‘We are designed for acute episodes of stress, but what we’re not designed for is chronic episodes of stress. That’s stress after stress after stress, and that’s what most people are living with, day in day out.’
Looking back, Sarah Sparks can see that her body was trying to tell her there was a problem. But she didn’t listen: she kept on working crazy hours under immense pressure while trying to be the perfect new wife, and eventually her body stepped in to give her a message she couldn’t ignore: she collapsed and was hospitalized with burnout.
Since then she’s made it her mission to stop other people getting to that place, with her STOP model for combatting chronic stress. As she developed her model she realised the next logical step was to face her fear of writing: the result was an award-winning book.
Sarah on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/choose2thrive/
Sarah’s website: https://sarahsparks.co.uk/
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Alison Jones: I’m here today with Sarah Sparks, who is an award-winning executive coach, speaker and author, and her recent book STOP: The calmer way to future proof your career and wellbeing was the winner of the Wellness and Wellbeing category in the Business Book Awards 2022. Passionate about helping busy professionals have career success as well as health and wellbeing, Sarah has held senior management roles in demanding organizations like Goldman Sachs, but paid the price of not having a sustainable strategy and burning out, and she now works with busy professionals to help them get it right and not make mistakes that she made.
So first of all, welcome to the show, Sarah. It’s great to have you here.
Sarah Sparks: Thank you, I’m really pleased to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
Alison Jones: And first of all, congratulations. How did it feel?
Sarah Sparks: I have to say I was completely and utterly surprised. I had no expectations. I was very delighted to be on the short list. I had no expectations of being a winner. And in fact, I was sitting next to my sister and she had to dig me in the ribs. She said it’s your book, get up there. So I was completely surprised but delightfully so.
Alison Jones: Yes, it was a wonderful evening, wasn’t it?
Sarah Sparks: It really was a wonderful evening and I’m rather hoping I might be able to be a judge this time around. We’ll see.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. I shall see you there. Marvelous.
Sarah Sparks: Good.
Alison Jones: What I’d love to do as well is just ask you to tell us a little bit more about your story, because I always say the author’s story is an essential part of any business book, but yours more than most because it really laid the foundation for everything, didn’t it?
Sarah Sparks: It did, and I don’t think I could have written the book if I hadn’t experienced burnout firsthand. And I mean proper burnout, as in I was hospitalized with burnout. And it was such a shock to me because I, first and foremost, was so unaware about the way I was working and the impact that had.
So at that time I was about 35 years old, I’d been recently promoted, I’d recently got married. I was trying to be the best person and best version of me to everyone around me and on reflection, there was years I hadn’t been sleeping properly and snatching at sleep, and I thought it really wasn’t very valuable to have sleep.
And so I thought I could just keep working through and towards the end my breathing became erratic. And I was very snappy with people and I didn’t, you know, I’m not like that now, but back then I was, and I was completely shocked when I found myself in hospital. Had no idea how I got there. It was just…
Alison Jones: I mean, it’s such a dramatic story. You literally, you just, you collapse at work and you wake up in hospital. I mean, I don’t know what I thought burnout was, but I’ve never really thought of it in that moment of absolute snapping.
Sarah Sparks: Yes, and of course I had had all of the feedback. My body had given me lots of feedback along the way, which I had ignored and towards the end I seem to remember, not being able to read the words on a page, they were all swimming about, or the ones that I could read just wouldn’t stay in. So I kept rereading sentence after sentence and getting nowhere.
So I was really, cognitive function was just out of the window. And it really was a collapse. And my body had said, you’re not listening to the signs. I’m going to have to give you a proper, proper warning.
Alison Jones: Ignore THIS.
Sarah Sparks: Yes, I had no choice but to wake up at that point.
And I do remember feeling that I didn’t have a choice. I felt that this is how I had to work. And then my consultant at the hospital pointed out actually work was not meant to make me sick, and that was such a wake up call for me. Oh. You’re so right. It’s not meant to put me in an early grave or anything.
I’m meant to be doing my stuff, but not at my own physical detriment. So that really was a wake-up call. And that was when I decided actually I needed to put myself on the priority pile. And the decision is easy, but carrying it out is so much more difficult, isn’t it? So…
Alison Jones: And you make the point that other people can feel you’ve broken a contract there.
Sarah Sparks: Indeed. So whether… it was. …yes indeed, my husband didn’t like the fact that actually I was putting myself first, and I was a changed woman. My family didn’t like it, particularly my work colleagues were getting a different version of me when I went back. And I really had to hold my ground because it took me a long time to get well again.
And if I hadn’t put myself in the priority pile, I probably wouldn’t have made it as soon as I did, which was a long time. So yes, it was hard and I’m still on the journey for heaven’s sake.
You know, I fall off the wagon all the time and I know that I on occasions work too hard and then literally have to stop and say, okay, right, prioritize, what is really important to me and how I’m going to make sure that I can be my better self. Because you end up being a very poor version of yourself if you don’t, and that…
Alison Jones: Let’s go there. You say, you know, stop, stop and let’s prioritize. So tell us what is your STOP system? Just sort of introduce it briefly for us.
Sarah Sparks: The STOP concept, what I now know, that I didn’t know back then was that we are designed for chronic stress, not chronic stress. We are designed for stress, acute episodes of stress, but what we’re not designed for is chronic episodes of stress. That’s stress after stress and after stress, and that’s what most people are living with day in day out.
That’s why the World Health Organization now recognizes work related stress as a syndrome.
Alison Jones: It’s a lifestyle choice, isn’t it?
Sarah Sparks: Well it’s an interesting use, isn’t it? You know, it doesn’t feel like a choice. You really feel that actually we’re in this ‘always on’ world, with all sorts of uncertainty and demands and wars around the world, and, you know, climate change, lots of things that cause people anxiety and stress.
And unless we stop and bring down those stress hormones, then we are on the road to burnout. Because when we are stressed, stress hormones go around our bodies and help us have supernatural powers to run fast and get out of the way of the danger or to freeze so we don’t feel the pain when somebody’s actually eating us up, believe it or not, why we freeze.
But all of the other helpful systems shut down. So our reproductive system shuts down, our immune system shuts down, our digestive system shuts down, and our ability to have high cognitive function shuts down. We don’t need those things when we’re running from a bear. But if we’re doing that day in, day out, no wonder we’re ill. No wonder people have all sorts of problems as a consequence of chronic stress.
So it is a really fundamental thing to stop and bring down the stress hormones. So I wrote the book for my younger self, somebody who was a 35 year old thinking that she had everything sorted, but never stopped to bring down the stress hormones because I didn’t know I had to or didn’t know I should.
And so the stop concept is, you know, how can you bring down the stress hormones in different aspects to deal with yourself, to deal with time, to deal with others, and having this high performance mindset. So that’s the S T O P.
Alison Jones: And obviously you need to go and read the book people to find out the whole thing, but could you just maybe share sort of one tip that perhaps surprises people, or one tip that surprised you when you discovered it?
Sarah Sparks: I think the one that surprised me most, it really shouldn’t, and that’s breathing. You know, we talked about this right at the very beginning, you and I before we came on air, this idea that actually if we breathe and just take a moment, even if we do it right now, just you and I and the audience, we can feel differently.
And it really has a very profound, it is the quickest way of bringing down the stress hormones. And of course, we’re breathing all the time, but you know, how are you breathing? Are you hyperventilating like I was? Or are you taking those deep belly breaths where you can actually bring down the stress hormones and no one else needs to know?
And that’s the other fantastic thing about that little tip.
Alison Jones: It’s so accessible though isn’t it? Yes.
Sarah Sparks: Anytime, any place, anywhere, just breathe.
Alison Jones: And actually one of the things that struck me most throughout the book was the power of the physical, your emotional and mental state, which again I sort of knew, but it was really, you know, the sleep, breathing, you know, just that we are, think of ourselves as sort of brains walking around on legs, don’t we?
But we are so embodied and, yes, it was a great reminder.
Sarah Sparks: Yes, and I think that when people think about their health and wellbeing, it’s almost from their neck downwards, isn’t it? Think, you know, I’m going to go to the gym and tone those muscles. I’m going to eat well. And even the sleeping, we’re kind of thinking, oh, I need to rest. But actually, we’re not really thinking about, okay, how is our brain functioning? Is it functioning well? What can I do to help it on its way?
And all of those things like exercise and nutrition and hydration help. But we really do need to give our brains a rest. And you know, that’s why sleep is important. But so many other things, you know, rest is something that sportsmen really value. They know that they are going to be at peak performance if they rest at appropriate times. And yet in the business world, rest and recovery is not often on the radar and it really needs to be.
Alison Jones: And it’s not even that we don’t think about it, it’s that we downplay it, that we make a badge of honor out of being constantly busy and only sleeping four hours a night. I think that’s getting better, but certainly in the past.
Sarah Sparks: I would agree. Yes, and I would be part of that badge of honour group.
You know, I really didn’t value sleep, but you know what, Deloitte published a report in March of this year talking about burnout being the most dangerous and widely ignored occupational hazard that there is right now. And 77% of the over a thousand full-time employees that they surveyed, 77% felt burnout in their current role. And the thing is, you know, I think it is staggering and so it cannot be ignored by organizations anymore. And I think in the past it might have been because it would’ve been just seen as a natural attrition, but when you’ve got 77% of your employees not functioning well, possibly going to be burning out long-term sick, it’s not something that can be ignored.
And that’s the other thing that I think, you know, I wrote that book for my younger self and other people going through stressful or working in stressful environments and there are a lot of them. But actually people can’t solve this problem on their own. It is an occupational thing.
Alison Jones: It’s a systemic issue, isn’t it?
Sarah Sparks: It is, and there’s a really significant imbalance between the demands and the resources that we are having to live through. And so organizations do need to step up and do things differently.
Alison Jones: And it’s not just the attrition, it’s not just having people off sick, is it? It’s actually they are making really poor-quality decisions every day, and that’s affecting your bottom line.
Sarah Sparks: Yes, absolutely. And of course, if you were a heart surgeon, we wouldn’t want that to be the case, but nor should we within any sort of business environment, you know, poor decisions and poor leadership has a very profound impact on the bottom line and also toxic work environments and people are unhappy doing what they’re doing and that’s not okay.
Alison Jones: And you make such an interesting point about this being an organizational issue as much as an individual issue. I want to talk to you about writing, because I always want to talk to people about writing. But when you were thinking about the book, when you were planning it, when you were sort of envisioning what you wanted it to do in the world, were you writing for individuals or organizations or both? What was your kind of thought there?
Sarah Sparks: I was very much writing it for the individuals, but there was a chapter that wasn’t written, written in my head but not included in the book, and that was all about, you know, organizational responsibility because they do have a duty of care.
Alison Jones: Is that the next book?
Sarah Sparks: It IS the next book and I’ve actually started. This time I’m going to write with a friend of mine, a colleague of mine because actually I found writing really difficult. Really difficult. Well…
Alison Jones: All around the world heads are nodding right now, Sarah, you’re in good company.
Sarah Sparks: Oh, I, it was like pulling a tooth, seriously. I had in my mind that I was not a good writer. I didn’t enjoy writing at school, didn’t enjoy English as a topic. I’m much more of a scientist and a mathematician.
So I had in my head that I wasn’t a good writer. So that didn’t help. I think that’s an unhelpful thing. I’m perfectly capable of speaking so actually, I decided to have a conversation with my audience to help me rather than just write, I was going to have a conversation. So that was one thing that did help.
I set aside six months to write the book at the beginning of 2020. I got started in February, on February the sixth, I remember because it was my birthday and then the world changed. And I found that really hard because I didn’t know the environment I was working within, it kind of changed. I didn’t know what it was going to look like ultimately. So that really, I found difficult.
And although I sat down every day to write, some days I would write half a page, other days a whole lot came through, but it was interesting on reflection to notice actually when it happened, it didn’t seem to be something I was in control of. But when it did happen and flow, it came through me. It wasn’t me, it was kind of coming through me. So that was delightful. That bit of it was delightful, but it didn’t happen very often.
Alison Jones: It’s sort of magical, isn’t it? When you look back over it and you’re like, Wow, where did that come from?
Sarah Sparks: Yeah.
Alison Jones: Yes, that is one of the wonderful things. You also, I mean there’s a couple of things that I wanted to just touch on: first, that discipline of writing down every day, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but tomorrow’s a new day and you know, so there’s a consistency element there.
Also, going further back, if you didn’t like writing, if you thought you were no good at it, what was it that made you think it’s worth getting over this and writing a book?
Sarah Sparks: Well, there are a couple of things, so I wanted to speak at my mother’s 80th birthday. And I was not, I didn’t feel I was capable of being a speaker. So I went and did some speaker training. And the training I went on encouraged you to create a model of what was in your head and then talk about it. And the first time I did this, it was in front of 12 people I didn’t know, and I got a book writing contract from Capstone Wiley off the first time I spoke about my model in my head and I thought…
Oh, I turned it down because actually for me, what they wanted me to do, I had a young son at the time, was not compatible with my lifestyle, so I turned it down. But that did make me think.
And then the first time I spoke in public about it, 1100 people turned up to listen. And I thought, Oh, maybe I have got something that’s worth getting out in the world. So it wasn’t that I wanted to write a book, it was that I wanted to be able to share what I knew. And so a book was just one way of you condensing it.
And I think the fantastic thing about writing a book is you have to get all of those thoughts in some sort of order and structure and things to include and think, and there’s so much one can write about in any of these topics, but certainly mine and some of them actually, I just let go of saying actually that’s not going to add value or enough value. There’s other bits that need to be in here and I don’t want it to be a long read.
So it was a good discipline actually putting it down on paper and not having it just swimming around in my head. So that’s why I wrote the book.
Alison Jones: You say about that advice you had in the speaking training to get a model of what’s in your head. That’s magic. So I just want, tell me a little bit more about that.
Sarah Sparks: Well what can I tell you about it? So, my belief now is a model makes something sticky. If you just write about something and it’s just free flowing essay, it’s quite, I find quite difficult to remember, but if you have an acronym or a visual representation of what your model is, it becomes more sticky and people can then attach things to it. And it kind of feels like it’s going to be more life changing, if you like, than if I just wrote an article.
So for me the model was a way of making it sticky. But it also made it sticky for me. It made me think, Okay, so what could or should go into what bit of the model? What’s going to make most sense? What’s going to have a bit of a flow? So it was actually helpful for me, particularly with my sort of mathematical, scientific brain, having something, building blocks that I could put into place. And then it also helped me write, because it was only a little bit I was writing.
So all of these things I found really helpful.
Alison Jones: It’s such a powerful and , as you say, it feels really kind of intuitive and obvious once you’re kind of the other side of it. But I think if you are at the stage where you’ve got free flowing stuff in your head, feels like an insuperable problem…
Sarah Sparks: Hmm.
Alison Jones: …you know, how do I turn this into a model? The visual aspect of that, and you were sort of indicating with your hands there, the blocks and how they fit together. And I think being able to draw it on a page, it just somehow solidifies and makes more concrete the ideas that you’ve got. And as you say, once you’ve got it in that more communicable form, it helps you write it, but it also helps other people get it at a stroke.
Sarah Sparks: Yes.
Alison Jones: If you can draw your idea and draw your model for someone, it’s so powerful.
Sarah Sparks: Yes, I would so agree and it helps with the hierarchy, you know, what are the key things and what are the things that build up to that. So yes, I find it really helpful to have a model. It was not like, I was just challenged to do it. I wouldn’t have thought at that point, I hadn’t thought about writing a book.So it was really helpful.
Alison Jones: It’s such a great challenge and clearly, you know, what are the bits and how do they fit together? That’s what we’re asking ourselves, isn’t it?
Sarah Sparks: Yes indeed.
Alison Jones: So having come through all this, as you look back, you know, in a sense, what do you wish you’d known before you started? What’s your best tip for an author who’s setting out on the journey now?
Sarah Sparks: I think for me, the best tip that I’d like to share is around really understanding your audience. because I could have written burnout for everyone, children, people towards the end of their careers, but I chose to write it for my 35-year-old self. And so I really got to know myself again, and I actually I had the same place to sit down and write, which I also found very helpful every day, same position, same place to write and around me, a bit like I have here, I have all sorts of things on the wall, but around me, I had the attributes of my avatar if you like, she was 35 years old, she was just going places in her career, either newly married or thinking about getting married or wanting to get married.
You know, I had everything around me that was me, and I would sit down and I would soak that up and actually try it on for size before I started writing. So I could have that conversation with her rather than a conversation with somebody who is, let’s say 50, but would’ve gone through that. So I really immersed myself in my audience before I started and that helped me have a conversation as opposed to try and write.
Alison Jones: And that does so many things, doesn’t it? Firstly, it makes what you write so much more applicable to the people that you really want to reach. But also it makes it feel more conversational, doesn’t it? It makes it more of a real, rather than just standing behind a lectern and speaking into the void, you’re actually having a conversation with somebody you can imagine in front of you. Makes it much more readable.
Sarah Sparks: Well, it certainly made it easier for me to write, and I haven’t reread my book recently, but I did pick it up in preparation for our call, thinking, oh, put my nose in it and actually it made me smile because actually it did feel like I was having a conversation with someone. So it was, it was oh, …
Alison Jones: I love the idea of future, well current you speaking to previous you as well, that sense of speaking to yourself through time. I quite often speak to future me as well. And, you know, it’s a really helpful practice.
Yes, brilliant. And I always ask my guests, Sarah, to recommend a business book. You’re not allowed, I’m afraid, to recommend STOP. I’ll do that for you, it’s very good.
But what book would you recommend that anybody listening should read?
Sarah Sparks: Well, I devour books by audio mostly. And the one that I have gone back to time and time again and I can see myself reading again, is this one, it’s called Essentialism: The disciplined pursuit of less. Has it been come up on your…
Alison Jones: Greg McKeown, well, he’s actually been a guest on the podcast.
Sarah Sparks: Oh, my mistake. So yes. I think it’s an absolutely fabulous book and this concept that most things are noise and very few things are important, but if you actually focus on what’s really important and where you can make your biggest contribution and let everything else go, it’s such a powerful message.
Alison Jones: And ties perfectly into that point that we started with, and that you have choice…
Sarah Sparks: Absolutely.
Alison Jones: …a million times a day, ‘I have to’, ‘I must’. You have so much more choice than you realize.
Sarah Sparks: We certainly do have so much more choice than we realize, and this concept of living consciously and making those choices rather than the allowing, I think he talks about, you know, living by design, not by default. That’s such a powerful thing. Yes.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Great recommendation. Thank you.
And Sarah, if people want to find out more about you, more about STOP, where should they go?
Sarah Sparks: I think the best place to go is actually on LinkedIn because I keep that going. So Sarah Sparks on LinkedIn would be the best place and also they want to get, my book comes with a workbook attached and you can get a copy of the workbook on my website, which is sarahsparks.co.uk.
Alison Jones: Perfect. Well, I will put those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com along with the transcript of this conversation, and I don’t know about you, I can feel my breath just a bit deeper and a bit slower and a bit calmer just from talking to you, so thank you so much for your time today.
Sarah Sparks: It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me.