Balancing the Grind with Alison Coughlan, Speaker, Author & Mentor

Alison Coughlan is a speaker, author & mentor, who has spent over 25 years in the research, health and community sectors helping individuals and organisations to build their capabilities

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I began my career as an immunology researcher working in transplantation and later HIV research in the early 1990s. Fuelled by a desire to be closer to the ‘coal face’, I completed a Masters’ degree in Public Health and successfully transitioned into work in public health from the mid ‘90s.

My leadership experience dates back to 2000 with a series of management, executive and governance roles at a state, national and global level in government and non-government organisations.

I have twelve years’ consultancy experience in which I have completed more than 130 assignments for 75 different health and community sector clients. My areas of greatest passion and skill have been strategy, meaningful consumer engagement, facilitation and evaluation – measuring what matters.

The transition to my current role was precipitated by my experience of reaching and sustaining myself in a state of burnout for years. That passionate sense of purpose, dedication and drive that guided my career choices, the frenetic pace I maintained for many years and the way I turned up in service for others was my Achilles heel and it became my undoing.

The path to my recovery saw me literally rebuild my self and my life in a way that is far more fulfilling and sustainable than those prior choices. I realised that the difference I can make through my work will be far greater if I can help people in the health and social sectors to reject burnout as inevitable, to take control of what they can, prioritise and restore their wellbeing and, in so doing, optimise and sustain the impact they make through their work. 

This year, my first book, The Health Hazard, has been published and I have launched an online course that guides people to develop a Personal Impact Plan that will help them step forward on a path to their best work and their best life, uncompromised. I have also become a Resilience at Work coach and work with individuals, teams and leaders in the health and social sectors to build and maintain their resilience. 

This is me doing my best work and living my best life, uncompromised.

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

Over an early morning cup of tea, I plan out my day. This includes any meetings, coaching sessions, work deadlines or other  commitments with family and the wellbeing rituals I will integrate into the day e.g. exercise, meditation, a visit to my local beach to ground and restore me.

Then I review how the day is looking and what I have available as discretionary time. I choose my ‘number one’ for the day. Something that I will prioritise above all other things and get cracking on that before I get distracted or caught up in any ‘busyness’.

I try and make sure that I write every day – create content that serves – an edition of my blog (Wholehearted), an article (like this!) or course content. I also try and integrate learning into my day – a course I am working my way through, some reading or podcast listening to inspire and inform.

I then carve out my evening time to connect with my family (my loves), cooking a delicious meal (another love) and down time. 

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

I have worked from home for six years now and so that’s a resounding yes. It enables me to have flexibility to be there for my family, to proactively take care of my wellbeing and to optimise what I can achieve in work time.

Most of my work is now online which means I can extend my reach and impact by meeting people wherever they are via video calls.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

I don’t believe that it is possible to achieve balance in work and life all the time. However, I do believe that when we look back on our life we need to see a degree of balance across all the things that matter to us personally in order to feel we have lived well and to avoid regret.

Of course, we are here in the present and so need to make mindful choices along the way to ensure those regrets don’t manifest in later years. I do this by checking in regularly to reflect on the key things that matter to me and consider how I am tracking – the areas I am tending to and the ones that might be suffering from neglect.

I then identify actions I commit to taking to restore some balance. 

5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

During the first COVID lockdown in Victoria, I decided to give running a try. I had never been a runner and didn’t think it was something I was built for. I was inspired by a friend who had taken on the challenge of ‘Couch to 5K’ and thought I’d give it a go.

I was surprised by what an incredible workout I could do in 30 minutes when going for a run and how good it felt. I do a mix of walking and running in an interval routine. It gets my heart really pumping and I am always glad when I make the time to go for a run. It was great to bust another myth and limit belief as well.

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly would have to be two of my favourite books. These were like anchors and guideposts for me as I was recovering from burnout and remain so.

They inspired me to not just focus on functioning and feeling well but to dare to step into my best self, my courage and creativity and in so doing do my best work and live my best life. 

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

I use the Insight Timer app on my phone regularly to access guided meditations. Evernote is also an incredible tool I use to help me capture, organise and search for notes I take including ideas for my blog, quotes that resonate with me and insights from courses, books, articles and podcasts. 

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?  

Arianna Huffington. I love her book Thrive and the work she has done on the sleep revolution and her advocacy around wellness. Her reflections on her previous self and how her life has transformed and her insights about balance would be fascinating to me. 

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

Living with and then the process of recovering from burnout has fundamentally challenged core beliefs about hard work, sacrifice and selflessness. These were beliefs that I had previously worn as a badge of honour and that, without question, contributed to my decline and to my lack of self compassion along the way.

I learnt that I could simply choose to adopt new beliefs that would serve me better and chart a different, easier and more joyful path. The most fundamental shift was adopting a new belief that putting myself first and tending to my well being was, in fact, the only way I could be of service to others in an optimal and sustainable way.

Unfortunately I had to end up face down before I reached that realisation. I’d love others to make that choice while they are well and use it to maintain and build their resilience so that they avoid burnout and the many tolls it can take.

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.