Our guest on Career Relaunch® podcast episode 91 is a lawyer turned workplace wellbeing consultant Tom Keya. If you’re like me, your stereotypical image of lawyers may involve fast-track professionals in slick suits working at a high-rise office in a big city, working with high-profile clients, and earning lots of money—the kind of stuff you might see on TV.
Tom’s career in a law firm kind of started like this. He lived and breathed the life of a high-flying lawyer in central London, earning a high salary with big bonuses, and in many ways, he felt like he was at the top of his game.
However, the pressure of being a high-performing lawyer began to whittle away at his mental and physical well-being. He lost his health, his purpose, and self-worth by ruthlessly trying to succeed in an intense industry. After eventually suffering a complete mental breakdown, he took a year-long career break and decided to stop practicing law entirely.
Tom discusses his vicious and dangerous spiral that involved drugs, alcohol, and pushing his body and life to the point of total collapse. He also explains the realities of corporate life in a big city and what he did to rescue himself from what became an unhealthy downward spiral. Finally, I’ll share my perspectives on how I think about where I want my career to head in the future during the Mental Fuel® segment.
Key Career Takeaways
- Your job has a direct impact on your lifestyle. You must remain mindful of whether your work is taking your life in the direction you desire.
- Hitting rock bottom often forces you to reassess who you are and what you want for your life and career. However, paying attention early on to any signs that suggest you’re headed in the wrong direction can help you avoid a lot of unnecessary pain.
- Healing in the environment where you got sick is very difficult. At the same time, leaving even a bad situation behind can be quite scary. If an environment is unhealthy for you, you owe it to yourself to explore other avenues.
During this episode’s Mental Fuel® segment, I talked about identifying what’s most important to you at work. Pinpoint three things most important for you to have in your professional life.
Then, think about how you want things to look across these priorities exactly one year from now. Decide which things you want to refrain from pursuing, to simply maintain as-is, or to proactively obtain. Then, shape your efforts and actions accordingly.
About Tom Keya, Workplace Wellbeing Consultant
Former lawyer Tom Keya is the owner and chief executive of a corporate wellbeing consultancy and employee wellbeing technology platform Soulh Tech, and a keynote impact investing speaker at the Impact 17+1 Club.
He now works with companies to monitor the health and happiness of their employees and improve employee well-being, happiness, and retention.
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Interview Segment Music Credits
Episode Interview Transcript
Teaser (first ~15s): The mission to the top requires this much effort. And if you don’t do it, you won’t make it to the top. As you perform better, you’re rewarded better. As you work harder, you progress faster. No human being can sustain that level of energy.
Joseph: Okay, Tom. Welcome to the Career Relaunch Podcast. It is fantastic to have you on the show.
Tom: [03:56] It’s great to be here.
Joseph: Let’s start off. Before we dive into your career as a lawyer, and now, your focus on workplace well-being. Let’s talk a little bit about what you’re focused on right now in your career and your life. What is keeping you busy?
Tom: [04:12] First of all, thank you so much, Joseph, for inviting me on your podcast. I’m very excited to share my experience with as many people as I can. Presently right now, I’m working on a corporate well-being platform, as well as doing business development for a lot of professional services firms out here.
Fundamentally, what I do is I go to businesses and I carry out surveys of their staff. Not necessarily to teach them about stress, anxiety, or anything like that. The sort of usual stuff that people do to take a box. But rather to provide CEOs with a proper map of where their staff indexes as at a given time. And we do two types of surveys. The first one is, of course, one about the building. How people are feeling about being in the building. The second one is their mental health and how they’re feeling.
Separate to that and similar side, I work at Rothberg LLC, which is a professional services firm in Dubai. They do a lot of company formations in Dubai, as well as just general advice for companies and families that are here. I do a lot of business development for them.
Joseph: Very interesting. And it sounds like this well-being topic is extremely top of mind right now, especially post-pandemic or I guess, we’re currently still in the pandemic. But I know in most of the surveys I’m looking at, because I focus on career change, a lot of people are starting to look much more at emotional and physical well-being in the workplace. It sounds like you are in the right space at this moment in time.
Could I also ask, Tom, just a little bit about your personal background? I know you mentioned you’re in Dubai right now. Where are you from and where do you spend your time these days?
Tom: [05:49] I was raised in the UK. I’m ethnically Persian. But most of the time, I’m between the two countries. I’m in Dubai a lot longer than the UK, but I try and get to the UK at least one or two months a year just to carry on with what I’m doing in terms of mental health. And it’s very interesting you said that mental health is really in these days. I’ve been probably suffering from this for a good 15 years exactly.
Joseph: We will talk about that.
Tom: [06:15] And for the first five years, I’ve dedicated my life to it. So it was good to catch it right before the pandemic. And I think a lot of people these days are focused on mental health and well-being for two reasons. One, because of the pandemic and everything that arose from there. But also because working from home has now made the employers compete with the comforts of someone’s home. It’ll be interesting to both explore on this conversation.
Joseph: Let’s do this, Tom. Why don’t we first of all go back and talk about your former career as a corporate lawyer. Because I know you haven’t always been professionally focused on workplace well-being. But I know that you also dealt with some issues personally as you were going through your career journey. But why don’t we first of all just start with your career history. And could you just tell me about your time as a corporate lawyer, and then we’ll move forward from there?
Tom: [06:58] There are two types of lawyers in the world. There are those that want to succeed in life and enter the city and play with the big boys, let’s say. And there are those who seek justice for people. I was probably the former than the latter. My father died when I was very, very young. So financial security was very, very big on my mind.
So, I entered the city. I worked at a very good city law firm for I’d say around 12 years, give or take. I worked at the highest level in the sense that I worked through extremely long hours to become a partner in that business and lead effectively a subdivision, focusing on basically, fundamentally, banks and family offices.
Joseph: What kind of hours are we talking about here when you say you’re working pretty hard? Can you just describe like how many days a week? How many hours a day are we talking?
Tom: [07:47] If you want to succeed as a lawyer, you have to treat it like a lifestyle. It’s sort of impossible to treat it as a job. If you want to work 9-to-5, law is definitely not the job for you. So, give or take, 5 a.m. till about 10:30 p.m. was where my hours, give or take. We worked different time zones. I certainly had to get up quite early for my middle eastern clients. And then, you work throughout the day. Pretty much non-stop.
Joseph: Wow! Okay. And this is five days a week, six days a week?
Tom: [08:22] Five days a week, definitely. And then, over the weekend, you’d probably spend four or five hours. Either doing business development meeting some of the clients who can only meet each other on the weekend or more likely catching up on work to make your Monday morning just a little bit gentler.
Joseph: Rightly or wrongly, I guess my perception of the world of law is driven by A, my direct experience working with lawyers may be related to my business or maybe if I’m buying a house. But, probably more often than not, just kind of what I see on TV. And that may not be fair about, you know, “Law and Order,” “Suit.” Like how much do you feel — though, obviously, it’s not an accurate representation of the real world, but what were your perceptions going into law versus your direct experience as a lawyer?
Tom: [09:06] Your perception when you want to enter the legal career is that you’re going to be surrounded by very, very intelligent people. You’re going to be surrounded by academics. And, you’re going to be given these big complex problems to solve, and deals to close, and cases to litigate, and all of these wonderful things that rightly like yourself you see on TV.
The reality of it is markedly different in the sense that — and this is right across all law firms. I’m not particularly picking on one firm or the other. I’m specifically choosing the general market is that you’re going to be dealing with a lot of people who have a lot of personal baggage. You’re going to be dealing with a lot of people who, because their identities are surrounded by law that by being say, for example, a senior person within a team, they effectively treat it like a feudal kingdom.
And also, there’s a lot of just paper pushing, you know. As a junior lawyer, you don’t do anything interesting right up until probably about three years qualified. Until then, you write the bundling papers, or filling out forms, or taking notes.
Tom: [10:10] You’ll be lucky to get a letter in and out of there. In your image that I’m going to walk in, they’re going to give me all this stuff very quickly crushed when someone says, “There’s 60 boxes in there. I need you to review every single one of them and, hopefully, find one a document that I’m looking for;” which always ends up being on the 65th box, right towards the end. And you take your tie off, you pull up your sleeves, and literally, you’re in a basement and looking through these dirty, disgusting files. Of course, that gives away my age. I think a lot of things are done electronically, but the principle is the same.
Joseph: I’m trying to just imagine you in the basement, doing this as you describe “paper pushing.” What was running through your head at that moment when you started to realize that this was your reality? Did you start to think about doing something else, or did you continue to push forward? What was your MO at the time?
Tom: [11:00] One of the common things lawyers face is imposter syndrome. Because you sort of think, “I’m not good enough for this job.” Certainly, when you’re reviewing those boxes, you don’t feel imposter syndrome.
Joseph: I don’t think I can handle this.
Tom: [11:13] I think the shock that enters the mind isn’t so much about the work you’re doing. Now, you could be very lucky and end up working for a nice person within the team. You, as a junior lawyer, could walk in, there’s super nice guys like, “Look, dude. I’m really sorry to put you through this, but 60 boxes for you to review. Trust me, we’ll go for a beer on Friday. I’ll make it up to you. But I really need you to pay very close attention.” Of course, you do need to pay close attention. Law is a very hazardous job. You miss that document; your client could lose a multi-million-pound case. You end up giving your all at a tedious task.
But in my case, for example, I was quite unlucky in the sense that I ended up working with not-so-pleasant people. There was one person who was awesome that I worked with. But you’re told, probably in very demeaning ways, to do your job. You’re treated very, very harshly. And into that, that makes you reconsider whether you want to do this. Because when you speak to other trainees at other law firms, they’re like, “Oh yeah. There’s this guy. He’s so horrible. He threw a stapler at me,” you know. You’re like, “Wow! Compared to him, I’ve got it pretty good.” But if this is the best out of all my friends, do I really want to do this? But the financial security point that I mentioned earlier really requires one to sort of step in and just take it.
Joseph: Now, before we talk about what impact all this had on you, mentally and physically, I did have one question that you alluded to when we first spoke, which was a dynamic that I think exists in many corporate environments, which is that unless you’re at the top of the food chain in an organization, you’re investing a lot of energy to try to get to the top. Could you describe what your experience was in, not only climbing the corporate ladder but wanting to climb the corporate ladder within a law firm?
Tom: [12:52] Basically, top of the food chain is exactly the only place you’ll feel comfortable. Of course, that’s when imposter syndrome kicks in. But if you want to play it very rough, you would be doing the backstabby way of, you know, “I’m going to try and bury this guy so, in comparison, I look better.” I always do this analysis where I say, “Look, envy is when you look at someone and you want to be like them or better. Jealousy is when you look at someone and you basically say, ‘Oh my God! I want to take him down,’ because I’m never going to be as good as that person.” Most lawyers tend to be envious, not jealous. So, there isn’t that much backstabbing really going on.
But what you do is you effectively backstab yourself. In the sense that you know that, “Look, if I want to get to the next stage, I won’t do it as 9-to-5. So, I need to be at 8:00 till 6:00. And you get in at 8:00, and see a whole bunch of people who’ve been there already for two hours. You know, the two hours ahead of you. You’ve come in an hour early. So you’re like, “You know what? I need to come in three hours earlier.”
And it’s not so much they’re deliberately trying to take you down or anything. Nothing like that is happening. It’s just they’re saying, “Look, the mission to the top requires this much effort. And if you don’t do it, you won’t make it to the top.” And this happened with me towards some of my cohorts. In the sense that I went past a lot of people that were probably two or three years ahead of me when I first started. So the rewards are visible. As you perform better, you’re rewarded better. As you work harder, you progress faster. There is no lie in that in any, any law firm. Unless you work for a very, very small law firm where there’s only one partner.
Joseph: As I’m hearing this, Tom, what I’m envisioning in my mind is a super stressful environment. And I’m also feeling this real need to achieve, and excel, and accelerate in your career. I’d like to shift gears here now and talk a little bit about the personal impact this had on you, and how you dealt with this personally.
When I’m thinking about the pace of law as you’re describing it, can you explain to me, beyond the work itself, what were some of the steps that you took to just maintain that pace?
Tom: [14:56] No human being can sustain that level of energy. It doesn’t really happen. The way it starts normally is for your early 20s, you can keep up. For your early 20s, generally speaking, what you do is you throw yourself into the fire and you’ve got a lot of capacity. You smash it out. And on Fridays, because you haven’t done anything all week because you’ve just been working or trying to do business development in the evenings, certainly within the British culture, the only way forward is Friday drinks. And that’s something I celebrate. I still do every now and again. It’s quite fun.
Go to the pub, get a couple of drinks, then a couple more drinks, then a couple more drinks. Of course, what then happens is you wake up on Saturday feeling rough. And as you get older, that waking up on Saturday gets worse and worse and worse. And to be able to keep up at this pace, you don’t necessarily within that environment realize that you have developed a mental health problem in the form of OCDs, addictions, et cetera. You wake up one day and you’re like, “Look, I just can’t physically get out of bed. Oh, it might be too many drinks last night.”
And, eventually, at some point somewhere, someone said, “Look, you know something. You know that guy down the corridor who’s keeping up with you? You know, he’s actually on drugs.” He’s either taking Ritalin or whatever, and that’s why he’s going up. We’re trying to compete organically against someone so synthetic. It starts with having one coffee. And that’s why I sort of discourage people drinking coffee because that’s how it all starts. That’s with having one coffee to eight cups a day. Then it goes from eight cups won’t do it. So then, you start entertaining other things.
I’m not saying that happens to everyone. But what I’m saying is when you’re exhausted and drinking tea or coffee is not keeping you awake, you then eventually turn to drugs. And I’m talking, obviously, very serious drugs here. And it comes to a Friday where you’re just completely drained, you can’t physically lift yourself, your friends are all like, “Tom, let’s go out for a couple of drinks.” And you’re like, “I just can’t do this.” And of course, what then happens is someone gives you something and suddenly you get on it, “Let’s go have fun!”
And what you’re basically doing here is you’re replacing happiness with fun. You equate fun being happiness. You’re like, “As long as I’m out on Friday until 4 a.m. in the morning, that means I’m enjoying my youth.” That’s what you basically start to think. And the next thing you know, that becomes almost habitual. It becomes a thing that, “Look, I can push it to the nth degree, but I know I’ve got something that can help me push it even further.” And that’s exactly where it goes wrong. That’s exactly when you’re like, “I’m unstoppable. I’m Immortal. I’m doing all these wonderful things.”
And, actually, you don’t realize this. You’re opening yourself up to effectively hell. Drugs and alcohol are a huge part of the city. And I think anyone who doesn’t talk about this openly is doing disservice. They’re not raising awareness of what is actually going on on the ground, and that’s just the fact.
Joseph: Just to get specific here, what kind of drugs are we talking about here and how long were you on these drugs for?
Tom: [17:49] For two years, I was probably experimenting with different drugs before I had a complete categorical breakdown.
Joseph: What? We’re talking cocaine? Are we talking —
Tom: [17:58] This is a typical example. For example, you decide that you want to go away for the weekend. And the way it really works is you work, you beast it, right until Friday evening. Okay? And now, you decide to take a flight to Ibiza to party with your friends. Because as I said earlier, what you’re doing is you’re equating fun with happiness. You’re basically saying, “As long as I’m partying, I’m happy.” You’re not saying, “happiness with everything around me.” Sort of like trying to run away. Sort of like trying to escape the reality of what you’re facing.
In that regard, you say great to seek this unbelievable happiness. I am going to stay awake. So you land in Ibiza, and the first thing someone does is gives you some coke. We take that. That helps you stabilize. And now, you’re going to the party where everyone’s just drinking MDMA. And what means sort of started accidentally. I went to Ibiza with a bunch of guys, and I didn’t know what was going on. And one of them gave me a bottle of water, and I drank it, and I was able to keep up for the entire two days. And then, someone said, “By the way, the water you drank was actually drugs. It was MDMA.”
Joseph: Okay, Tom. So at the risk of coming across as a bit naive and sounding like I’ve lived in a bubble my whole life. As someone myself who has never used illicit drugs or been around illicit drugs, or even seen that many drugs in my life, could you give me a sense of exactly how pervasive drug usage was amongst the people around you?
Tom: [19:24] Do a sample test of anyone working in the city, anyone. And out of 100 people, give or take, 80 would test positive.
Tom: [19:34] I would be surprised if it’s less. There are a lot of people I know who don’t, of course. But at any given time, 80 of the people working in the city, within service square mile or Wall Street, will be on something for sure. Because you could receive an email now at 7:30 a.m. in the morning, by 8:15, you get a Whatsapp from a client saying, “Hey, did you receive my email?” By 9:15, they expect the draft back. By 11:00, you send it to the other side. By 3:00, they send the response back. I mean how do you keep up with that place?
Joseph: It’s incredibly quick, yeah.
Tom: [20:14] And you sacrifice. Obviously, you don’t want to be high while you’re working. But I’ll touch on what happens when you take drugs a bit later. If you’re high while you’re working, then you’re going to be making some bad decisions. But what basically happens is you’ve partied very hard on the weekend. And now, you’re stealing the pain. Because what drugs do is they take you up, and then you come crashing down. And what you’re dealing with now at this stage is the calm down. It’s the anxiety, the depression, and everything that has come with it.
Put on top of that, the stress and the pressures of the working environment. The bad boss who wants to screw you, who comes to the office drunk at lunchtime, screaming at everyone. So what you then do is you turn to your doctor for some sort of mental health medication, right? That will basically be something like Xanax. In order to calm you down so you don’t have a panic attack within your working environment. Mixing Xanax with alcohol and drugs means that you’re basically going down this spiral, or you’re going to end up making some huge mistakes or doing something wrong.
But while you’re in that mindset, while you’re in that mood, all you want to do is get rid of the hard competition. You don’t think about the impact this is going to have on your decision-making skills. And come what may, on Friday, you’re still getting calls from your colleagues saying, “Let’s go for a couple of drinks. We got to have a couple of drinks, but we got to close this;” or “Tom, I’m really sorry that I screamed at you. I’ll make it up to you over a couple of drinks.” So you see? It creates its own environment.
Joseph: Given the fact that it sounds like this behavior is quite normalized and quite common and acceptable in the industry, at what point did you realize that something had to change for you?
Tom: [21:59] I think it all happened around five years ago. And if I genuinely told you, I can’t remember a lot of what happened five years ago during that nearly a whole year. But, basically, I think I tried to resign twice. I made like a couple of mistakes, and I tried to resign. And at the time my workplace, I was billing them you know millions a year. They were making a lot of money for me, so they didn’t really care. And I was dissuaded from resigning. And then, I think I made a pretty major mistake. I mean my cognitive ability was awful.
Joseph: Related to a client? Related to a project?
Tom: [22:34] It was more like an internal mistake. But in law, the biggest fear you have is not necessarily your boss nor is it the client, it’s the regulators. Because the regulators are very aggressive. And just now, they’re beginning to get a grip on the mental health pandemic that’s happening in within the legal profession, very recently now. And this should have been handled maybe 15, 20 years ago. But I’m glad they’re getting a grip of it. But as soon as someone says, “I’m going to make a complaint against you,” that’s your entire career at that person’s disposal. The biggest fear is the regulator.
And I made a mistake it was a regulatory error for sure. And as soon as it landed and the firm realized, “Okay. Well, now, this could be an ‘us’ issue rather than just ‘him’ issue.” They basically wrote me a list of saying, “Look, you know, Tom, this is a serious mistake.” I resigned very shortly after that. But what happened was, in my mind, I had 12 years of my life I’d given to these guys. Made them so much money and got very little reward, if I may say, financially out of it. Career-wise, definitely right to the top; financially, not so much. And then, when I needed the most, they chewed me out and spat me up.
Okay. So that was the punch I saw not coming anywhere. Because I thought to myself, “No matter what happens, these guys are going to back me.” They’re going to be like, “Tom, we’ve got you. Don’t you worry about it. You’ve made some mistakes. Let’s meet up, fix it, and then figure out what we’re going to do with you after.” Instead, it was like, “You’re on your own. Good luck.” And I had a complete nervous breakdown. Now, when we say complete nervous breakdown, a lot of people think I was a little bit stressed, I couldn’t get up, no. I couldn’t get out of bed for a month. For a full month, I was flat on the ground. So I lost 11 kilos pretty much straight away. I almost became half the man I was before. And that’s when at last, I went into therapy.
And they diagnosed me with every single thing that I thought was perfectly normal. I was touching wood maybe 50 times a day thinking that’s normal. I couldn’t look at red post boxes. I thought, “Oh, that, I’m just scared about them.” OCD, like what are you scared about? Waking up in the morning with my heart racing, needing Xanax to calm it down. That’s not normal. You’re a guy in your 20s, you should not wake up at heart palpitations. You should not just be able to sleep for hours. You should not need drugs to party. You should not this and that. And suddenly, you begin to realize actually everything I’ve done, at least for the past seven years of my life, has been completely wrong. And that’s when I really woke up to it. That’s when I was like, “Okay. Well, this was a mistake. Let’s see what’s left of my life. Let me see what pieces I can pick up, and then figure out what I’m going to do next.”
Joseph: So you’re describing what I often hear from people may not be to this extreme, but there is a point where you hit rock bottom in your career and your life. And it forces you to then wake up, come up for air, and figure out what you want to do next. How did you go about figuring that out?
Tom: [25:31] The first thing was that I needed to close up whatever happened to my former workplace and get closure on it. So therapy was the first thing. And I say to people, “Look, sports and therapy. Sports, because your body and mind are connected. Therapy, because your body and mind are connected.” So when you go to therapy, you’re basically training your mind. You’re making it stronger.
Now, some people like to do meditation, phenomenal. No one on earth is going to tell you meditation doesn’t help. Plenty of studies that proved it. Buddhists have been doing it for thousands of years with wonderful effects. In fact, a lot of stuff you learn in therapy are about mindfulness, which has been in the Buddhist culture for thousands of years. So first, it was, “Let me just lift myself physically up and be able to be active again.” Which I did through therapy.
Joseph: How quickly were you able to get off of the drugs that were causing these highs and lows?
Tom: [26:20] Right. So the drugs were instant. Because when I went to my psychiatrist, he turned around and said, “There is absolutely no way I’m treating you if you’re involved in any of this stuff. You can’t touch this. This is going to kill you.” I thought that it was a drug that made me make the mistakes that I did. And in my psychiatrist now, I figured out actually no. The pressures in the work environment drove me to such a corner, alongside with my own personal ambition. I’m not saying that you go into the work environment, someone says, “You have to kill yourself,” no. Your personal ambition is a big part of what drives you. Where I needed a synthetic push. I needed something synthetic to sort of drive me forward.
He said, “Look, I’m going to have to put you on actual mental health medication just so I can reach into you and figure out what’s going on in there. Because right now, there’s just too many panic attacks happening.” And if anyone’s had a panic attack, it’s something that a lot of people just throw around because I just had a panic attack. In reality, a panic attack is this sort of feeling where you’re basically assuming you’re in the worst possible place imaginable. In my situation, I thought that someone’s going to come and take me away and lock me up somewhere. That was on my mind the entire time.
And then, I was put on mental health medication that allowed me to sort of lift myself up again through therapy. Then the challenge was, “Now that you’re a mental health medication, we need to get you off it now.” And that’s another journey of its own. So between my mental breakdown and me being able to get back up, I’d say there was probably about six months of work that was needed. They were like, “Okay. Well, look, I’m back. What’s left of my life? What have I got around me?” And that’s when you know the old saying, the tradition was saying, “Oh, yes! I know who my best friends are now. I know who’s my family. The value of family,” et cetera. I was very lucky enough with an amazing network and a wonderful family that I was like, “Okay. Well, let’s give this another go.”
Joseph: It sounds like the therapy was helpful, time was helpful. Just stepping back away from that high-pressure environment was useful. Was there anything that ultimately tipped the scales and opened your eyes to the idea of then helping set up law firms helping with business development? How did that open up for you?
Tom: [28:33] The thing that comes to mind is that this was entirely avoidable. I realized, again in therapy, that I could have quit a lot earlier, work in a much better environment or created a better environment, and not had to suffer the way I suffered. It’s that that drove me. The fact that everything I’ve been through was perfectly avoidable with the right advice and the right guidance.
Now, I’m not saying speaking to 22-year-old Tom, you could have persuaded him to work less. I don’t think so, and nor should you. But I think, with the right advice, you could persuade people to know the limits before they have the breakdown. To catch the signs early before things really, really, really mess up effectively. I think when I woke up after six months, I came to, fundamentally, I realized, “Look, none of this needed to happen. Okay. Well, how do I now give back? How do I make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else?”
By the way, during this period, I was that Alpha guy. I was the guy that was like, “Look, who needs therapy? You know, get a couple of drinks, we’ll be fine.” And, suddenly, I realized one, the world didn’t end by me not practicing law. It seems as all the clients are fine. Two, my friends don’t like me less by me not being part of a large city law firm. My friends still like me for me. My family is still proud of me. When you realize that you’re like, “Okay. Well then, great! I can do other things. I can do wonderful things that doesn’t necessarily need this much pressure.”
Joseph: Before we talk about some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way, can you now tell me a little bit more about the work that you ended up deciding to pursue? And I suppose, I’m especially interested in understanding how you knew that you were going to be good at this, and how you knew that this was going to be the right path for you.
Tom: [30:22] I’d say to anyone looking for a career transition, “You’ll never know.” So don’t look around looking for something you’re absolutely quite categorically confident in. There are ways to ease yourself into it. So for me, one of my friends was setting up a law firm. So I went to him and I said, “Look, let me do the foundational elements. Let me try and help you avoid your firm fundamentally having something wrong with it by having people who could have mental health problems.”
And you know, I started handing out, really researching finding out, “Look, businesses are losing 25% of their productivity. Thanks to people who are suffering mentally.” You know you can bring in McKenzie, or PWC, BCG even to try and increase productivity by 25%. Or you can look after your staff, much more cost-effective, yes, and give you much more staff loyalty. So I started an experiment that happened with Barclay Road when I went in at the very foundational level. And I was like, “Look, I don’t want to practice law. I’ll do the business development elements. But, fundamentally, I want to be there for the staff. I’m want to talk to them about my experience. I want to make sure that the higher ambitious people so I can tell them how to use their ambition. And I would do that the help of a therapist.” On the mental health side, they’ll come in because I know a lot about mental health in the workplace, but I’m not a mental health expert.
So, I brought in the experts. I brought in the psychiatrists, the psychologists, the CBT specialists. And we started working on the staff. And the result was completely remarkable. When people were suffering during COVID, Berkeley Rowe’s profitability went up by 200%, something ridiculous. And that’s because the people were trained to handle tough situations. It wasn’t a stress management course, where when you get stressed, try allocating the top priority to the lower priority. Because I was so in it, and I knew all these mistakes that one could make. I would teach them to manage clients. I would teach them to manage their colleagues. And I would teach them to say “no.”
Joseph: Well, that’s a very interesting transition, Tom. And the last thing I was hoping to talk about before we wrap up with the mental health platform that you’ve recently launched, which I do want to come back to at the end. I am very curious to hear about some of the things you’ve learned along the way of your very interesting career change journey. And the first question I have for you is just what you’ve learned about yourself along the way?
Tom: [32:46] The best thing I learned was that you can’t heal in the environment you got sick in. But that’s why I love your podcast because it’s about career change. It’s not about job change. And a lot of people I suppose think that, “Look, I hated working in this place. But if I move to that place, I’ll be better.” If you really love your work, you’ll never work again. If you really, really love your work, even in high-pressured environments, you can sort of find a way where you can find the stable route. But when you’re reaching breakdown level, that’s not a healthy environment for you. You need to get out as quickly as you possibly can.
The thing I learned was it’s a scary path to go down. Humans are animals of habits. You know what to do. You’ve been trained how to do it. You’re older now, “Oh, my God! How am I going to deal with the age difference? Am I going to earn less?” Et cetera. And I would tell people, “Look, what’s the trade-off?” We know that stress causes the worst possible health problems, we know that. We know that for a fact. So do you want to have this poison in you just for the sake of money? And I promise you, you spend all that money trying to treat yourself after. So what I learned was the pursuit of happiness is much more of a fun and adventurous journey than the pursuit of wealth. The weirdest thing is, as soon as you do that, you start making more money. For sure, without a doubt.
Joseph: Yeah, that’s really interesting, Tom. Because something you mentioned there about getting out of the environment that caused you to be sick. One of the questions that comes up a lot in the line of work that I do is from people who have this belief — and I suppose this is fuelled by just common wisdom that it’s much easier to find your next job when you’re currently employed than it is if you resign from your job that you don’t like, and then you’re unemployed then you try to find a job. What’s your perspective on that? And I suppose, I’m most interested in trying to get a sense of whether you felt like you could have healed if you just kept the stable full-time job while you’re trying to figure out what to do next.
Tom: [34:40] Each person is different, right? I had the luxury of not having a wife and kids. So I could “almost afford” to move back into my mom’s place and figure out the next step. I think, as with anything in life, imagine you’re removing a plaster from your injured finger, right? Pull it. There is no point doing it slowly. You’re just making the thing last.
And I think the best way to relaunch your career, the best way to change, is to put yourself in a very, very difficult spot. And that is quit your job. Now, you have no other option but to move. That environment has been fixed. That environment has made you want to go. No money is worth it. No one can pay me genuinely anything to go back into the environment ever again. I would say, “Do it. Instantly. Don’t wait.” Forget anxiety. Brilliant things happen when you’re stressed. Your creativity levels go up. Your thinking becomes sharper. Your mind becomes a lot more agile.
And I come across a lot of young people for like, “I’ve got this full-time job. I’m working on the start-up on the side.” I say to them, “Look, you’re in your early 20s, work on the start-up. Quit it. Make that start-up your only way out. And trust me, it’ll be a success.” But if you’re trying to put one foot in and the other foot out, you’re never ever going to leap. You’re going to pivot but never leap.
Joseph: What’s something that you wished people knew about climbing the corporate ladder that you now know?
Tom: [36:06] I started literally at the time when throwing staplers around the office was becoming taboo, just at the beginning. I still had a couple of staplers been thrown at me. I still had a couple of folders been thrown at me. I was well within that era where they could scream at you to the top of their lung, and you just have to sit there and take it. I don’t know whether that still exists. I haven’t worked in that environment that much anymore. The simple ability to not take that, I wish I knew at the beginning that just being completely loyal is not the answer. You work at a place for four years you get everything you want out of it. Now, if that environment is no longer healthy for you, experiment with the new one. You lose nothing as a result. You literally lose nothing if you just leave. And for me, I chose stability and loyalty over happiness, and a little bit of risk.
Joseph: A final question for you. You alluded to your 22-year-old Tom before, and I was curious. What you would tell him now about making a career change?
Tom: [37:06] Twenty-two-year-old Tom was an unstoppable beast. He wants to conquer the world. He wants to become super rich. He wants to have a business and that. The beautiful thing about your career change is that your ambitions never really die. You don’t have to completely kill yourself and become dull and some sort of middle manager somewhere stuck.
I would tell 22-year-old Tom, work for five years and set up your own business, that’s what I would say. Because I was very entrepreneurial. I’m still entrepreneurial, but I was raised within an environment where you’re told that the best possible outcome is being employed. I would say “no.” If you’re entrepreneurial, have a go at it yourself. Trust me, you’ll find amazing things once you start working for yourself. And I would tell him, “Jesus Christ! Look after your mental health.” I mean, if there was a me when I was young, and someone like me came to our office and he said, “Guys, this is how you avoid regulatory pitfalls. This is how you avoid having problems in your job.”
And the answer to that simply is look after your mental health. I’m not saying organize your documents adequately. I’m not saying prioritize this and that. I’m saying, “Are you waking up with a hard competition?” Yes, I am. Not good. Okay, resign. Period. Aggressively so. Are you having only four hours of sleep, and you’re stressed when you go to bed, and you’re stressed when you’re waking up, consistently over a month?
Because sometimes, just jobs are stressful. You’re going to be stressed for a month, that’s fine. But if it’s consistent, quit. Quit, straight away. You’re going to make a mistake. You’re going to do something stupid. Can you tell me that you can’t remember what happened last month in your 20s? Yeah. Okay, quit. When I go into businesses, I just tell the staff, “What’s not normal?”
And the weirdest thing is seeing these eyes just open when I’m talking about very broadly my experiences, suddenly you see stars in some of these people’s eyes. Because they’re like, “Oh, my God! I do that!” “Oh my goodness! I do that.” I’ve had so many people come to me saying, “Tom, I think I’ve got OCD.” And I’m like, “What do you do?” He was like, “Well, to make sure that the email doesn’t come back from the clients, I count to seven. And, usually, it works out well because seven is a lucky number.” I’m like, “That’s not normal.”
There have been times, genuinely, when I’ve done these talks and the person who wants to do the talk took me to one side and said, “I may not say these things. Because you know, at one point, I have to discipline my staff.” And I said to him, “Look, if you’re disciplining them the way I’m saying you are, then you need to change.” I see engagements from management and staff. A lot of people are understanding that being the boss doesn’t make you king, and being an employee doesn’t make you a peasant. We’re all in this together. So how can we get the best out of each other?
Joseph: Well, I’d love to wrap up, Tom, with what you are also focused on right now. I understand you have recently launched a mental health platform. And I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about Soulh Tech?
Tom: [39:49] The way Soulh Tech works, I go in and do talks for businesses about their mental health. And what we’ve done is we’ve plugged Soulh Tech in, which is a survey once a month, every Monday morning. Because, usually, people feel at their worst on a Monday morning. And after about six months, we produce this map to CEOs where we basically show them where their staff’s mental health is and has been for the past six months. And also, how the staff are interacting with the building.
In an environment where people are sort of beginning to either really take on working from home, or struggle with bringing people to the office, we give them an idea of where the staff is. And it’s great because we see how people are feeling and they’ll be able to action that before it’s too late.
Joseph: I am looking forward to hearing how that platform evolves. And I just wanted to thank you so much, Tom, for giving us a candid glimpse into your former life as a lawyer and how that has now evolved into your focus on well-being and the importance of pursuing happiness over everything else. So, thanks again for your time, and best of luck with your work as a well-being consultant.
Tom: [40:53] Thank you, Joseph. And thank you for what you’re doing. Because I think it creates hope for a lot of people. Especially a lot of lawyers think there is no life outside of law. A podcast like yours shows everyone in every profession, there’s a wonderful life outside of what they’re doing.