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Redefining life

Redefining life

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Beyond Blue speaker and ex corporate athlete Peta Sitcheff has gone from being burnt-out to firing on all cylinders.

Anne-Maree Brown

General Manager of Content

TRIGGER WARNING: This article involves discussion on mental health and suicide. It may be difficult reading this story, especially if you’ve had similar experiences or supported a friend or family member. If you’re feeling impacted, contact Beyond Blue for immediate support, Lifeline on 13 11 14, Headspace, or your local GP for support.

For 25 years, Peta Sitcheff’s self-esteem and personal value were dictated by ‘outcomes and sales targets’.

A ‘corporate athlete’ working as a sales professional for a large global corporation, Peta supplied specialised medical devices to spinal surgeons. Intelligent, disciplined and driven, she pulled in stratospheric sales figures, earnt great money, and along the way, became a trusted partner for many of Melbourne’s top surgeons. ‘My business was very successful. I became well-known within the organisation for my result. I was the “spine rep”, the “spine girl”. For a long time, I celebrated that and that's what I needed to feel good about myself.’

It was an all-or-nothing-type job. As the ‘walking, talking instruction manual’ for the prosthesis and equipment she sold, accompanying her customers (the surgeons) into the operating theatre was par for the course. But ‘spinal surgery patients don't present neatly between nine and five. I was on call 24/7 for 13-and-a-half years.’

During that time, she says, ‘I expected an enormous amount of myself. I had no boundaries in place to protect what was important to me. There were no boundaries with my customers, my job or my employer. My whole life was about work. There was nothing else.’ Other parts of her life were constantly sidelined; there was no time to be a mum, a sister, a friend.

There was no time to be Peta. 

Peta believes good mental health at work begins when leaders understand – and prioritise – their staff.
Since leaving the corporate world, Peta has focused on ‘redesigning’ her life.

Eventually the hours, the expectations, the unrelenting competitiveness turned into a pressure-cooker. The daily challenges on which she’d loved and thrived became difficult. She lost confidence, felt like a failure when sales targets fell short. Resentment started to creep in. Soon, she felt trapped: no longer happy doing the work but unable to leave. Her life was designed around her pay packet; with her very identity tightly entwined with her job.

‘I didn't feel I had any choice to leave work because I needed the income. I had a mortgage and financial responsibilities, and I didn't have the headspace to even contemplate doing anything differently,’ she says. ‘However, if I'm honest, I think the real fear of leaving was I didn't know who I was without the job. I just kept trying to do the right thing by the customer and deliver the numbers.’

Peta turned to her employers for support and quickly became aware that even a star performer is just ‘a number’ at the end of the day; not a person. ‘I was not being heard,’ she says.

This part of her experience has informed what she teaches as a sales coach today: good mental health at work begins when leaders understand – and prioritise – their staff. They intentionally foster a sense of trust which makes their team more likely to reach out if they’re struggling. Only then can you work together to support them through it.

‘I feel strongly that it's important to prioritise understanding the person. To listen and recognise what a cry for help could look like. As a leader, you have to look for the meaning behind the words and recognise the cues.

‘Always be open to the idea that someone may not be telling you everything because there’s an element of fear.’

For Peta, burnout and anxiety around work were physically, as well as mentally, debilitating: ‘For months, my hair was falling out. I got bad neuropathic pain, as well as losing weight, not eating. My nails were falling off. It was just awful. In the end, I pushed myself to a point where I went to go to work on a Monday morning and couldn't drive the car. I was shaking behind the wheel. I physically couldn't drive.’

Four days later, she resigned. But rather than stop working, she threw herself headlong into setting up a sales coaching and training business ‘without any practical thought’. Rock-bottom happened when she got stuck in a hotel carpark after a corporate lunch, unable to pay the $24 parking fee because she’d run out of cash. ‘That was my breakdown.’

The next day, she went to see a psychologist, who she continued to see twice a week for a ‘long period of time’. She arranged for a pause on the mortgage payments, spent lots of time with her son, and ‘just started working myself out’.

That was six years ago. Since then, Peta has channelled her healing process into a force for positivity – not just for herself, but for anyone in a high-pressure sales or executive environment who’s walking the burnout tightrope. Her journey began with reading. ‘My brain just had this overwhelming need to learn and understand what I was going through. I got support from other people’s stories; you felt like you weren’t alone.’

She found writing helpful. The process of chronicling her mental health journey was intensely cathartic. ‘It poured out of me,’ she says. In 2021, she self-published the resulting memoir, A Beautiful Mess, hoping her story might help others. ‘I knew there are plenty of other people, whether in the industry I was in or not, who are going through the same sort of thing I went through.’

Since leaving the corporate world, Peta has focused on ‘redesigning’ her life and is now running her own successful business on her own terms, with strategies in place to actively protect her wellbeing.

‘I now recognise things in my life that might not be healthy for me, whether it’s work practices or habits or people. Understanding boundaries – and how empowering that is – is really important.’

Peta and her sister after hiking the Larapinta trail in the Northern Territory.
The process of chronicling her mental health journey was intensely cathartic.

She manages her diary based on her energy levels. Her daily mantra is: ‘My purpose refers to my values and my passions, and they are brought to life through my strengths and my preferences. And they're found and realised through giving, connecting and learning.’ 

When anxiety happens, she’s mindful of it: ‘What is it that's brought me to this place? Why am I having this today?’

Peta draws strength and purpose and fulfilment from helping others – as a Beyond Blue speaker, as a business coach, and through her online sales course, Momentum Mindset. ‘That's become a road map for me. Supporting sales professionals – or anyone who's charged with building a customer relationship – to find a way of working that is much kinder to their wellbeing is something I'm passionate about.’

She wants anyone who’s struggling at work, anyone who’s teetering on the brink of burnout, to know they have a choice when making a change.

‘If something doesn’t feel right, that’s your values speaking. You need to listen to it because you can keep working harder and harder, but if something doesn’t feel right, it's never going to be right,’ she says. ‘All that will happen is that gaps will get wider and wider. And in my mind, that gap is burnout.

‘We all have a choice in terms of how we view the world and how we choose to live our life. We all have a choice in asking for help.

‘If you feel like you're backed in a corner, there is help out there.’

The HIA Charitable Foundation proudly supports Beyond Blue. The HIACF are committed to the wellbeing of members of the residential construction industry. For more information or to make a donation, visit online.

First published on 6 February 2024

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