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Our CEO on her personal wellbeing journey through 2020 

November 2020: Wellbeing catch up with Kirsten Samuel

The past eight months have tested us in so many different ways, not least how we look after ourselves. We thought we’d use this as an opportunity to catch up with our CEO Kirsten Samuel about her journey during the pandemic. We know that she’s a huge advocate of all things wellbeing, so let’s find out what’s been useful, what obstacles have arisen, and how she’s been looking after herself!

What have you struggled with over the last 7 months? 

To be honest, I’ve struggled with many things: ensuring working from home doesn’t morph into living at work or parenting at work (it can certainly feel like it sometimes!); trying to juggle work and childcare when the nurseries were closed; worrying about my parents who live in Scotland (my mum had a major operation during full national lock down and it was months before we could visit her); trying to motivate myself to exercise when the gyms were closed and events like the London marathon, which I had a place in, were cancelled….the list goes on.....but ultimately, this year has been tough for so many people and so much worse for those who have lost loved ones, lost their jobs, lived in isolation for the best part of the year, are living in an abusive relationship.... So, in all honesty, I don’t have anything to complain about and everything to be grateful for. 

How has your understanding of workplace wellbeing shifted since lockdown?

The pandemic has without doubt catapulted wellbeing and in particular mental health up the corporate agenda. The Royal College of Psychiatrists warn that Covid-related mental illness will become “the second pandemic” and it’s not hard to see why: zoom fatigue, burnout from longer working hours, not seeing our loved ones, the school year largely being wiped out, the rise in isolation for many, increased job and financial insecurity, and the general rise in anxiety across all generations. And with no end in sight as we stare down the barrel of a long winter and another lockdown. Employee wellbeing can no longer be a nice to have or a tick box activity, it needs to become a strategic business priority in every organisation. Those who fail to look after their staff now, at a time when they need it the most, will lose the confidence and trust of their people.  Equally, I’ve also seen many organisations this year step up to go the extra mile to support their people and they have been rewarded with increased employee engagement, loyalty and human connection. It’s not only a no brainer, it’s morally the right thing to do, and I’d seriously be questioning a company I worked for if they didn’t show this level of genuine care during the biggest global crisis we have seen in decades.

What time of day is most important for you to look after your wellbeing?

It’s not one particular time of day, it’s all day, whenever I can. The key as I have learnt is that you really need to be intentional about when and how you look after yourself or the busy-ness of your day takes over! For me, it starts from when I wake up in the morning. The first thing I do is some breathwork in bed for a few minutes followed by three (my lucky number) sun salutations by my bed (more on the weekend) - that’s about all the time I have before the chaos of a small person and a new puppy ensues. I’ve also taken to having cold showers in the morning (thanks to Wim Hoff! Cold showers are thought to boost your immunity, so I’ve been doing this for about a year now). 

Throughout the day, I make sure I build in short periods of recovery - when I do allow myself just 5 or 10 minutes of downtime at various points throughout the day (as opposed to back to back calls), it improves the quality of my sleep tremendously (also evidenced by data captured on my Firstbeat monitor). Attaching a healthy habit to an existing activity can also act as great reminders – I’ve started doing 5 squats every time I go to the loo! Thanks Sarah Mayo for the idea! 

In the evenings, I try to switch off my fight or flight system and turn on the rest and digest response - this is pretty tricky after a day of balancing 5 million things, but I love it – sacred “me time”! My evening ritual usually involves watching something on TV or Netflix to decompress, always followed by a herbal tea, hot shower, skincare routine and then a good (fiction) book or magazine. And sometimes this all goes out the window when the little one doesn’t want to go to sleep!

In summary, I don’t think there is one specific time of day to look after yourself, but it’s something that takes a bit of planning and a lot of intention, with each incremental activity playing a role in your recovery and sleep. I don’t always have days like this because the reality is sometimes work/life gets in the way, but I do try to make sure at least 80% of my week looks like this.

What are you currently doing to look after your wellbeing? 

Several months ago, a good friend and colleague of mine, Nerina Ramlakhan (physiologist and sleep expert), suggested that I explore doing some breathwork as she felt it would benefit me a lot. So, I dived into reading articles, podcasts, videos, and I read Dan Brule’s book ‘Just Breathe’. It’s been a big eye opener for me and almost left me wondering if I’ve been holding my breath for the last 41 years! 

So, I’ve built in breathing practices into my daily routine and it’s honestly been transformative. I’ve seen first-hand how breathwork can have a positive impact on all areas of my wellbeing and I honestly can’t recommend it enough, even though I am still relatively at the beginning of my breathwork journey. For those of you that have gotten a bit stuck with meditation - how and when to do it - take a read of Dan Brule’s book as a starter for 10. 

I’ve also started doing CrossFit, which I love. The perfect combination of an instructor led, all body sweaty work out, combined with the collective spirit of working out with others. Whilst I like running on my own, I do generally prefer being told what to do in a class! One less thing to think about! 

What is your one top wellbeing tip for right now?

I think in the face of uncertainty and adversity, choose kindness. We might not be able to change the past or control the future, but we can be kind to others and especially to ourselves right now. 

This might look like sending a quick message to a colleague who’s struggling to care for a loved-one or leaving a note for your elderly neighbour (mine’s actually coming round for dinner tonight before we go into lockdown again tomorrow!), or even allowing yourself that extra half an hour in bed if you’ve been working late, or just because you can!

You’ve always been a fan of health technology and self-tracking, but can you tell us what’s caught your eye lately?

 Yes, I’m a bit of a data nerd and I confess to like knowing how many steps I’ve done each day! I don’t bother measuring my sleep on a daily basis as I find that becomes a bit of a deterrent to good sleep! 

Something that’s really exciting is the new Firstbeat product that's just come out. I’ve been using their monitors for 7 years now, and I am excited to be the first UK customer to their latest development, Firstbeat Life! The heart rate variability and 3D motion tracking gives me personal insights straight to my phone, with actionable guidance about sleep, stress, exercise and recovery. 

I recently read an interesting quote from 2006 that argued “data is the new oil”. The self-tracking industry is predicted to be worth $67.2 billion by 2030, but data is only valuable if it can be harnessed by users.” If Firstbeat Life can bridge the gap between data and behaviour, then they could be onto a winner!

Who do you admire the most? 

My parents just celebrated their golden wedding anniversary so I’m going to say them. They’ve both achieved so much in their lives (not least adopting three Chinese children when they lived in Hong Kong) yet remain so down to earth and humble, and they have never forgotten their roots - something that I admire and value greatly. 

What is your happiest memory?

Well obviously having my little boy(!), but so many of my other happy memories also involve food! My team will tell you that whenever we meet up outdoors or indoors, my backpack is always laden with lots of yummy snacks! My family will tell you that I can recall most of my childhood memories by where and what I was eating at the time. So, I’m also going to tap into another happy memory. We lived in Hong Kong for a long time and I used to love going to the Aviation Club sat almost on top of the old Kai Tak airport (an unreal experience for anyone that knows what I'm talking about!) and eating my favourite dish of noodles and chilli beef. Family - food – planes (I think I told you I was a bit of a plane nerd in my last interview!) #happymemories

Name 3 things in your wellbeing survival kit. 

An abundance of nice food, my sports kit for exercise, a really good fiction book that I can’t put down.

What’s your most treasured possession? 

My photos

What's your favourite karaoke song? 

Little Respect by Erasure (a firm favourite in my early 30’s as some friends may remember!) 

What inspires you? 

I’m inspired by wanting to make a difference in the world and leaving a lasting legacy that me and my family can feel proud of. I’m about to embark on some very exciting work and personal projects in the next 12 months that will not only inspire me but also help me live my purpose – more on these next time!

What makes you feel at peace? 

Knowing that the house is tidy, that there’s nice food in, having spoken to my parents and the knowledge that they are ok, seeing my family and 13 week old lab on the sofa watching a West Ham game, and me in the corner reading a book!