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‘I can’t believe I lived like that’: Lesson from CEO’s hardest year

·4-min read
Here's how Maddy Avery overcame her burnout. (Source: Supplied)
Here's how Maddy Avery overcame her burnout. (Source: Supplied)

Maddy Avery knew she wanted to be a marketer by the time she was eight years old.

She and her family were on a trip to NSW’s Hunter Valley when Avery pitched how she would sell the wine at a particular vineyard.

The vision: women in flowing white dresses running through the vineyards with ribbons streaming behind - she even had the camera angles and particular shots down pat.

Twenty-four years later, Avery has more than achieved her dream, having launched $1 million marketing agency Birdcage Marketing and grown it to a team of 14 people.

However, in 2018, it nearly all fell apart.

I can’t believe I lived like that’

Avery has always considered herself as someone who thrives under pressure. She began her career in Sydney, working on major contracts with brands including Herbal Essences and Gillette.

In 2015, she moved to Mackay when her partner got his dream job as a tugboat operator.

“I started working for an agency in town. I was pretty miserable doing that work because I felt I could be doing that so much better,” she said.

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“I’d gone from a really high-pressure agency in Sydney to a very, ultra-relaxed work environment. It sounds like a dream work environment, but it’s not mine at all.

“Then I found out I was pregnant, and I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in the same week. I also had severe morning sickness and couldn’t hold down a full-time job.”

She decided to launch Birdcage Marketing so she could work at her own pace, and it swiftly gained enough clients to be viable.

However, like many small business owners, Avery was reluctant to outsource work, convinced she could do it all herself.

This was where the trouble began, although it took her about two years before she realised she needed to reassess her workflow.

“I’d definitely exceeded whatever I’d made previously, being employed - but I was working 60-hour weeks with a young child at home,” she said.

“It was a really, really rough time for me and I eventually went through burnout. I was bedridden for nine months.”

The business took a back seat, and Avery still credits its survival to the two women who she had hired at that stage.

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“It was after that that I realised that something’s got to change. I can’t keep going through this,” she said.

“By this stage, I had [another] young baby and a three-year-old and I just thought, ‘I’m sick of living like this.’ I was an anxious, tired mess all of the time and not a nice person to be around for my husband and kids.

“Looking back, I can’t believe I lived like that for so long. It was literally the worst time ever.”

In hindsight, she believes there was one key sign her mental health was suffering. She had constant anxiety and a belief that either a client was unhappy with her work, or something would go wrong.

It seemed normal at the time, but she now realises this was a product of poor boundaries. She was constantly available and never took time out from work because she was convinced something would fall apart if she looked away for a second.

“That was [a sign] there was something very wrong there that needed to be fixed,” she said.

The turning point

By 2020, she’d decided to do something drastic.

“I looked to find the thing that I struggled with the most and looked to fill that hole with someone who was an expert in the field.”

For Avery, that was business operations. She took on a business coach who helped her ease some of the daily pressures and taught her a key lesson: if you feel like everything’s about to fall apart, that’s the time to focus on personal wellness, rather than spending more time with work.

“It feels kind of counter-intuitive, but when you feel like sales aren’t tracking, or things aren’t working out the way that you want them to, instead of digging a deeper hole, you actually have to get out of the hole completely.”

She’s since imposed guidelines for her team around when they can send emails - business hours only - and has also introduced flexible work practises and nine-day fortnights.

“It’s something I talk about with clients - if you want to work with us, this is how we operate. A lot of clients are actually really happy to work with us, because the quality of work that my team can produce is far beyond what a burnt-out team of marketers that work 24/7 can,” she said.

“Productivity isn’t measured by time, I believe, but by the energy that people have going into things.

“It’s just about people knowing that there’s no expectation to be ‘on’ all the time.”

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