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60 Seconds with: Orla Ralston, European Tax MD at OMERS

Orla Ralston is the European Tax MD at OMERS, one of Canada's largest defined benefit pension plans. Orla speaks with Jay Sky, Senior Consultant at Pro-Tax about life at OMERS, her impressive career and the opportunities which have surfaced in the face of the pandemic. Who is OMERS and what does the tax team look like?  We are a Canadian pension plan, serving over 500,000 pensioners based in Ontario that represent the retired employees of about 1000 municipalities such as school boards, libraries, police and fire departments. Part of what we do is to make investments that fund sustainable, meaningful pensions over the long term. Our asset classes include infrastructure, private equity (including ventures), real estate and capital markets.  Our tax team is truly global and covers a wide range of activity. The Global Head of Tax is based in Toronto and our team is divided across the Americas, Europe and APAC and by function: investment tax; tax for the enterprise; and, tax compliance. Of course, none of these areas are mutually exclusive, so inevitably there is a lot of collaboration across the regional and functional teams.  What does your role as MD of Investment Tax include, and what leadership roles do you play? I support our European businesses from a tax perspective on their investments – so I oversee European and UK-based tax professionals who focus on infrastructure, PE, real estate and associated European-wide issues. I also have a broader leadership role within the infrastructure business (beyond tax alone). One of the great things about OMERS is that we recognise each of us has something to offer. In my case, I have always believed that to do well in tax, you really need to engage with the investment team and understand their strategy, drivers, and the commercial rationale behind everything they do. This line of thinking has allowed me to bring another dimension to the leadership team and an element of influence across the London office. You have had an impressive career to date, having held positions in a Magic Circle law firm and a top tier investment bank. How would you compare life at OMERS to these earlier experiences? I joined Slaughter and May as a qualified Solicitor and learned my craft in practice. This involved learning the technical aspects of tax law while working on many different types of transactions, acting for multiple clients. I applied that experience in-house later when I worked at Goldman Sachs, and here - while I had the opportunity to make this role my own -  there was already an established tax team  within which I was able to develop my own  role Although my initial role at GS was to support the real estate investment business (part of the Merchant Banking Division), I saw gaps and opportunities to support a newly created infrastructure business, and then, more latterly, their private equity and debt funds. This was a great experience and how I discovered and learned what it is to be an in-house tax lawyer, and, in particular, how to be commercial in that role. After more than 11 years at GS I had seen a lot of deal activity and was able to bring that experience to OMERS. When I joined OMERS, I was the first European tax team member (in Infrastructure & PE). What I continue to enjoy is the level of integration into the deal teams and the opportunity to have a broader role; understanding and working with the businesses strategically, not purely from a tax perspective.  What made you join OMERS initially, and what might be surprising about the way the business operates? I had not been looking to leave my previous role at GS but OMERS clearly did something to convince me! First and foremost, it was the people. The calibre, intellect and friendliness of everyone I met at OMERS was appealing. Second the ‘pension promise’ was (and still is) a big draw for me. I loved every minute of my career before OMERS too – but knowing that your efforts enable people to retire with a decent pension is of massive importance, and I’m able to be a part of that.  Pension funds might sometimes be considered less active but OMERS has always been and continues to be very active with direct investment and a focus on asset management and value creation at the core of its investment strategy. The degree of sophistication at OMERS allows us to be very hands-on, which always keeps things interesting. How would you describe OMERS’ approach to diversity and inclusiveness? We have always been proactive in this area. There are several employee resource groups at OMERS, but we see diversity in so many other ways too. In London, what I love is that you will hear countless languages around the office; we have a truly global team. We also sponsor events and initiatives which facilitate social change: in 2020 for example our CFO led an event for International Coming Out Day in partnership with OTPP and CIBC, and from London we were joined by Aisha Thomas, Founder of Representation Matters Ltd, for an event for Black History Month - both of these were very powerful. Inevitably, this conversation is a continuing one, but there is certainly a healthy dialogue on this. What has the response to coronavirus been like at OMERS, and what opportunities have surfaced? Our leadership has been very decisive and provided clear direction from the start. First and foremost, the priority was to keep our people safe, and we’ve seen that throughout all levels of the organisation – supported by a lot of communication from our CEO with whom I feel more connected perhaps than ever before. Our IT team enabled a seamless transition to work from home literally overnight, which has allowed among other things a level playing field in terms of connectivity – we’re all in a box on a screen. We have the same means to interact, whether we’re on different sides of the same globe, or different sides of the same office. We can’t replace the human element of interaction of course, but we can do the virtual interactions well and keep a transparent and proactive approach. Now we are reaching out to our people for their views on how we can continue what have been some of the more positive aspects of these changes.  OMERS has a strong record of employee retention. What is it that motivates people to come to work each day? I think the pension promise has a lot to do with this – it’s not something we sit and talk about all day long, but there is this feeling of a common goal between us. In the tax team at OMERS, no two days are the same – there is just so much variety in what we do. Having just 4 of us in Europe means we cover a real breadth between us. We also have real autonomy and ownership. The organisation encourages an almost entrepreneurial attitude: ‘if you see something that makes sense to do, then go ahead and do it, show us why it makes sense’. You mentioned that perhaps one of the greatest assets at OMERS are the people – but also that this group is very diverse. So which type of person will fit into that team best? We encourage the mentality that nobody should underestimate what they can achieve and should not put themselves into a box. We are a team of people who want to make a difference – and while doing so, you can learn so much about investing, our assets, our portfolio. We invest in significant companies which matter in tangible terms – often providing essential services. That’s the joy of infrastructure for me personally. If you are curious, industrious and want to be part of a group who like working and having fun together, you might be a good fit for our team.  For more information on this article, contact Jay Sky on 020 7269 6343 or Back to 60 Seconds archive >>


Diary of My Month - 100k Running Challenge

'What a year it's been?!' has probably been the most uttered phrase of the last 3 months...but in all seriousness what a year it has been and what a profound effect the last 10 months have had on our mental health.  When the news landed on the 21st October 2020 that the nation would be heading into a second lockdown, at Pro-Recruitment our hearts sank. Determined not to downward spiral, we discussed as an organisation what we could do collectively to give us focus and to help our mental wellbeing. Ever the courtroom jester, our Director Kevin Racher suggested we each try and run 100k throughout lockdown 2.0. Shockingly the hands slowly but surely started to go up in favour of this (completely ludicrous) idea, after all 100k wouldn't be so bad over 4 weeks right? The challenge was given even greater purpose by the suggestion we do it in aid of our corporate charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), and see if we could raise 'a couple of hundred quid maybe?' All of a sudden things got very real... On the 5th November, 9 of us; myself, Rebecca English, Maisie Horrell, Kevin Racher, Ashleigh Polakiewicz, Dominic Watt, Chris Davey, Tom Eagle and George Tatnell set off on our own personal challenge and collective mindset - all differing in ages, backgrounds, locations and running abilities! Having had my first child earlier this year I wasn't too sure how much more of a battering my poor postpartum body could take!  Week 1 This went surprisingly well with lots of encouragement and some frankly terrifying 'motivational' videos from George Tatnell... we were getting into the spirit of it!  Some of us were seasoned runners, whilst others took on this huge personal goal (Maisie Horrell even took her family out running with her) and we all spurred each other on and achieved some really good distances in the first week. Week 2 The mood began to change. The mountain we were all climbing became VERY real and that 100k mark seemed so far away! We continued to share motivating messages, pictures and video updates spurring each other on. We gained a new appreciation for the areas we lived in, Ashleigh Polakiewicz witnessing the sun rise on a sleepy Canary Wharf was breath-taking.  Me running past a herd of muntjac deer who looked on curiously in a local woodland I never knew existed! Bex discovering mud, stiles and yet more mud aren't the best running companions. There were moments when as fatigue started to seriously set in, we all started to question why we had committed to this. STILL the donations were pouring in as were the incredible messages from our supporters urging us to 'just keep going'! Week 3  Disaster hit! One of our experienced runners Rebecca English suffered an injury announcing she may not get to finish (she ended on 106.7km! With the help of Margeaux her beautiful canine running buddy). Our little Aussie sprinter Ashleigh Polakiewicz suffered a knee injury and Kevin Racher...well...continued to complain he was 'too old for this'. With others having to scale back their distances for a short period the rest of the team picked up their game to make up! Luckily Tom Eagle was on hand to offer some 'carb loading advice' from his trips to the golden arches. Week 4  The finish line was in sight! Our South African powerhouse Chris Davey, breezed over his 100k finish with a mere 25km run to end! Despite her injury Rebecca English pushed through, completing her last run in a seriously speedy time.  Kevin Racher smashed through his target whilst very nearly getting hit by a van and continuing to complain he was still 'too old for this'. Being a competitive bunch the rest of us pushed on, and whether we ran, limped or crawled we got over our finish lines!  During those 4 weeks we all learnt a little bit more about each other, and as determined as we were individually to smash our targets, we all rediscovered the importance of checking in on each other as a group to see how we were feeling, picking each other up when needed. CALM is such a frighteningly relevant charity to 2020, and sadly they've been busier than ever. Our challenge raised £876 which will go such a long way to helping reduce the number of suicides in the UK, so thank you to all our supporters for your incredibly generous donations. To the Pro 100k club I am so proud of you all! What's the next challenge then? What have you been doing during the recent lockdown? Send your suggestions to me at 


60 Seconds with Michael Barnard, Head of Indirect Tax at BlackRock

Michael Barnard is the Head of Indirect Tax at BlackRock, the global investment manager. Michael speaks with Jay Sky, Senior Consultant at Pro-Tax about life at BlackRock, his career defining moments, and the upcoming challenges facing the next generation of tax professionals. BlackRock’s size and stature is market-leading, and a brand name in the financial services sector, but for anyone new to this industry, what do BlackRock actually do? BlackRock is a global investment manager and technology provider. We help investors of all types achieve their financial goals. How would you describe working at BlackRock? BlackRock is a fantastic place to work. There is always something new and challenging to get involved in. There is a powerful culture of collaboration across the entire business with a focus on delivering on our clients’ needs. One thing that has really struck me about working here is the level of intellectual rigour applied to what we do. We question everything and whilst it took me a while to get used to this challenge process to begin with, I realised that once you embrace it, you see just how powerful it can be. BlackRock’s clear and vocal stance on issues such as racial equality, diversity and sustainability makes me proud to work here. What does your role as Global Head of Indirect Tax entail? My role involves setting indirect policy and strategy across all of our global business lines. This encompasses advising on the indirect tax treatment of our services and products, dealing with tax authorities and audits, ensuring the control environment around indirect tax processes for Accounts Receivable, Accounts Payable etc. are robust and scalable and staying on top of indirect tax developments worldwide. I do a lot of work with industry bodies to engage with governments and tax authorities to try and help shape indirect tax policy. One of my main priorities at the moment is ensuring that BlackRock is prepared to deal with the digitisation of tax compliance - the advent of Making Tax Digital for VAT in the UK and ISI in Spain being two current examples. There will be a lot more of this in the future and we need to be ready. What type of person does BlackRock keep an eye out for in tax? There’s no particular type, rather we look for people who are smart, obviously, and who can communicate well. So much of what we do involves dealing with internal and external stakeholders and being able to communicate clearly and effectively is vital. Also, we look for someone who thinks beyond the narrow confines of tax technical issues – we need to see what we do in a much wider context and to be able to navigate the tax implications of events like the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit and the sustainability agenda. What challenges do you see the asset management industry facing in the near future, and how are BlackRock dealing with these? In a tax sense, a big challenge is preparing for the tech enabled tax authority – being required to provide huge amounts of data in real time in numerous different formats. Also, navigating changes to the VAT regime as it applies to asset management. Both the UK and the European Commission have announced reviews of how VAT works in our sector. It’s vital to stay close to these initiatives and to provide constructive input. What career-defining realisations have there been for you, and what have you learned at BlackRock? I’ve learned that it’s vital to have a good network if you want to have a successful and happy career, and that building your network takes time and effort - but it pays back. Your colleagues want to help you – sometimes you just need to ask them rather than waiting for them to offer. Understanding that you are never the ‘finished article’ is really important. Always be ready to broaden your skill set. Remember that you might not be the smartest person in the room! Listen actively and learn. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know something and be open to asking for help in understanding an issue. Taking some risks with your career, within reason, can have surprising results – in a good way. Learn how to distil complex issues into an understandable format for non-specialists. Senior leaders generally don’t want to go into the tax ‘weeds’ with you. Keep it brief. Your profile is a little unusual in that you never made the move into practice - you started your career at HMRC and have climbed to a very senior level in-house. How was the transition from HMRC for you, and what did you take from this experience? This was a long time ago! I enjoyed working for HMRC - it was Customs & Excise back then - and I learned a lot very quickly and worked with some great people. My time at HMRC gave me some useful insight into their organisation and processes which I think has been useful in helping me work effectively with HMRC officers since I left. The one thing I do remember is that the culture was different when I moved into industry, which took a bit of getting used to. However, looking back I realise that the culture shock was quite short-lived and the challenge of adapting to a new environment was something that I actually enjoyed. As the most senior figure for indirect taxation at BlackRock, how do you maintain your technical skill set? I make time to consume technical output from the accountancy and law firms as well as speaking to other VAT specialists in my network about current industry issues. I also try and stay close to what’s happening in our industry more generally, not just tax related content. I’m currently Chair of the Investment Association (IA) VAT Committee and also a member of the European Fund and Asset Management Association VAT Task Force (EFAMA). My involvement in these groups helps keep me up-to-date on a whole host of technical issues, not just VAT related, and puts me in contact with some of the best Asset Management VAT brains out there. What advice would you offer someone looking to shape enhance their tax career in asset management? Learn about the industry at a wider level – not just through a tax lens. A broader understanding will help shape better VAT decisions. Look to get involved in industry-level working groups – this will help build your profile, expose you to a wider range of technical issues and enable you to build your network. Be prepared to take some risks in order to develop. ​ For more information on this article, contact Jay Sky on 020 7269 6343 or Back to 60 Seconds archive >>


Are there some glimmers of festive hope yet for the Office Christmas Party?

esIt is no secret that Christmas will be a different one for so many reasons this year. COVID-19 has bulldozed its way through our way of living and working the whole year and it’s ramifications socially, emotionally, economically and professionally will no doubt be felt for years to come. It is a very different December to last or to what we could have ever expected. Many of us are working from home in makeshift offices, meetings have become virtual and our business attire certainly looks different. Figures have come out to show that only 19% of companies have planned Christmas gatherings for staff (down from 71% last year who booked venues) and nearly 40% of British businesses have cancelled plans completely. This will have an estimated knock on effect to the hardest hit hospitality sector at a further £717million in lost revenue the average company spend on employees of £49.90 for their end of year celebrations. But that doesn’t mean that we can simply let COVID-19 become The Grinch who stole Christmas. Whilst the ‘normal’ Christmas party will not be going ahead, there are in fact a number of other ways to spread a little festive cheer, and this year we certainly need it! BDO has published an article detailing that in fact HMRC is offering some seasonal goodwill and is extending its staff parties concession this year to apply to costs associated with hosting virtual parties. These concessions will be treated the same way as if the celebrations were usually held; providing food, entertainment, equipment etc. It is important to note that HMRC will still be applying the very strict rules; The cost of providing the benefit does not exceed £50 The benefit is not cash or a cash voucher (eg a premium bond) The employee is not entitled to the benefit as part of any contractual obligation (including under salary sacrifice) The benefit is not provided in recognition of particular services performed by the employee as part of their employment duties (or in anticipation of such services). The good news is that much of the costs associated with your virtual office Christmas arty will be tax deductible as with previous years. Another truly Christmas - spirited and entrepreneurial idea to combat the cancelled parties is Xmas Party Heroes. This is a new campaign urging businesses to donate their redundant Christmas party budget to charity. For many businesses with an unspent budget it is an effective and simple solution which they may not have thought of. Any business can donate to any cause, all you do is let #xmaspartyheroes how much you have pledged so they can keep track of the running total (currently at £1,26m as I write this). Mark Hawthorn, CEO of Lanmark Group says “We can’t have an Xmas Party, and it didn’t feel fair to just retain the funds as charities are more in need than ever. So, we will simply give the funds (and more) to charity” Lastly there is of course the option to carry something over to next year where we can all come together and celebrate as one again. Celebrate Christmas, celebrate being together again, celebrate our hard work and efforts of 2020. This is the route we have gone down at Pro Recruitment and like an unopened perfectly wrapped present waiting under the tree that I cannot wait. However you are celebrating Christmas this year, I wish you a happy and prosperous one.


5 Lessons We've Learned from Lockdown

What have we learned from lockdown? There’s no doubt that this year's events and pandemic have taken a huge toll on all of us, mentally, financially and economically, however there are plenty of lessons learnt that will allow us to improve ways of working, our lifestyles and our personal wellbeing going forward. Not for one minute am I suggesting the lockdown was a positive experience however I am a believer in looking for the positives in every situation and I cannot deny the lockdown has helped us learn several lessons.  Technology is the future For many years we have often heard clients say that we are not set up to work from home or have the infrastructure to support this. As a result of the pandemic it has accelerated the need for businesses to change their infrastructure and modernise their approach! Technology has enabled us to stay connected and allowed us to communicate with our friends, families and colleagues through some challenging times. Video calling and virtual meetings are now the norm and working from home is no longer viewed with trepidation and fear from Senior Management. If there is one thing we can take from the last few months it is that our employees can be trusted to perform effectively from home and that the working world has changed forever.  Flexibility is here to stay  How many of us have had the discussion with colleagues around flexible hours and working days? My guess, would be a considerable high amount! Well moving forward flexible working will no longer be ‘sold’ by companies as an additional benefit but will just be the norm for employees. No longer will individuals feel compelled to be at their desk 8.30am - 5.30pm but they will be empowered to manage their working day around other commitments and the focus will be on meeting key deliverables rather than time spent at a laptop!  Time is precious  Lockdown has meant life has changed to a slower pace. Gone are the days where our diaries are filled with meetings and social events and long commutes being squashed on tubes or trains. Personally, I am saving 4 hours per day not commuting to the office and I certainly have seen the benefits. Whilst I miss seeing my colleagues, I am using the time I am saving to take extra rest, spend with my family or exercise. I am ‘switched off’ from work at a good time to allow me to enjoy my evening without the rush-hour commute.  Lockdown has given us the space to reflect on the effects our busy working live has on our personal life and re-establish our priorities leading to some permanent, constructive changes.  Home is no longer a “pit stop”! "Don’t be like race car drivers and treat home like a pit stop” HBR Review. Before 2020, home for most people was unfortunately treated as a fueling station, a space to eat and sleep before heading out to work again and facing the early morning commute. Lockdown, and this pandemic has allowed all of us to treat our homes as more of a sanctuary, people are now spending more quality time together with their families and loved ones.  Putting our health first  According to YouGov, Covid-19 has resulted in 300,000 people giving up smoking, and has led to a further 550,000 trying to quit. The hashtag #QuitForCOVID has circled around Twitter in order to warn of the higher risks and severity of coronavirus on smokers. Personally, with the daily commutes, and the aforementioned ‘pit stops’, unconsciously I had been taking my health for granted through eating at ridiculous times and having little exercise. Throughout the last few months though, exercise has suddenly become a “no-brainer” and far easier to fit into my daily plan. I cannot use the ‘I don’t have time’ excuse anymore and on a personal level, I have seen the benefits through weight loss, feeling healthier and my individual mental wellbeing.  What other benefits have you taken from lockdown? I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on how you’ve utilised your extra time this year. Please give me a call on 020 7269 6349 or email


Finance Practice vs. Industry: The Big Debate

Once you become a newly qualified accountant, you will inevitably come up against the decision of whether to build a career in practice or to move into an industry role. Both have their pros and cons, and your decision will ultimately come down to what type of person you are and what is important to you in your career. Making this decision can often feel daunting, but our specialist finance recruiters have put together key advice to help you make an informed decision! Recession Proof? Those who have worked through recent recessions and the current 2020 pandemic will share the same sentiment that those working in financial services have experienced reductions in their teams, but for most firms money movement is important, which explains why financial professionals are always in demand. Accountants, Auditors, Actuaries, Claims Specialists, Tax Preparers, Insurance Underwriters — the list of financial service jobs is long and varied, however, in good times or in bad, everyone needs to file a tax return or oversee their accounts, Auditors, see consistent demand during recessions. Financial regulations don’t go away during recessions, so neither does demand for Auditors.  From my daily conversations, and understanding of the recovery from the last recession, I have found that Practice is the safer route for newly qualified accountancy professionals, particularly those looking to specialise in Audit. When reflecting on earlier in they year, when the nation went into flux, many accountancy firms reduced their team sizes and made cuts to keep their operations profitable and afloat. However, upon entering the second lockdown, they are far more technically prepared, and recuiting Auditors in practice is again on the rise, with many firms now recruiting as normal, albeit virtually. Type of Work Many newly qualified accountants are attracted to industry roles because the companies themselves often seem more interesting, or just because they’re not audit roles! But in reality, although moving from practice to industry gives you the opportunity to use your skills in a very different environment, roles in industry can lack variation and excitement. You will find yourself working on the same or similar things on a day-to-day basis and you will most likely lose the client-facing aspect of a role in practice. If you are looking to be involved in the business development side of the firm you work for, you are best to seek a role within practice as opposed to industry where business development focused roles tend to be limited. As well as this, with a finance practice role, you will find you have a varied workload and responsibilities with certain busy periods throughout the year. Depending on your firm and department, your work could be audit, tax-focused, or accounts-focused to name but a few, and you will have autonomy in your work. Every week will see you working with different clients across different types of work that can vary in size and topic. Salary & Benefits Newly qualified accountants are often drawn into industry with an attractive pay rise compared to starting salaries within practice. Salaries within industry for a new-qualified accountant are typically around the £45,000 mark, occasionally going up to around £55,000 in certain sectors like Financial Services. However, the initial pay gap between industry and practice has reduced considerably and the salary for a newly-qualified candidate within practice can actually be higher than in industry, with many firms now matching the money offered in order to retain the best talent. Not only this, if you were to stay in practice and become a future Director or Partner, the pay would more than equal itself out and you would be looking at earning more further down the line. When it comes to benefits, packages in industry are very variable depending on the sector and business, however, more often than not they do include a bonus and a wide variety of benefits. Benefits within practice are typically better for two reasons - they are better-established companies with defined risk & reward teams, and you will also receive benefits in line with longevity of service, compared to industry where it would be a new role. Working Hours Industry roles tend to be busy when it comes to month-end but, again, that is very dependent on the size of the business. Practice roles will have seasonally busy periods throughout the year, but it’s also important to note that accountancy firms are very bottom-heavy meaning there will always be juniors carrying out work that is perhaps more menial, which is often not the case within industry. Typically, working in an industry role offers the opportunity to have a better work-life balance, with regular working hours and no late nights in the office! However, improving work-life balance is something that a lot of firms are increasingly working towards for their employees. The Big 4, for example, are not known for having the best work-life balance but this is improving on a daily basis with more firms understanding the value a healthy work-life balance adds to employee happiness. Progression Prospects Progression will depend entirely on the organisation and its structure. It can be possible to progress quickly within industry depending on your personal performance, as these companies do not have a rigid structure. However, progression within these companies is often very competitive! Teams tend to be smaller and while this is good in terms of extra responsibility, these teams typically do not offer a set career path and it is more difficult to stand out. On the other hand, a finance role in practice tends to offer a clear career progression path. This is particularly true when you get towards higher levels and there are targets to hit to move up in the company. The path for progression is very clear and structured into people’s careers, all the way up to Partner with equity in the firm, and CPD training and development is often a primary focus. Ease of Finding a New Opportunity If you are looking to move from practice into industry you will find yourself in a highly competitive market, particularly if you have trained in a smaller practice as you will be competing against Big 4 ACA qualified candidates, as well as industry-trained CIMA/ACCA candidates who will have more relevant experience in industry-specific roles. Therefore, it is often worth moving into a Big 4 or Top 10 firm to gain the experience and skills needed to open up a range of options for your next career step - whether this be a move into an industry role, a role at a smaller practice or SME, or remaining and progressing within a larger firm. Once you have chosen a route in industry it can be difficult to move sector or change your role type. For example, if your first move from practice to industry is within a Financial Accountant role, you will rarely be able to move within the same company to a Management Accountant role. It can also be challenging to move back into practice if you change your mind later down the line, particularly after a period of time longer than 12-18 months, as advances in the profession and working towards the new reporting standards would require a significant catch-up. However, within practice there is room for movement between different aspects of the business, offering variation and the chance to decide what type of role is best for you. Ultimately, your decision will come down to what type of work suits you and what you want from your career as a finance professional. If you are looking for a role within a company whose brand and household name excites you, then a role in industry may suit you. However, if you are looking for a client-facing role that offers autonomy and variation in your day-to-day responsibilities with a clearly defined career path, you should pursue a finance role in practice. For more information on this article, or for advice on your next career move into a finance role in practice, contact Jordanne on 020 7269 6353 or


Calls for a Job Retention Scheme in the Charity and Not-for-Profit sector

30 charity leaders have written to the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, requesting the need for  a job-retention scheme for the Charity & Not-for-Profit Sector. Civil society leaders call for the Chancellor to reassess decisions to ensure communities are supported, and fund  as the best way to recover from the pandemic. The letter highlighted that the sector faces a “critical dilemma” and calls for a tailored job retention programme.  The coalition is led by the Charity Finance Group and backed by over thirty other UK organisations, including the Chartered Institute of Fundraising, Association of Charitable Foundations, Acevo (the charity leaders’ body) and the Small Charities Coalition. They represent thousands of charities and social enterprises nationally across the UK.  The request for a time-limited scheme that enables organisations in the sector to furlough staff and allow them to volunteer their time and skills back to their not-for-profit, public benefit employer has been raised by the group for the Chancellor’s consideration. The letter highlights that the sector faces a “critical dilemma” and calls for a tailored job retention programme.  “The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme was an exceptionally generous scheme which was welcomed by the sector and which charities and social enterprises have availed themselves of during its first phase,” the letter states. “However, as a scheme designed predominantly with private enterprise in mind, it had the perverse effect of incentivising mothballing of provision and not mobilisation. It finishes with, “It is counterproductive to be paying for a charity or social enterprise employee to stop working when our citizens so desperately need helplines, advice, support and guidance; whether on mental health, unemployment, homelessness or loneliness and isolation.”  From my perspective as a recruiter in the NFP and charities space, a delayed response for the need of support in the third sector space can be detrimental to charities delivering their services in these unprecedented times. It certainly is a ‘social dilemma’: Access the government’s job retention scheme to save on salary costs, and thereby closing or reducing vital services, or risk financial collapse.  The sector is so well served by those giving their time and skills on a voluntary basis, and yet employees who often work in the sector because of the cause and wanting to make a difference are unable to do so if they want too. Whilst this rule was undoubtedly made to stop rogue employers abusing the scheme and employee’s rights; should the charity sector be different?  I am interested in hearing your thoughts? Some have had the added cost of seeking short term, and part time interim flexible workers to help and we have certainly seen an increase in demand for part time and shorter term flexible interim workers. Please reach out on 020 7269 6351 or email me


900km run for CALM charity

With the impact of the pandemic this year taking a huge toll on people’s mental wellbeing, myself and 8 others at Pro-Recruitment Group have decided to raise money for CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) a small but growing charity, to support their campaigns, increase awareness, and offer our support. ​ Sadly, suicide rates have increased dramatically in both male and female in 2020, with Male suicide rate being at the highest for two decades. CALM is leading a movement against suicide, the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK. CALM runs a free and confidential helpline 0800 58 58 58 and webchat 7 hours a day, 7 days a week for anyone who needs to talk about life’s problems, as well as help from other organisations.  CALM has experienced a record surge in demand for our helpline recently… 37% more daily calls in the first week of the Spring lockdown, to be precise. That’s why, during this second lockdown, myself, Rebecca English, Jennifer Nelson, Kevin Racher, Ashleigh Polakiewicz, Dominic Watt, Chris Davey, Tom Eagle and George Tatnell are aiming to run 100km each during a 30 day period to raise money and awareness for CALM, and hopefully improving our own mental wellbeing at the same time! With fundraising events being cancelled due to the pandemic, this charity needs our help more than ever - help fund CALM's life-saving helpline and webchat. Just £8 pays for a call that could turn someone’s life around. We understand that times are tough, however if you would like to donate, please visit our JustGiving funding page, where any donation is extremely appreciated. Stay tuned to socials for updates on our progress!               


The Money Trap – Why you should avoid progressing in salary without progressing in experience

So, I am going to tell you a story about an Audit professional in a small accountancy firm in London…  This Audit professional is very keen to progress their career and when they finally finish the ACA, they receive an offer from a bigger firm that gives them access to a range of sectors, better experience, bigger brand on the CV, more audit, more experience to be surrounded by etc. The offer is a good one! They currently receive a £38,000 salary and the firm have offered them £45,000 + bonuses & benefits. They are really happy, they resign within minutes and then every Partner comes into the room and they demand they stay, the Partners in the firm love them, the firm is pushing for them to be a Partner one day and here is an offer for £50,000 as a Manager! Excellent! The audit professional reluctantly accepts the counter offer, but what they didn’t realise was that the Manager title doesn’t actually come with any different experience. They are still leading audits as a Senior, not directly managing clients or a team. A year later, they realise they still want to move to a bigger firm, partnership isn’t coming, and so they start looking for a Manager role and their current firm has already increased the current salary to £52,500. Suddenly, the audit professional finds they receive very little interest from other firms for Manager roles (as they do the work of a Manager). They get frustrated with recruiters explaining that a move as a Senior is more likely and the possibility of taking a salary drop. They continue to hold out but get no success with any of the bigger firms. The audit professional results in getting an offer of £48,000 as an Audit Senior and their current firm counter-offering with £55,000 again. Here we are again, in this same circle, should they fall for the money trap yet again?​ This tale is common, one that I have come across many times every year and I feel it is my responsibility to widen the awareness of small experience and high salaries. This is not just for audit, this is for all professions and sectors. It’s not just counter-offers, it’s starting offers and just overpaying out of desperation. It is far easier (and much cheaper) for a firm struggling to find staff, to offer you £5k-£10k more and the promise of progression or a fancy job title than to say ok, good luck and scour the market for another Audit Senior (recruitment fee, training, time out of Partner/Manager schedules). It pains me to say this but it is possible their interests come far above yours. That is cynical but I have seen it time and time again – “you will be made a Partner within a year”... to be a Partner you need portfolio management, business development experience, a large network developed over years - do you have this? Always be conscious of your skill level, role and salary. It’s great you are getting a raise but is it ridiculous that you are doing the same job to the same standard, not learning anything new and now earning £15,000 more than you were when you started? Probably. My golden rule would be to make sure you are conscious of how much you are developing, how much you have to learn, the internal structure of your organisation (does progression come with change or just a title?) and be honest with yourself. If you find yourself in the position where you are pricing yourself out of the audit market, do not panic but be reasonable. You may have to drop down in title, you may have to drop in salary – short term pain for long term gain; if it gets you to the right firm and the start of a big learning curve, it’s worth it! The key thing to consider is your long term goal, as difficult as it is, take the money out of the decision and consider which opportunity pushes you closer to where you aim to be. If I or any of my team at Pro-Finance can help you with any of your audit and finance  recruiting needs or advise you on your next steps in your career, please give me a call on 020 7269  6357


Onboarding: “the action or process of integrating a new employee into an organisation” - PKF Littlejohn

With what has been a whirlwind nine months during this current pandemic, many organisations have adapted to new ways of working, new technologies and new work structures. Dominic Watt, Managing Consultant at Pro-Tax speaks with Karen Soo (HR and Recruitment Specialist) from PKF Littlejohn and discusses how they reacted to lockdown and getting back to hiring ways with a newly reformed onboarding system. The importance of a good onboarding cannot be underestimated. This is the opportunity for employers to ensure that new employees are engaged from the get-go. With hiring processes being both time-consuming and costly, it is an absolute must to prevent any early stage disengagement.   In March 2020, the UK government announced a national lockdown and what followed was the largest economic recession since the Great Depression. It came as no surprise that recruitment freezes were seen across the nation.  Uncertainty loomed and nobody knew what was about to be faced in the coming months. However, for PKF Littlejohn it was more of a pause and reflection before they turned the ‘hiring taps’ back on. The business had to face the facts that getting 100% interaction, as you do with a face-to-face onboarding, may be something of the past and had to act efficiently. With an already agile workplace and last year’s investment in a new IT infrastructure, PKF Littlejohn managed to adapt with ease and have really hit the nail on the head. Being in the mindset of embracing technology and moving with the times has certainly helped. In terms of change, they had an already robust onboarding programme for new starters but had to tweak things slightly. The most critical change was around “over-training and over-communicating, regardless of level of seniority.” Having more touch points throughout the day has ensured those new colleagues felt fully supported during those critical first few weeks. In addition to this, they continue to draw up fully comprehensive schedules and ensure all meetings are booked with relevant members of the business in advance. This even comes down to administrative support and IT to ensure everything runs smoothly, all voices are heard and due to them having an enhanced structured approach. With years of experience in HR and Recruitment, a key ‘top tip’ from Karen is to "work to the strengths of the technology available", even more so as we head towards 2021 and the ‘new norm’ to prevent the business from falling behind, the show must go on as they say..  Since lockdown, all the firm’s interviews have been conducted via Zoom. This has had a positive impact and improved the overall candidate experience. As well as this, interviewing processes have become easier with more general availability to arrange a video call over having to attend a face- to-face interview. In summary (with the pandemic not disappearing anytime soon) it is paramount to adopt crucial changes to business procedures, especially when it comes to the recruitment process and onboarding. At the end of the day, you do not get a second chance to make a first impression!  Dominic is having daily conversations with many hiring organisations to ensure he is best advised on market situations. For any help with your recruitment needs, or further discussion on how to best onboard your teams, please contact Dominic on 020 7269 6310 or email


60 Seconds with: Stephanie Fielding, Global Tax Director at Bupa

Stephanie Fielding is the Global Tax Director at Bupa, one of the UK's leading healthcare specialists and a globally renowned brand. Stephanie speaks with Jay Sky, Senior Consultant at Pro-Tax about life at Bupa, and its response to Covid-19, advice on managing large teams remotely, and the tips for anyone looking for a career with Bupa.  Bupa is a brand name with little need for introduction. But for anybody who isn’t aware – what is it that Bupa do?  Bupa’s purpose is helping people live longer, healthier, happier lives. With no shareholders, we reinvest profits to benefit our current and future customers. We are an international health insurance and provision business. Health insurance accounts for the major part of our business with 18m customers and contributes 74% of revenue. We operate clinics, dental centres and hospitals in some markets, and we run aged care businesses in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Spain. We directly employ around 83,000 people, principally in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Chile, Poland, Hong Kong, Turkey, Brazil, the US, Middle East and Ireland. We also have associate businesses in Saudi Arabia and India.  What does your role at Bupa include, and what do you enjoy about your work?  I am Bupa’s Global Tax Director and lead a team of high calibre people around the world. I am passionate about supporting our organisation to serve our customers. I really enjoy leading people and developing them. I also run Bupa’s Finance Graduate programme which is so fulfilling to see people's development. In addition, I really enjoy the sheer variety of the work we do from ensuring Bupa is compliant, supporting M&A and innovation, managing Tax Authority enquiries and a variety of other transactions and projects. The team is forward-looking, which makes us well placed to deal with the constantly evolving tax environment. We operate with a mindset of continuous improvement so that we remain relevant and, importantly, that we have strong governance in place and that we are always customer focused in everything we do.   How would you describe the culture of the tax team at Bupa?  I would describe the culture as inclusive, diverse, respectful and a real sense of team effort. We work hard but also enjoy the social aspect (well pre-Covid). Globally, we are a really connected team and work together to tackle challenges. We also tend to operate in a “boundary less” way, utilising our skills where needed rather than reporting lines which has served us well over the years. When we recruit, culture is one of the most important factors we consider (i.e. will the individuals fit with the existing culture in a positive way).  You’ve been in a tax leadership position with Bupa since 2007, between Australia and the UK. Thinking back, what made you join initially, and what learning milestones have there been for you along the way? I originally joined Bupa through an acquired company in Australia. Bupa’s presence in Australia at the time was small, with no tax team, so this acquisition followed by the large insurance acquisition 6 months later, required a dedicated tax function, which I led building the team, process and systems from the ground up. I liked the fact that Bupa was expanding globally and knew that this would lead to interesting opportunities and the ability for myself to develop. It was a big job, but it was an amazing opportunity and it was in this role that I learned the importance of good leadership and relationships and having the right people with the right skills. Bupa is a matrix management organisation so the key to making an impact and getting things done is good stakeholder management across the matrix environment. This was especially true when I moved over to take the role in London. To be successful, you need to always “step into the shoes” of your stakeholders locally. If you understand what is important to them, you will understand how to be a good business partner. In addition, I would say that having worked within a business unit and then at Group, it helps to understand both perspectives when undertaking my role and any course of action.  I would also again highlight the importance of creating a good culture, which fosters individuals to perform at their best and empowering people for success by providing an environment of continuous improvement.  Remaining relevant – constantly looking ahead so we don’t become complacent and can deal with the ever-changing environment. Our mantra is business led not tax led.  What has been the response to Covid-19 at Bupa?  Bupa’s priority has been to focus on the welfare of our customers, our people and society, and play our part in government and public health responses to Covid-19. Our hospitals and clinics supported the national public health response across different countries, treating Covid-19 patients and providing capacity to the public health systems. Our people have played a huge part in the Covid-19 response, working on the front line to support customers and contribute to the national responses. Over half of the people Bupa employs worldwide are clinicians and carers, and many are part of the public health efforts. Our priority is to continue to keep our people safe and well so they, in turn, can care for patients where we have hospitals as well as residents in our care homes and villages.  We have rapidly adapted to the new normal. To do so, we significantly expanded our telehealth and digital healthcare services so customers could continue to access care and advice from our nurses, GPs and consultants by telephone and video link. We have also seen record levels of calls to our helplines and use of online resources, particularly for support on mental health and wellbeing. In every country we operate in, we’re responding to the new and emerging needs of individuals and organisations. We have taken a range of targeted actions including delaying approved premium increases, reviewing excess clauses and providing support for those experiencing financial hardship.  We swiftly enacted remote working capabilities wherever possible and nearly all our people worldwide have been able to continue to work effectively through the pandemic. We have introduced new technologies to enhance collaboration and connectivity. In some countries we are returning to the office but in a safe and measured way, with new processes and procedures to ensure we stay safe and well.  We are also playing our part in the communities in which we operate. We are engaging with local and national community partners through our Bupa Foundations and through volunteering and fundraising to support their work at this difficult time.  I am immensely proud of how Bupa has responded and adapted and have personally found it rewarding to be part of the Covid response team and see first-hand how we have put people and customers first.  How have you and the wider tax team at Bupa adjusted to the remote working model?  In many respects the remote model is “normal” for the wider team as we have tax teams located in many different countries around the world, so we have always worked remotely. However, strangely, working from home has meant we are more connected than ever as we make a concerted effort to catch up regularly as a team and individually, and the introduction of Microsoft teams has led to easier collaboration and is working really well for us. It has improved efficiency and connectivity, so we don’t really notice not being in the office. The only real downside is the social aspect, we all miss that, but under the circumstances I am really proud of how the team has responded and continued to deliver and add value.  You mentioned previously that your role is not so much focused on the ‘tax technical’ as it is on the leadership of a large team. What advice/insight might you offer tax leaders who were less accustomed to managing sizable teams on a remote basis?  Focus on culture, make a concerted effort to catch up regularly from both a work and social perspective. Be available and check in with individuals. Keep the focus on the customer, be clear on priorities and critical activity and be agile to adjust to changing conditions or environment.  What kind of person might you keep an eye out for in the Tax Team?  Commercially focused individuals that have the confidence to deal with people at all levels across the organisation. Business led rather than tax led. Individuals that are customer and outcome focused. Individuals that are keen to develop.  What advice might you offer to anyone considering applying for a role in the tax team at Bupa?  Have a focus on business rather than just showcasing tax technical skill Have a sense of “work hard, play hard” Expect the unexpected Be agile and forward thinking Be keen to develop. For more information on this article, please contact Jay Sky on 020 7269 6343 or


Pat Keogh - Pro Group - October 2020 Update

Here is a quick update on the markets we cover from Pro-Recruitment Group's Managing Director, Pat Keogh. It's no surprise that all five of our markets, tax, legal, finance, marketing and HR slowed down earlier this year, but we were really encouraged when we brought everyone back fully in September, there were clear signs and green shoots across all five divisions. It was slightly stunted when we had to go back to a work-from-home strategy, but we are hoping that will lift soon. That said, all markets are still responding well. A lot of organisations are taking the opportunity to obnboard remotely. There are a few clients who are more gung-ho than others, and some a recruiting in serious numbers, which is pleasing to see. On the candidate side, unfortunately there are a lot who are now immediately available, through no fault of thier own, but due to current market conditions. There are plenty of skilled professionals who are immediately available, so its a great time to recruit if that is your strategy. We are producing a monthly market-tracker which will allow us to keep you informed of recruiting trends, covering professionals seeking new roles and opportunities available on the market. Do sign up to receive our newsletters. We haven't seen a single market without an increase, understandably it has been relatively flat market since March, but more recently we are seeing monthly increases in jobs being registered with us, which is very encouraging. The approach we have taken as a business is that we are looking to help kick-start the economy. Of course, whilst balancing the safety of our teams and those around us. We are currently working remotely, whilst allowing those who prefer to safely come into the office the opportunity to do so. This is paramount in us ensuring we are servicing all of our clients and candidates alike. I hope this gives you a bit of an insight into where the market is at. Feel free to pick up the phone to me directly, I am more than happy to share market intel and looking to share this information as regularly as we can. We are always here and our lines of communications are always here to help you with your reruitment needs. For now, stay safe and speak soon!


60 Seconds With: Laura Savory, Deputy Director of Community Fundraising at Great Ormond Street Hospital

Laura Savory is Deputy Director of Community Fundraising at Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity (GOSH Charity). Laura has worked for the organisation in a variety of roles in its community and events team for the last ten years. Prior to this, she worked in the fundraising team at Sue Ryder. Laura speaks with Nicholas Ogden at Pro-Marketing about her role at GOSH and sharing her advice to anyone looking to move into the Not-for-Profit sector Tell me about yourself, how your career started and what you do at GOSH Charity At the start of my career I’d planned to work in sustainable tourism, but the role I’d lined up sadly fell through and instead I started working as a sales executive. From this I quickly learnt I was quite good at making money, but that I’d like to do it for a cause I cared about. I applied for lots of jobs in the charity sector, but struggled to get a foot in the door, until I met the head of events at Sue Ryder, where I started volunteering. I loved it and went from volunteering to being their challenge events manager where I did everything from helping the charity embark upon its first ever London Marathon with five gold bond places, through to building the national challenge events portfolio. An opportunity came up at GOSH Charity to manage the challenge events programme and I took it. I grew the challenge’s income from one million pounds to four million pounds, a portfolio that included our biggest mass participation event - RBC Race for the Kids. I was then promoted to manage the community events team which I found to be a baptism of fire as I quickly learnt that community events is quite a different space to challenge events! But I loved it, and I was subsequently able to move into a role managing the whole department, a post I’ve been in for around four years now. Why community fundraising? It was partly luck as it was the opportunity that presented itself to me, but I’m so happy it did as this feels like an area of fundraising that really suits me. I am an extrovert (ENTP if you are interested), I enjoy getting stuck in, I really like talking to people and I’m also motivated by the idea of supporting others to meet their own goals, which ultimately is what this area of fundraising is all about. It’s members of the public who are pushing themselves to do something to raise funds for the hospital, using their time and energy, and I find that very inspiring. In a crowded market, what does GOSH Charity do to stand out, how is it different/unique/special in the market? As fundraisers we are lucky that the areas we are raising money towards become very tangible; you can stand in the hospital buildings that transform the care children receive, you see the state of the art piece of equipment, you get the chance to talk to staff whose posts are funded by charitable giving and you see the impact of their work. You can touch it, feel it, smell it. I think at GOSH Charity, that’s something we really appreciate. From a personal perspective what really stands out to me about Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) is the breadth of the work it does. It’s caring for children with the rarest and most complex conditions, and that inherently places it in a very unique position. I grew up watching the Wishing Well Appeal, which raised funds for the hospital, and now I’ve worked for the charity that supports the hospital for a quarter of my life. It’s a very special place. I think in theory it would be easy to lose sight of how special it as after being here for so long, but you just don’t. How big is your team and what advice would you give anyone applying to be part of the team? In terms of our charity’s profile and how much we try and raise, we’re a relatively large organisation. But in terms of our staff, we are relatively small; before social distancing measures we all worked from one office five minutes away from the hospital itself, and it’s always been really easy to pop over and chat to a colleague to get something done. My team is one department in a fundraising directorate that includes individual giving, philanthropy, corporate partnerships and special events, so there’s quite a breadth. We’re hardworking and professional, but also very supportive and caring, which I’m really proud of. My advice – you need to be someone who’s prepared to talk to people, to pick up the phone or to go to the hospital to meet in person. I also need you to think more broadly than community fundraising, because the supporter you are working with is not one dimensional. We need to see every opportunity we can and think about how to build a really positive relationship with the fundraisers we’re supporting. At the end of the day, it’s all about people and the relationships we have with them. Putting the supporter at the heart of everything we do is really important. How would your team describe you? Determined. Informal. Driven, in that I have high expectations.  I hope they would say I am accessible. We’re all on a journey, I’m not perfect, and I’ve definitely grown – in the last few years in particular. I would hope that a colleague answering this question now might say something different that they would a few years ago, which would reflect my development as a leader and a colleague. What advice would you give to your younger self? Pause, slow down and forgive yourself a bit more. I have a habit of rushing in! I think my biggest piece of advice is that it’s ok to be vulnerable, you don’t have to know everything, and it’s ok to ask for help. How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has changed or adapted fundraising? I think it depends on what type of fundraising you’re talking about. For example trust fundraisers will have a very different experience of change to those who work in public fundraising. In community and events, we’ve had to pivot everything that we do. We were quite a digitally focused team before the pandemic, but it has sped up digitisation of our culture and fundraising. And as a sector we have to catch up quickly, because the pandemic is not only changing how we work, it’s changing how the public thinks of and engages with charities. For example, I think the pace at which we will now move towards a cashless society is speeding up, and that poses big questions for community cash based fundraising. There has also been a big shift towards supporting hyperlocal causes, this will require larger national charities to really challenge themselves on how they demonstrate impact and engage people at such a micro level. The surge of mutual aid groups through the pandemic was not only really heartening to see from a personal point of view, but was fascinating from a professional perspective.     What advice would you give to someone looking to make a move into a not-for-profit organisation from another sector (especially during this pandemic)? People are often pleasantly surprised by how values driven the sector is. I think we all acknowledge the impact that Covid-19 has had on fundraising, and so for many organisations it will be a tough few months ahead. With that in mind, my advice would be to choose a cause that you are really passionate about. If you’re moving into the sector it’s because you want to see change happen and at this time the change could be really meaningful. If you feel like you’re really part of something by working towards something you really care about, it’ll be much easier. If you were not working for a charity or not-for-profit organisation, what would the dream be? I think I’d be doing something outdoorsy, where I could be hands on and get stuck in. I did once consider training to become a landscape gardener! Any final words of advice for people looking to progress their career in the charity sector? Right now, be adaptable. Be willing to try new things, be willing to explore different avenues in fundraising. I think we will all be stronger for having a diverse and wide range of skills, so say yes to opportunities. Thanks for your time, and as a little treat for all of our readers - do you have any guilty pleasures you can share with us? I don’t think pleasures should be guilty! I’m also an oversharer, so nothing is really that secret. At a push, perhaps I would say watching or listening to a true crime documentary whilst snaffling a bag of crisps. It turns out I am fascinated by serial killers (hopefully because they are very different to me!), and I do a love a frazzle. For more information on this article, or to find out how you can get involved in Pro-Marketing’s 60 Second interview series, contact Nicholas Ogden on 020 7269 6338 or


5 Tips to Improve your Mental Wellbeing - Finding the Diamonds in the Dirt

In reflection of Weld Mental Health Day on 10th October, its been highlighte that mental health awareness deserves greater attention in 2020, for the level of paradox which this year has brought if nothing else. While we have never been more accessible due to remote working technologies, we have never been this far apart by prohibitions on togetherness.  While the corporate awareness for mental health seems to be higher than ever, it is difficult to imagine civilised working conditions which could bring more widespread lows. Equally, with all the negativity and threat brought by 2020 so far, there are opportunities for us to enter next year in some ways perhaps better than we started. Here are some ways we take the negatives of this year to better our mental wellbeing: 1 - Go Back to Bed The absence of the 9-5 office presenteeism has provided the working world with an opportunity for us to look after our natural rhythms once again. The physical, mental and emotional benefits of proper sleep cannot be understated. Neuroscientist Matthew Walker gives a fascinating account of the scientific revolution currently underway, away from disease, medication, road accidents, sports injuries and poor memory, to the good old-fashioned prescription of learning to have a good night’s sleep. His insight, knowledge and passion for the subject is frankly contagious and this interview comes highly recommended for anyone not yet bought into the astounding importance of getting proper shut-eye every night. Dr Walker explains we naturally have different sleeping patterns which we need to be aware of and cater to. Evolutionary theory tells us that having ‘night owls’ and ‘morning larks’ helped our survival in tribal years by minimising the time spent at night unconscious and vulnerable to threats such as predation. However, the traditional early-bird hours of the corporate world have massively disadvantaged the ‘night owls’ amongst us, who naturally feel, think, exercise and live much better when they sleep later and wake up later. Further to increased remote working, if there is one positive which the corporate world can take from the lockdown, it would be flexibility in staggered working hours. Having staggered commute and entry/exit times from the office can help us restore the balance on our body clock demands between the owls and larks in the office. If we are talking about optimising the body clock and mindset, proper sleep comes first. Whereas sleep was once understood as a ‘third pillar’ after diet and physical exercise, sleep is now becoming more widely accepted as the baseline to healthy living, even with priority beyond such factors. Alongside the chance to restore proper physical activity levels, working from home gives us the opportunity to rid ourselves of screens before bedtime. Walker advises we set an alarm for sleeping and waking times, turning off all the screens which have already filled our days and picking up a good book. For those who believe they can sleep 4-5 hours a night and wake up the next day without serious short-term and long-term cost to their bodies, minds, memory, and general abilities – think again. “Expressed as a percentage and rounded to a whole number, the number of people who can operate normally at under eight hours of sleep is zero”. Learn more here.  2 - Befriend Your Stress Learning to befriend our friend goes a long way in not exacerbating cortisol levels. This is contrasted to further stressing about how stressed we are – a nasty feedback loop to fall into. Stress exists on a physical level to help us survive. Upon realisation of a threat, our heart rates increase and blood flows to the relevant body areas in preparation of ‘fight or flight’. Periodic stress has remained in the gene pool by helping us avoid being eaten or beaten. In this way, stress is very much our ally. Having said that, we all need a break from even the best of friends from time to time. The contemporary, chronic stress of remaining in a tense ‘fight or flight’ mode in front of the computer screen all day needs to be managed. No account on stress management should be without at least a mention for mindfulness, which advocates us to welcome bodily emotions such as stress. The concept of mindfulness can be put figuratively: if to imagine our thoughts and feelings as a river with constant flow, to be mindful is to sit on the riverbank and observe the current, rather than fighting upstream or being dragged wherever the current takes us. Put literally, it is better to observe stress impartially, than it is to fight against or act on every stressful thought. The underpinning principle of mindfulness is simple to phrase, but not to realise: to become aware and accepting of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions as they occur. Becoming closer to our automatic mental processes in this way affords us a level of detachment from them, which in turn, greater choice for which impulses, feelings and behaviours to follow. Mindfulness has been a growing area of attention in the west over the past 20 years or so, with an increased focus and praise for mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) interventions in educational and workplace settings. You can find an accessible, excellent starting point for a self-guided, eight-week MBSR course here, by Penman, Williams & Williams. The second aspect of befriending stress involves treating your stress with kindness. Dr David Hamilton argues for empathy and kindness as the physiological opposite of stress. Hamilton gives an emphatic account and walks through the science of kindness and empathy, illustrating the beneficial outcomes for not only the receivers, but also the givers and observers of kindness. It is peculiar that in times of crisis we quickly raise the barriers in the interests of self-preservation, just when the need for kindness and empathy is at its greatest. Looking out for ourselves often comes to the detriment of others (recalling the image of empty supermarket shelves), though there is certainly a balance to be found. The good news is that Dr. Hamilton believes the behaviours and benefits of kindness, empathy and compassion can be learned and realised. Go out of your way by practicing just one kind deed a day which you would usually do without. 3 - Talk About Your Problems Simply talking about our problems is an everyday therapy that we should all have access to. Between cognitive behavioural therapies (CBT), psychotherapies, counselling, and a variety of other psychologically-led interventions for mental wellbeing, there is a roughly equal outcome for each across a range of mental health conditions. In other words, regardless of the form of therapy used, people tend to make similar recovery rates. While this ‘equivalence paradox’ might seem to discredit the individual therapies as claiming a better approach, an underlying mechanism to each of these wellbeing approaches might be accessible to all of us – perhaps by simply talking about our problems. Love him or hate him, the increasingly controversial clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson offers an interesting insight to the equivalence paradox (though not named specifically) in his bestselling book “12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos”. Peterson reasons that much of the time we consider ourselves to be ‘thinking’, we are merely ‘experiencing’ the world in passive mode. The difference, as he puts forward, is found in language and dialogue. True, sophisticated thought involves reasoning through issues with words, whether spoken or silent. Simply verbalising our concerns helps us to mentally define problems and reason through them purposefully. Sigmund Freud famously used drew on the power of speech in his ‘free association’ technique. This involved instructing people to speak aloud by themselves for an hour or so, while he sat back and listened and smoked his pipe, relentlessly. The central message here: putting our worries, concerns and problems into words helps us reason them through and arrive at acceptance and meaning, if not a solution. 4 - Face your Fears The stoic practice of premeditation malorum – or ‘the premeditation of evils’ – dates back thousands of years. The naysayer who tells you not to spend time dwelling about what might go wrong clearly never picked up Seneca for their bedtime reading. Seneca, amongst other stoics, advocated for listing the terrible things which might happen to us. The reasoning here is that rationalising our fears helps us in addressing them to the best of our ability and leaving little justification for further worry. A working example is in the interview context. I actively encourage the candidates I work with to list as many weaknesses/disadvantages they can see to their candidacy, prior to the big interview. The intention here is to deal with any underlying anxieties which arise and put our best foot forward. Some of these self-perceived weaknesses are agreed as unrealistic once thought through. Others are realistic but are topics we can prepare for. The remainder may be realistic though completely uncontrollable, at which point the stoic interviewee would find solace in having covered their blindsides. Tim Ferris gives an excellent account on the premeditation of evils here, alongside making a case for why defining your fears is of comparable importance to goal-setting. Stoicism aside, a wealth of literature exists on the virtues of facing our fears more generally – big or small. Even at work, we each have mundane fears to face which will sap us of our energy if we let them intimidate us from the corner of our ‘to-do list’, untouched. Brian Tracey offered the metaphor of ‘eating the frog’. Tracey describes the ‘frog’ as the dreaded task each of us come across at work each day. This frog will sit on the plate in front of us, staring and croaking continuously until we just swallow it. Often, the fear of eating this frog is much worse than the taste, and the satisfaction of finally clearing your plate, is more rewarding than the creature was disgusting. Peculiarly, it is often the things we fear which we need to do the most, for our own wellbeing. 5 - Find Meaning Have you ever tried keeping a gratitude journal? There are two rules:  Write down 5 things you are grateful for, every morning and every evening.  Only list a reason for gratitude once (for what memory will allow).  When first listing the obvious things which we are most immediately grateful for, this exercise initially seems easy and a little pointless. Day by day however, the practice becomes more demanding. Within a week, you end up scouring for the “diamonds in the dirt” – the things we usually take for granted. While there are a number of benefits found in gratitude writing generally, I have found the benefit of specific exercise as training the mind toward a mentality of abundance. In a short space of time, I found my thoughts automatically darting toward find the positives instead of negatives in a situation, and similarly toward the opportunities instead of the threats. Perhaps we should be grateful that we have negatives and threats for us to do something with in the first place. At length, Peterson explains the chaos of pain and suffering in life as an inevitability which we will all face at some point. To live with the expectation of continual happiness is downright precarious. Inevitably, something is guaranteed to go wrong. Peterson makes the compelling case that it is our sense of purpose, or worthwhile cause, is what gets us through life (and the suffering) with it still being meaningful. What do you live and work ‘for’ today? If money was no object (for some, this is the case today – and for all, this was once the case), would you choose to continue making the contribution to the world which you currently do? ‘Purpose’ is distinct from a ‘goal’ or ‘objective’, as the former implies that what we are working towards is something worthwhile which will have a positive impact in some way. Some are lucky enough to have a job they find meaningful, while some need to squint a little to arrive at some purpose to what they do. More than a few sacrifice a would-be purpose altogether to keep our bank accounts afloat. We can take this chance to step back at what we are contributing towards, alongside whether it might be time for us to change for the better. From these five tips, we have seen some examples of how we can make positive from a less than ideal situation: fixing our sleeping patterns, befriending our stress, verbalising our problems, facing our fears and finding a purpose. Each of these suggestions involve finding ‘the diamonds in the dirt’, and for this, we need some dirt to trawl through, to begin with. Additionally, each of these suggestions illustrate how we can take personal control of our wellbeing, to an extent, and that sometimes it is simpler to change ourselves than it is to change the world around us. 



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