Frieda Levycky, Founder of Braving Boundaries (professional coaching and training) and Levycky Consulting (legal consultancy) tells us how companies and individuals can work together to overcome some of the issues facing professionals in the commodity industry.
HC Insider: What is your professional background and how did it lead you to creating Braving Boundaries?
Frieda Levycky: I am a lawyer by trade, and I have been in practice for over 16 years. I spent about six years in private practice before I switched to in-house and moved into the commodities world. I lived abroad for many years and worked my way through different countries, different jurisdictions, and different problems on the business and legal side. I loved my job and I loved travelling. I got to experience so many things while I was working, and I had an enormous number of opportunities to develop my career. But in my personal life, everything got sacrificed and while my career was going well, my personal life was going nowhere. I spent most of my personal time stretching myself between friends, colleagues and family – trying to please everyone, and I was constantly exhausted and unsure of my priorities or life direction. Braving Boundaries stems from this. I was heading rapidly into burnout mode because I lacked balance in my life. I see lots of professionals heading in the same direction because there is a real struggle to let go of the pressures that exist in the corporate environment.
HC Insider: What were some of the challenges you faced on your journey to creating work/life balance?
FL: It was not an easy journey. It was probably around 2013 / 2014, when I really experienced the struggle. The struggles I went through were trying to people-please – saying no was always problematic for me. The praise I received led to a need for external validation of my worth, and that fuelled me. I found I was also juggling too much at that time. I was constantly travelling. I was hiding behind work rather than dealing with my personal problems and I felt a constant pressure to perform. I wasn’t happy, but I couldn’t place why I wasn’t happy. I had this beautiful lifestyle, but the reality was that my values were completely misaligned. I didn’t know what I wanted so I wasn’t able to give a voice to those needs. I was going along with everything, thinking things would change. But I realised I needed help in working out what I actually wanted my life to look like before I could work out the steps I needed to take to get there.
HC Insider: What were some of the steps you took to overcome those challenges?
FL: I started off by going to counselling because there were a couple of historical issues that needed to be addressed. After those had been tackled, I then needed to work out how to move forward. The first thing I did was really define what I wanted in my life, who I wanted to be and what my values were. I knew that I had to create more time for things other than work, which meant loosening my need to control everything. It meant making small steps like not looking at my BlackBerry constantly or having it next to my pillow. Every time I would roll over, I’d check my phone and see what was going on. This completely broke my sleep pattern and you’d often find me working at three o’clock in the morning because I’d seen an email. I started going for a run at lunchtime and making my health a priority. Little by little, I built in more things like leaving the office a littler earlier from time to time; not working every weekend, realising that not everything was “urgent”, and delegating. I even committed to learning how to ballroom dance on a weekday evening once a week – and I’m certainly no Ginger Rogers. The thing is our brains actually need a break from work in order to think creatively and tackle complex issues. Without a break, we deny our brains the chance to “reboot”, to connect and consolidate our ideas and thoughts. Not stopping doesn’t make us more productive. In fact, it has the contrary effect.
“Within the commodity industry, I think the biggest stresses come from the fact that there is very little downtime. You are constantly thinking, constantly strategizing, constantly worrying – and, unfortunately, those stresses do not get left in the office.”
HC Insider: What are some of the issues facing professionals in the commodity industry?
FL: It very much depends on who you are talking about in the commodities industry as the stressors are different depending on your role. For example, the risk appetite for a trader is much higher than that of a lawyer. A lawyer/compliance officer is more likely to feel stress around protecting the organisation, for example ensuring compliance, analysing legal risks, and formalising commercial agreements. Whereas a trader’s stresses orientate more around making money for the business and taking positions. Some examples I can think of that are a regular cause of worry for traders include: (i) having to take positions based on imperfect information; (ii) worrying about taking a wrong position; and (iii) actually taking a loss-making position and then having to recover from that. Also, I know from my experience in a trading company, many traders that were promoted to leadership positions and became more involved with the M&A side of the business, found it quite hard splitting their time with trading (their passion and forte) and their new business role which demanded a lot of their time. Overall, within the commodities industry, I think the biggest stresses come from the fact that there is very little downtime. You are constantly thinking, constantly strategising, constantly worrying – and, unfortunately, those stresses don’t get left in the office. They come home with you and, unless some firm boundaries are put in place, they impact your personal life too.
HC Insider: How can companies help their employees achieve a better work/life balance?
FL: My personal view is that it starts with acknowledgement and awareness. Corporates need to be aware of the struggles that their employees are likely to face as a result of the work they do and the environment in which they work, and how their employees are likely to cope (or not cope) with stress. They also need to acknowledge how these struggles, if not addressed, can impact an individual’s productivity, relationships in the office, home life, physical, and mental health. Protecting employee wellbeing is as much a benefit for the organisation as it is for the individual employee. It’s then a case of putting programmes and resources, such as access to coaching and counselling, in place which educate, train and support their staff so they have tools available to them when they are struggling.
For example, every employee will struggle with poor mental health at some stage in their careers, mental health is merely a state of wellbeing which naturally fluctuates from time to time, but because there is so much misunderstanding and stigma attached to the term “mental health” – very few employees will want to admit when they are struggling. If education /training on topics such as this were provided in corporations, we would encourage more people to get the help and support they need rather than struggle alone.
Education alone is not sufficient though. Implementing good mental health and wellbeing practices is key. If a corporation is going to promote work/life balance, then senior employees need to demonstrate that model. They need to leave the office early so they can get to their child’s school performance. They need to avoid sending emails at 10pm at night on matters that don’t need urgent actioning. They need to handover work so that they can have a two-week holiday. Only by demonstrating good work/life balance will it encourage juniors to follow suit.
HC Insider: In a few years, a large fraction of the workforce will be made up of millennials and Gen Z. How will this affect companies’ recruitment strategies?
FL: Say what you will about Millennials, they bring a refreshing and much needed change to the business world. I think 1.8 billion people in the world at the moment are millennials, and they are tech savvy, efficient, innovative and capable of re-shaping business into a much more flexible animal. But they are also emotionally and mentally aware and believe in self-preservation. Millennials are a generation that graduated during the global financial crisis and have watched their parents and seniors struggle with stress, workaholism, divorce, drinking and substance abuse. As a result, they are more frugal, less money driven, and more focused on a career that provides for a proper work-life blend – not just balance. They are also more likely to “job hop” than my generation – no longer six-year stints but two-year stints. So, from a recruitment strategy perspective, it’s about promoting healthy working environments, environments that will support collaboration from a young age.
HC insider: What strategies can companies utilise to improve employee retention?
FL: At a junior level, I believe that it is about involving employees from an early age; encouraging them to voice their opinions and collaborate, providing mentoring and support, providing regular and practical feedback that they can implement, making them feel part of the team, and providing an environment that supports a life outside of the office. At a more senior level, it probably is still around money and career progression – the weight of importance placed on those things very much depends on the individual, but also about providing for work life balance. Even though the older generation, I include myself here, may have placed work beyond all else during the early stages of their careers, priorities shift as you get older. Personally, I would love to see corporates providing access to coaching and counselling services as a paid benefit for all employees irrespective of seniority. It would be a fixed amount, forming part of their employee health package and it would be capable of being used at any stage of their career. By giving individuals the opportunity to address their struggles with a coach / counsellor of their choice (who they trust) will not only assist the employee, but it will build greater loyalty and trust in the organisation knowing that they genuinely support the wellbeing of their staff.