Balancing the Grind with Dr. Jaelea Skehan, Director of Everymind

Dr. Jaelea Skehan is an internationally respected leader in the prevention of mental ill-health and the prevention of suicide. Jaelea has worked at Everymind since 2001 and was appointed as the Director in 2012.

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

I have been fortunate to live, study and build my career in my home town of Newcastle. I am the Director of Everymind, a national Institute dedicated to prevention of mental ill-health and prevention of suicide. I have worked at Everymind for over 20 years, getting my start as a project officer on a nine month contract back in 2001 and took over as the Director in 2012. 

I did an honours degree in psychology and later a PhD in psychiatry, with a focus on public health approaches to suicide prevention. My passion is for large scale reform in mental health and suicide prevention and for designing prevention programs that can be implemented where people live, learn, work and interact with services.

I believe that everyone has a role to play in mental health and suicide prevention, but to fill that role we need to support them with the information and tools that they need.

In 2019 and 2020, I took leave from my role at Everymind to lead the National Suicide Prevention Taskforce, supporting the work of the Prime Minister’s National Suicide Prevention Adviser. Working in that role through the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic taught me new skills and new perspectives that I have brought back to my team at Everymind. 

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

Fifteen years ago I taught myself to be a morning person so I could better balance work, life and sleep. So, I am usually out of bed before 5am and start my workday by 7.30am. If I am working from home, I will usually be logged on earlier.  

Before COVID-19, I would be travelling at least one-third of the time and often a lot more than that.  The travel might include meeting with governments or other mental health organisations we collaborate with, delivering workshops or training to industry groups or communities, or facilitating meetings or events. In the past two years more of my work has been in the office with a transition to online meetings and training delivery. 

My day can look different depending on the day of the week. For example, all of our team come to the office on a Monday and Thursday so those days are mostly filled with internal and stakeholder meetings or planning sessions.   

On a Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday I have the whole morning before 12pm blocked out for uninterrupted thinking and work time. This is my way of making sure I have time every week to progress strategic planning and other work that requires uninterrupted focus. What I have learnt over the years is that if I say ‘yes’ to every meeting or request, then I am saying ‘no’ to the quality of our work and my ability to make the best contribution I can.

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

COVID-19 has helped our team to find a model of working that better suits our people and our work.  While we discovered that we can do our work remotely, there are also benefits in connecting across teams on a regular basis.

So we currently have our whole team in the office on a Monday and Thursday and people choose what works for them on the other days. I generally come to the office three days per week and work from home on the other days, keeping those days for focussed work where I can.  

I have also switched to working my hours across a nine-day fortnight and encourage others in my team to consider the same. Our line of work can be heavy and demanding at times, so people need to find ways to get enough down-time.  

We always try to support people to manage work hours around other family and caring responsibilities and I have benefited from that over the years as well.      

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

I know as someone who advises others on workplace mental health that spending less time on your business can sometimes be better for it – but that can sometimes be a hard lesson to learn. When I am rested and able to engage in all areas of my life, I find that I am more likely to thrive at work and I am a better leader to the people around me.

For me, work-life balance is more about setting and keeping work-life boundaries. One of my hard boundaries is not working in the evenings after work. I need to respect sleep as the superpower that we all need in our lives and if I work late, sleep is off the table.

If I can’t manage to get through my work within my usual hours, I will add an hour to my work in the morning, but never at night.  

I am pretty good at not responding to emails after work hours and encourage my team to do the same. I limit social media these days, especially when it is full of negative or upsetting news, and I make sure that I have scheduled some time off for a holiday or a long weekend away. I am a big fan of having something fun to look forward to.  

When working from home I try to log on and log off at a similar time, eat lunch out in the dining room or on the back deck to ensure I have a break away from my screen and I purposefully close the door to the study at the end of the day to signal that the work day is finished. 

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

I have changed a few things in my work life and my personal life in the past 12 months. When I was travelling between Newcastle and Canberra for work, exercise dropped off for me.

So I have started back at group training twice a week in addition to the two days I spend at netball each week. It is amazing how much better you feel almost instantly when you add exercise back into your routine. 

I have also returned to my role at Everymind with an intention of being much more purposeful about how I spend my time. I have prioritised time with my team over meetings or events with stakeholders and I am trying to better manage my diary so I always have some flexibility to accommodate unexpected work tasks or meetings. This can be hard to do at first, but when you set boundaries on your time, people will help you to stick to it. 

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

Working in mental health, I am a big fan of Brené Brown. Her books, TV shows and podcasts always have something in them for me. Despite the heavy content, her podcast interview with Tim Ferriss and Dax Shepard was a favourite and as a woman her interview with Glennon Doyle packed some punch.

I regularly listen to Adam Grant’s podcast ‘Work Life’ which pulls together the science of workplace mental health in really accessible and interesting interviews. 

The book that has probably changed my work practice in the past 12 months the most is Cal Newport’s Deep Work.  I listened to the audiobook twice, which was a great reminder about the importance of carving out time for uninterrupted thinking time or what he calls deep work. It motivated me to get back to some more rigid boundaries with my calendar and so far it is working. 

My diary used to look like a very bad game of Tetris that left me no time to think at all. It has transformed now. He also has a podcast and YouTube channel called “deep questions” which is worth a listen too.

For people who are running a small business or work as a sole trader, I’d also like to shamelessly plug Everymind’s Ahead for Business digital portal. This provides resources, tools and stories of other small business owners to help people identify and implement workplace mental health practices for themselves.

People can do a short mental health check-up, do a business stressor screen or access some really short modules on business wellbeing all for free here

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

I find the sound of the telephone really irritating. So, the best thing I ever purchased was an Apple Watch. It helps with tracking exercise and sleep, which means I can listen to music or podcasts from anywhere, but the most rewarding thing is that I can leave my mobile phone on silent the whole day and the watch lets me know when there is a call or message coming in. This alone feels like it has changed my life.

As someone who finds going to the shops really stressful, online shopping is the way to go for me. I try to support small businesses where I can but my clothes, shoes, groceries, and presents are mostly purchased online now, which has really reduced stress for me.

I also can’t live without a good plunger of coffee in the morning, the Kayo Sports App so I can watch Suncorp Super Netball, the mighty Sydney Swans and just about every other sport wherever and whenever, and the sleep stories on the Calm app have really helped me at times when sleep becomes elusive.  

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

I am less interested in how people in public life manage work-life boundaries and more interested in, and concerned about, how people working on the frontline of the pandemic and disaster responses manage work-life balance.

It is one thing to be able to implement strategies to set boundaries between work and life when you are in control of your work environment. But over the past few years there are so many professions that have needed to work long hours in highly stressful circumstances, with limited resources and limited control. I think we can all learn from what has worked and what hasn’t worked and apply that across a range of industries.

Work-life balance is not just about what an individual does for themselves, but also what our organisations and systems put in place to reduce job strain.

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

There is a strong reciprocal relationship between work and our mental health and wellbeing. On the one hand, there is a positive influence of work on people’s health and wellbeing, providing financial resources, a sense of purpose and identity and facilitating social connections. However, the workplace can also have a negative impact on our physical and psychological well being.

The impacts on small businesses can be particularly striking, with research showing that small business owners and workers experience depression, anxiety and stress at levels above the general population.

These stresses often come from financial pressures, high work demands and long work hours, market variability and disruption, and a tendency not to prioritise self-care over the business bottom line – including many who go to work even when they are sick, stressed and tired. 

My final message would be to consider work-life balance as an important tool for a healthy business and a healthy life. It can be so easy for us to take our wellbeing for granted; but just as we need to make regular deposits to see a bank balance grow, we need to pay regular attention to our wellbeing in order to flourish.  

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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.