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Is HR consultancy the answer to the work/life balance challenge?

For a new series of columns we're asking HR professionals to help get the conversation going on HR's own mental health by sharing their personal experiences

I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs so having my own business is something I have always wanted to do. But working in HR I was never really sure what that would look like. I started young in the profession, having left school at 18, and going straight into an HR admin role in a fast-growing start-up. I progressed to work in a large corporate environment, before being employed as an HR consultant at a small consultancy firm. I absolutely loved the work – the variety in particular, and the complexity of this, was exciting.

It was after working in this role for five years I finally plucked up the courage to go out on my own. This was my opportunity to have my own business and achieve that illusive work/life balance.

I was enthusiastic and determined to make a success of my business. I put in the really long hours, schlepped up and down to London on the train, almost went broke several times over, went to every networking event going...

I achieved some major personal milestones, built a lovely team, and on the face of it was doing really ‘well’. But was I? There was only so long I could take working at this pace, and soon my body started to tell me something was wrong.

I piled on almost three stone in weight, had regular panic attacks, didn’t sleep and developed a number of niggling health issues, including becoming pre-diabetic. I didn’t take a proper break for almost five years, and felt under constant pressure to be available.

HR consultancy is often painted as the answer to the work/life balance challenge of the corporate HR professional. However, my experience was completely the opposite. Growing a business is not a 9-5 job. There is no one helping you with the marketing, or the sales; no one to do your credit control, your admin or your accounts – it's all on you.

There is also no guaranteed income every month. Clients pay late all of the time. So as the main breadwinner in my family, this piled on huge pressure every month. Sleep became a huge challenge, and I stopped exercising and looking after myself in favour of working – again feeling the financial pressure, which in turn impacted hugely on my mental and physical health.

I felt anxious and alone with no one I could really talk to for help. I thought admitting I was struggling would be seen as a failure; I was ‘successful’. Things reached a crunch point about 18 months ago, when my behaviour was completely irrational, the panic attacks were all-consuming and I knew I needed help.

Luckily for me I found a wonderful therapist to work with, and got to the root of what the problem was. I realised that what I really love is helping people. I love being creative and coming up with new ideas and solutions. Having the pressures of growing a business was not giving me the space to do this, which meant my day-to-day work was making me miserable.

So I took the very difficult (but actually very easy) decision to scale my business right back. I have a wonderful associate who looks after her own list of clients, and I just work for one company now. I am lucky to now be working in-house for my very first client as their head of HR.

Finding my flow again and focusing on what I'm good at means the panic attacks have stopped. And I feel well again, like the old me is back.

Every situation is different. But if I could offer any advice to those looking to turn to consultancy as an answer to the work/life balance challenge, it would be to really think long and hard about the realities of having your own business. I'd also say to make sure you have the mental and financial support mechanisms in place to deal with its all-consuming pressure.

Do give it a go; but also know that it is ok to change your mind if it's not for you.

Emily Perry is head of HR at The Shore Group

Further reading

It's not weak to struggle with mental health, by Gary Cookson, founder and director of EPIC HR

Is HR neglecting its own mental health?

Dealing with a personal breakdown: One HRD's story

Would you be interested in sharing your experiences to help support other HR professionals? Please do get in touch with HR magazine if so on: jenny.roper@markallengroup.com