David Burroughs, a psychologist who took up the role as Westpac’s first Chief Mental Health Officer in 2018, opens up about what makes him tick, for Westpac Wire’s “10Qs with…”.
What's your typical morning routine?
First, it’s a quick cup of coffee. I then have this 10-minute debate most mornings: should I exercise, or should I not?
I'm lucky, I've got a home gym, which makes it sort of hard to argue with myself, so the good wolf usually wins.
I’ll do some exercise while listening to some tunes (always the same 80s dance music), then back upstairs, decaf, get ready. I don't tend to look at a proper work email until about eight o'clock.
Are you a working from home fan?
As someone who’d normally travel overseas maybe six times a year for work and leisure, and around Australia a lot, you’d think I’d hate being so sedentary.
But my job works really well in a work from home setting and I have a great home office. So, I love it. I’m a massive fan.
Your biggest tip for making WFH work?
I do like to compartmentalise my work and home life.
One of my tricks is around the collared shirt. I always have collared shirts hanging up behind my office door. When I go in there to work, I’ll slip one on over my board shorts, and that's me signalling it's time to slip into work mode.
I have three kids (aged 10, 14 and 16) and when they open the door, if they see dad in a collared shirt, they know dad's actually doing some proper work. When I finish for the day, the collared shirt comes off, the t-shirt goes back on, and that signals it's time to re-enter the household.
That’s a really important one for me.
What's your secret to a good virtual meeting?
A good virtual meeting is one when everybody goes into it expecting and accepting disruption and imperfection. Because they'll often go sideways – whether there's a tech issue, or a dog or cat jumping on the desk, or a kid banging on the door.
If you go in expecting that, people tend to be a little bit more forgiving.
Are you a nine-to-six or work at all hours on call sort of a person?
I've become known as the “boundaries” guy.
I worked out a long time ago that if I work 16 hours today, there’s still going to be 16 hours’ worth of work sitting there tomorrow.
And because I love what I do, I’m at risk of saying “yes” to everything, so I’ve learnt to be disciplined around my work/life boundaries.
People I work with know that if they email or call after hours, I'm not going to answer them (unless, of course, it’s an emergency, which usually it’s not). And if someone does send me an email at 2am, I am going to call it out. I’ll ask them, “What's going on for you? How come you're doing that?”
That erosion of boundaries, particularly when working from home, is an issue. People are repurposing commute time with extra work time. It just creeps up and it's not healthy. You don't do your best work when you're fatigued.
How do you stay fit and healthy?
I have a little rule never to go more than two days without some deliberate exercise.
For me, it’s all beach or mountains.
I grew up on the coast, and I live in a seaside town an hour south of Sydney. The ocean’s always been my sanctuary. I'm in the water a few days a week surfing, fishing or boating. I love it.
If I’m not in the ocean, I’m up the mountains with the kids and my wife motorbike riding or mountain biking.
Is that what we'd find you doing on a typical weekend?
Yes, weekends are always pretty much flat out, go to whoa.
With teenage kids, if we’re not at the beach or up the mountain, there’s a heck of a lot of “dad’s taxi” going on, with drop-offs and pick-ups from parties.
And what do you do if you do get super busy and feel a bit overwhelmed?
Usually, the red flag for me is my sleep. If I'm not sleeping well, I know something's not quite right.
I actually got myself one of those watches that tracks your sleep. Now my wife and I have almost this little competition to see who can get the best sleep score!
When the score’s low, it's like a horrible mirror that shows you you're not doing the right thing by yourself. Occasionally, I’ll do a little bit of mindfulness to get back on track, but it’s generally more about getting to the ocean or a walk with the dog, getting beneath the surface of and addressing the issue, and getting back into a routine around exercise and eating well.
What's the best thing you've recently read, watched or listened to?
I really enjoy reading, and love fictionalised history – whether it’s Greek history, Roman history, Nordic or British. It’s a bit of escapism for me. I’ve also spent a bit of time reading up on “stoic philosophy”, which has its roots in the early third century BC among the Greek philosophers.
A favourite TV series at the moment is the Australian show “Frayed”, which is absolutely hilarious. It's just so good, like a snapshot of my youth.
And if I'm getting my head into a work zone, I enjoy Adam Grant’s “WorkLife” podcast. He’s a brilliant organisational psychologist and describes the podcast as looking at “how to make work not suck”. It fits really well with me because my whole philosophy is that good work is good for people and we spend so much time at work, it's up to us to make sure that experience is the best it can be.
What career advice would you give your younger self?
Career dabbling is the way to go.
That’s how it played out for me.
After finishing psychology (which took me two goes after dropping out of uni first time round, with a stint in construction in between) I interned into clinical as well as organisational psychology, I really loved elements of both domains, but neither were a perfect fit.. I also picked up a forensic psychology internship, thinking that was the sexiest thing to do (FBI profilers were big on TV at the time) but found I didn’t like it at all.
What really galvanised my thinking was looking at the nexus of people within the workplace, how and why different factors impact on mental health and behaviour and what to do about it, and that became my speciality.
I'd encourage anyone to cast a really wide professional net and keep your eyes wide open to opportunities to experience as many domains as possible to find the one that fits.
Or even better, to create your own.