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Interviews / CEOs

Balancing the Grind with Joel Pilgrim, CEO of Waves of Wellness

Joel Pilgrim is the CEO of Waves of Wellness (WOW) Foundation, a mental health surf therapy charity.

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

I have a background in mental health Occupational Therapy, where I specialised in early psychosis. I was lucky enough to work at a leading mental health centre in Sydney for years, before branching out into the surf therapy space.

As CEO of Waves of Wellness (WOW) Foundation, I now lead our team around the country, setting the strategy and supporting our WOW family to change the lives of people by addressing mental health.

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

The alarm goes off at 5:00am. A big bottle of water and banana on the way to the beach as the sun pops over the headland.

Whether it’s surfing recreationally, or heading down to the WOW program, I’m always in the water to kickstart the day. One of my favourite things is seeing 10 excited participants getting their dose of surf therapy and mental health support, all before 8:00am. 

After dusting off the sandy feet, it’s into the WOW office at WeWork in Sydney’s CBD to work with the HQ team. With lots of exciting projects in the works, every day is really different.

Some days involve partnership discussions, meetings with donors, delivering our WOW Corporate Wellbeing program, or giving a keynote presentation to hundreds of people.

I love that we get the chance to work with a great range of companies, supporting their people in developing mental health literacy and a culture of wellbeing. Regardless of what the task is that day, I’m grateful we get to play a role in shifting the mental health dial. 

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

Yes, I’m able to work from wherever I open my laptop, but I do love being in the office when possible, as culture and connectivity are really important at WOW.

For us, being a WeWork member means we’ve got a beautiful space to get together in person and collaborate whenever we need it. I’m big on people having the freedom and flexibility to complete their job when it works for them.

There are days we need to be together to discuss strategy, have key team meetings etc, but it’s also important to have flexibility. Everyone has different strengths (or as I like to say, their WOW Factor) and energy patterns.

I’m a big believer that your schedule has to work for you. Just like my team knows, on very rare big wave days, I’ll schedule my days to ensure I don’t miss out on the action. 

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

I see it more as ‘life balance’. It’s not about compartmentalising work from the rest of your life, rather ensuring that the two work in harmony. Often work-life balance comes with a negative connotation, implying you don’t have a life until you leave work for the day. 

I’m not going to lie, some days it can be challenging to achieve a good balance of work, self-care, social activity and rest. With my job there’s always going to be work to do, so it’s important to set boundaries when I can see the waves of tasks building up and pulling me under. 

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

I’ve had a number of serious sporting injuries over the years, which cause a few troubles every now and then. This year I’ve started an @elle_fit stretching practice daily and it’s been a game changer.

Combining that with regular meditation is just what the doctor ordered, the perfect respite and reset. I’m excited to be diving into a 10-day silent meditation retreat next month. I’d be telling porkies if I said I wasn’t nervous, but I’m ready for the challenge! 

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

I’d recommend the book Blue Mind by marine biologist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols. I was fortunate enough to connect with him at the 2019 International Surf Therapy Organisation conference.

The book highlights the immense benefits of being in and around water, so much of what WOW lives and breathes! I also love that it’s able to bring the science of what we do to the spotlight. So many people think that what we do is “just surfing” but surf therapy is actually an evidence-based mental health treatment – and we know first hand that it works!

Saltwater in the Blood and 50 Things to Do at the Beach are also great reads by Blue Space researcher and professional female big-wave-surfer Easkey Britton.

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

My favourite mindfulness app is Buddhify. It helps me fit meditations around my days. I also check a weather app called SeaBreeze excessively, to work out what’s happening with the wind and waves. 

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

Daniel Flynn. He’s someone I respect on an entrepreneurial level through his vision, and on a personal level for his incredible, innate drive to push boundaries. He was breaking ground of conventional business models long before COVID came and shook things up for our work lives. 

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

During a presentation for a big corporation, I once had someone ask me “It’s all well and good that you have a job you’re passionate about, but what about the rest of us?” This took me by surprise, but my answer was simple: “if you’re not happy in your job, change something”.

That doesn’t always require drastic changes, but making a shift can bring new energy. After all, our mental health is our wealth, so there’s not much value staying in a job that makes us miserable or doesn’t fuel your fire.

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About Author

Balance the Grind is a work-life balance publication on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.