.

Danielle Weedon And it’s a long 13 years is a long time to experience that as well.

Peta Sitcheff It is. It is. So, you know, when the burnout did happen, at the end of the day, you know, we can whether we call it the burnout or the episode, I actually got to a point where my body physically, I just I could not physically go to work. You know, there’s a story I tell in the book where, you know, I went to Brisbane because my nan was unwell and I forgot my work phone. I left it on the kitchen bench and I was halfway to the airport and I had a personal phone which at the time when I purchased it a few months earlier, I felt like I was cheating on my company. But then I drove to the airport and I thought, no, I don’t care. I’m leaving it behind. And that was quite a pivotal moment for me. And when I came back from Brisbane, and we knew nan was okay, I went to go to work the next day and sat in the car and I was physically shaking. My body was not letting me go to work and I resigned five days later.

Danielle Weedon Yeah. So in terms of I mean, you said it sort of sneaks up on you quietly or insidiously. But how would you describe the onset of burnout?

Peta Sitcheff Yeah. So the onset, you know, the exhaustion of it all, the constant exhaustion, the constant emotional. I liken it to a leaky bucket. If no matter how much energy you try to replenish, it’s just you’re constantly leaking. Because at the end of the day, you’re just you’re operating in a way where you’re not connected with yourself. You don’t understand what’s important to you. When I’m particularly stressed, I lose weight really easily. My hair all changed, and all started falling out. I used to have long hair and I had to cut all of that off. My skin was terrible. Other just other signs of stress, I guess, as a woman. And I don’t mind sharing, you know, you’re meant to have a monthly cycle that disappeared and dried up. You know, I had inflammatory pain and neuralgia in my periphery, which I still manage to this day. Restless legs couldn’t sleep at night. Insomnia, you name it. And here I am, trying to survive, thinking that is all quite normal.

Clare Jones Yeah. Significant physical, physiological responses to stress as well.

Peta Sitcheff Absolutely. Quite extreme in the end. Really quite extreme. So, yeah, so look, that’s how the onset presented. But I didn’t recognize it at the time and the day that I was my body actually protested me to go to work was like, that’s it, you done? So, I resigned.

Danielle Weedon As, you know, many health professionals all day, every day and have done for many years. And often they’re talking to us about changing career outside of a clinical setting, for example. But I think that mix of being on all the time as a clinician and seeing a patient, you know, seeing patients day in, day out, I think that often that can lead to what you mentioned in terms of even some of the mundanity of a role or the, you know, the emotional nature of being a health professional with, you know, seeing patients all the time. So we talk to therapists that are talking about burnout as well.

Clare Jones It is difficult when the consequence of putting a boundary in place is going to impact a patient or a participant, isn’t it? It’s not a reason not to have the boundary in place. I mean, that’s the pressure, isn’t it, that if you don’t attend, if you’re not on if you’re not there, then your patient is ultimately going to miss out.

Danielle Weedon Absolutely. And health professionals by nature of why they’ve moved into, to study health, it is a very giving profession. So, I think it’s often easier for a health professional to not put yourself first and to put your work and your patients or clients first. Absolutely.

Peta Sitcheff Absolutely. And the thing is, you can’t you can’t give to other people what you don’t have yourself. Which is something that I now realize and feel really strongly about and putting boundaries in place. There’s physical boundaries, mental boundaries, emotional boundaries that. Exactly. But I think also which, you know, you put in place when you deal with patients every day, you’re the professional and you’ve got the patient and you understand there’s boundaries there. I think what is equally important before you put your boundaries in place is you need to know what it is that you’re protecting. So what is it that I stand for? What is it that’s most important to me? What is it that I am protecting with these boundaries? And for me now, I use energy as my currency these days. So I really, you know, what are my energy levels like? Are my boundaries helping preserve and maintain those energy levels that I need to be able to not only function, but to grow and thrive and work towards my, you know, my aspirations, if you like. I think that’s really important. I think if there’s something that I’ve learned with burnout, you know, one of the things that has really helped me is I’ve spent a lot of time in in the mess as I sat in the mess, that really uncomfortable place because my psychologist, who I see routinely once a month and have done now for five years, it’s like a mental fitness check in. She said, you know, you’ve got to sit in the mess. You will get through this. You are not your anxiety, you are yourself and it is yourself that we are looking at rebuilding. And for me now, I can look at the difference between I look at anxiety, stress, exhaustion and loneliness. And I can understand now, depending on how I’m feeling. If I’m feeling depleted, I can go, okay, hang on. What’s the problem here? Which is it? And then I know the antidote to help me lift myself out of it, which I think is really important. So, the answer’s always inside. We can spend a lot of time patching the outside, you know, and support is important, and having people around us is important, but equally we’ve got to do the work on the inside.

Clare Jones Peta Just going back to that point in that career, when you’re sitting in that mess, what exactly was the mess?

Peta Sitcheff The mess was interesting. So no, my burnout actually didn’t immediately when I left the medical device industry, it was about six months later. And what I did when I was

Clare Jones Sorry Peta can I just interrupt, that’s interesting because I would have thought the burn out was you sitting in the car, not physically being able to drive to work. I would’ve thought that was the burnout. But you’re saying it happened actually after that event?

Peta Sitcheff I think it was a part of it and I think it was stretched out. And again, I didn’t recognize it at that time. I wasn’t seeing a professional who was able to provide those insights, I was managing it the best way I knew how.

Clare Jones So you’re a young, middle aged woman. You’ve got your hair falling out. What were the other symptoms that you described? And you’re sitting in your car and you shaking and you can’t physically drive to work. And at that point, you say that you didn’t recognize that as burnout.

Peta Sitcheff Correct. I thought it was the job. I didn’t think it was me. Now, I was so relieved to finish that role that that relief carried me for some time.

Clare Jones The reprieve.

Peta Sitcheff Correct. However, what I did, which is what I’ve always done historically, it’s different today, is I strategise a way out of it. I just carve out a new path. So off I went, you know? And I was very passionate about giving back. I reflected a lot upon what made me successful during my sales career and thought, surely I can, you know, I’d love to be able to carve something out to support others in the industry, to prevent what happened to me from happening to them, to help them perform in a more balanced way. So, I did that. However, there’s a lot of pressure in starting your own business. I’m sure many of your listeners who have their own businesses will understand the pressure of starting your own business, which is what I decided to do is start my own coaching business and go out there on my own without really giving probably due thought or consideration to the practicalities and the financial pressures. And if there’s a type of stress that I’ve probably, for me I think is one of the most extreme stresses now that anyone can ever go through its financial stress. And that compounded with, when I was already depleted and not realizing it, that additional stress compounded on top of that – that was my breaking point. And I talk about that in the first chapter of the book. I described that scene where I literally just ran out of money, and that was the snapping point, and it was a full breakdown. Physically, mentally, emotionally. And at that point, I was referred to a psychologist who I saw a number of times a week for some time. Her name was Joe, I talk about her in the book, I spent a lot of time on her couch. And she was amazing. You know, she essentially said to me, your tools down, tools down, no work. You need to survive. You need to do your basic responsibilities, which was parenting. And for four or five months, that’s what I did. I sat on a couch and essentially, I wasn’t allowed to create. I wasn’t allowed to go out and seek new work. I just had to sit in the mess. Parenting gave me a structure to my day, which was great. And my appointments with Joe were obviously very important as well. With that, she helped me understand anxiety, my anxiety and what it was like living with chronic anxiety. And I had had a number of panic attacks over those previous years as well, quite acute, some which saw me ended up in the emergency room. So, it was a time where what I then found was, you know, we defined what was important to me and we decided to or Joe encouraged me to invest quite a bit of time into that, which I did. So that started to really fill my energy tank. And then I found myself becoming just really quite curious about what the heck was going on with me. And I started as much as I could. I started researching. I had my attention span, my ability to concentrate during this time, and for a number of years, I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d read a book. It would be over ten years, but my ability to concentrate was minimal. And I decided I went into a bookshop. I wanted to start reading and understanding what was going on. And I purchased a book and I thought, okay, start with page one, one page, that’s it. And that was all I could do. Then I went to ten pages, then to 50, and then I started flying through a book a week and that was a really significant moment for me. I found something I loved in reading I was learning of which I’d just starved myself from any learning and self-personal development for so many years. Intentional, I should say. I think you’re always learning on the job, but that reading component is what actually started bringing me back to life, I guess, in a way. And I could start to almost find support in the pages that I was reading. It was quite interesting.

Danielle Weedon We sort of covered it off already, Peta, but in terms of health professionals in particular, what do you think some of the key factors would be for them to look out for in terms of the onset of burnout?

Peta Sitcheff Yeah, sure. I think first and foremost is you’ve got to be mindful of your day to day and be mindful of the workload that you have number one. But what I would say is never lose sight of what’s important to you and the boundaries you have in place to protect that. So, for example, if you’ve got a key value of yours that is connectivity or creativity, make sure you’re spending some time each day or you’re investing time each week in fueling that creativity and you’re protecting that time with the boundaries you put in place. For many people, I know family is really important to them, so make sure you’ve got boundaries in place to protect that time. You know, those things that are really going to ignite the energy within you. Allied health Professionals. I know you do a lot of professional development. That’s a requirement and there’s a lot of passion for the job that you have. But don’t lose sight of the personal development as well. So how are you developing yourself as an individual? I think very few careers now are around our careers forever. So, I like to think of it as you’re currently working in a chapter of your professional life. You may or you may not know what the next chapter is. Sometimes a great way of being able to define that and to remain connected with yourself is rather than focusing on what I do, it’s fleshing out and defining what’s the impact I make, because that’s about you. It’s not about your qualification or the job title. So, I would say keep connected to you at all times. Intentional check ins that keeps you connected to yourself is really, really important. And at the end of the day, you know, our well-being is divided into four sections. We’ve got our physical well-being, our mental well-being and intellect, our emotional well-being and our spiritual well-being. So how are we investing in the four of those.

Clare Jones And you really have to be investing in all four, to perform in every facet of your life at your optimum.

Peta Sitcheff Absolutely. You know, I think that is the definition of high performance. You know, a high performing athlete, you know, the physical… actually I experienced a little bit of this summer hike I did recently in the Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory. You know, your physical fitness will get you so far, your mental toughness will get you so far. What happens when they’re depleted? You tap into the emotional. That emotional layer. And that’s what fires you up. So, you’ll often hear you’ll often hear professional athletes say, you know, what is something in their life that’s happened, a moment that has been so powerful or pivotal for them, really emotional. And they tap into that layer and that fires them up to keep going. Your emotional reserves are really important. If they’re depleted, you know, physical, mental, you’ve got nothing there. You start falling short.

Clare Jones Yeah, yeah. And in most health roles, you can give and give and give and give. And there’s still opportunity to give, isn’t there? So, you’ve just really got to have those clear boundaries in place and to really define work from.

Peta Sitcheff Absolute, you know, and like I said, you can’t give what you don’t have. And I think it’s really important, particularly in Allied Health, when you see patients day after day after day. I would hope that we would all know, and we have enough awareness to know when we’re at our capacity with a session that we’re doing, when we can suddenly feel our self-becoming a bit impatient or a bit agitated or a bit dismissive because God, I need a break ups in back to back patients for the last 4 hours and it’s doing my head in. I just need a break. I need a breather. I think it’s important that self-awareness is really key to be performing at your best, to be able to keep going. To have the endurance to keep going. Just be aware of that. Know your limits. Create the breaks. When you need the breaks. Call it out when you need to call it out. I just think that’s really important and I think it’s something that we don’t do often enough. We just go,lLook, I’ve got an eight hour shift today. I’ve got a one-hour lunch break, I’ll grab 15 minutes. But at the end of the day, if that’s not helping you deliver that great quality care consistently, then maybe you need to look at actually restructuring your day. I’ll do 2 hours, then I’ll have a half hour break, then I’ll do another 2 hours. The afternoons are not my best time, so I’ll factor in a break there and then come back a bit later, whatever it might be. But that I said earlier, you know, I use energy as my currency. I now manage my diary based on my energy levels. And I do a lot of coaching, a lot of very intense one on one work. And my, my clients deserve my presence 100% of the time. I really love the work and I know that I’m at my best when I’m 100% present and that means I’ve got to invest in myself to be able to give back to them. Otherwise, there’s nothing to give back.

Clare Jones Yeah. Yeah. It’s about really being in tune with yourself, isn’t it? Being connected and in tune with yourself.

Peta Sitcheff Finely in tune.

Clare Jones And Peta, how can listeners purchase My Beautiful Mess? I’ve read the book, and I took so much away from it. I really did. How can how can listeners purchase my beautiful mis?

Peta Sitcheff Yeah so you can purchase it on Amazon or Booktopia as an e-Book, but also I have a website which is my and it can be purchased directly off there as well for those copies. And if you do live locally in Melbourne, I know not everybody will, but the Avenue bookstores also have copies of it too.

Clare Jones Fantastic bookstore.

Peta Sitcheff It’s my favourite.

Clare Jones A very dangerous place to be if you love books.

Peta Sitcheff Yes, it is. But they have a loyalty program. It’s great. I am a frequent flyer.

Danielle Weedon Peta, thanks again for joining us today. It’s been really great to have a chat and we really appreciate you sharing a tiny piece of your story, which is great. So, mentioned at the beginning, obviously my beautiful mess, is a very raw and real narrative of burnout experienced in a career in health. So, I’m sure our listeners will love to have a listen to your advice.

Clare Jones Thanks, Peta. Thanks so much for joining us.

Peta Sitcheff Thanks Dan. Thanks, Clare. Thanks for having me.

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