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  • Writer's picture Heleena Webber

Work, Travel & Mental Wellness

Approximately 1 in 5 Canadians will struggle with mental health issues each year. And advertising is a particularly stressful industry, with fast-paced deadlines, high pressure roles, and a constant need to please multiple (subjective) opinions. In fact, a recent study by NABS in the UK revealed that 36% professionals in advertising or media felt that their mental health has been poor in the last year, with 64% thinking about leaving the industry due to burnout. But what can we do to actually tackle these issues? Quit our jobs to become cat farmers/shop owners/retail clerks, etc.?

Being in Ubud for the past few weeks has given me some insights, not only into what I personally need, but into how others feel and deal with their own struggles too. I've gotten to share lots of laughs and chats with my own Hacker Paradise group, talk to people out and about in different social settings, and have even had some forced connections at "weird yoga" classes (more on that in another post). Throughout all of these talks, a common thread emerged: people have come here to reset (typically from some sort of internal struggle) and find renewed energy. My own reasons for coming here have been echoed time and time again by others.

Take Jess for example. She's one of our amazing trip facilitators from Austin, TX. As a freelance designer, she was starting to find that she was just going through the motions with her work, and needed to spark her love for it again. When she came across remote work options she knew that the flexibility travel offers, opportunity to meet like-minded people, and ability to work on personal projects would help her feel reinvigorated and more creative. And it did. Her journey began about three years ago, and three Hacker Paradise trips later she feels like she's really been able to achieve being her best self - not only professionally, but personally as well.

Andy is another example. He's from the UK and runs an archeological firm called AB Heritage. Like many of us, he struggled with depression and anxiety for years. But in 2016, things came to a head. He suffered a long-term illness that progressed to the point where he could barely leave his house, his business almost collapsed, and he was in a pretty dark place. After chatting with a therapist and employing some of his own treatments (like massages and Reiki, or taking more time off and eating healthier), he started to see things differently. He decided to come to Hacker Paradise in February 2018 in order to put these lessons and self-work into practice through travel. Working remotely has not only allowed him to still keep on top of his business (while learning to let go a bit), but it introduced him to people he felt he could open up to, and experience new things by being immersed in Ubud for four weeks. To him, this trip has been life-changing as he's been able to recognize why issues from his past pop up, push himself out of his comfort zone, and do something he's always loved doing - travelling.

For me, I remember the exact moment I realized I was on the brink and needed something to change. It was March this year. I had been dealing with ongoing personal issues, including a lot of family drama and struggling to leave an old relationship behind. When work started to get crazy, it hit me harder than it normally would have. I turned into someone I didn't like. I was negative, riddled with a constant feeling of anxiety, and was unable to really offer anything to anyone. I was burnt out. When I saw an Instagram ad for remote work, the thought of getting away to reconnect with myself (and honestly just escape) immediately seemed appealing. And while I did a lot of work in therapy and through my own self-work prior to coming here, I have now found more clarity on what I need to stay afloat. I've made amazing friends and have done things I never would have thought I would do, filling me with a new sense of confidence - and a new appreciation for travel.


Below is a collection of some of the things I've learned. While there are a couple things I knew and did before, my time here has really opened my eyes to a few new things too:

1) Everyone struggles. We're often so consumed with our own lives, that we forget that there are billions of people around us with similar struggles - some better, some worse. But luckily, we're coming into a time where talking about these struggles is becoming more socially acceptable. By talking about what you're going through with other people (whether it's a trusted friend, family member or therapist), not only do you find new solutions to your own problems, but you feel more accepted and connected. Just think about it for a moment. How many times have you not shared something weighing you down only to get "in your head" where you enter a downward spiral of self-doubt and shame? Now think about when you have opened up to someone. Does it feel different?

2) Don't sweat everything. I'm a perfectionist at heart. I focus on the details and have high expectations not only for myself, but often expect the same from others as well. The biggest (and probably hardest) thing I've dealt with over the past few months is realizing it's OK not to be perfect and I don't have to please everyone. Brene Brown wrote a book called Gifts of Imperfection that really opened my eyes on how to accomplish this.

As a result, I've learned how to set better boundaries. I've learned to let go and think through if something really matters, or if I'm sweating it because of some picture of perfection that's unnecessarily stuck in my head. I've realized that it's OK if people don't like my opinion (or even me) so long as I am staying true to what I believe in and being my authentic self. And as a result, I've become more accepting of myself and of the people around me too, because no one is, or needs to be, perfect.

3) Take time to feel gratitude. It's been scientifically proven time and time again that taking time each day to reflect on the things that you're grateful for will make you happier overall. This could be anything from saying it to yourself in the moment, to reflecting on a few things at the end of the day, to something more concrete like keeping a gratitude journal. I personally have done this (not fully knowing that it contributes to joy) for years. I'm grateful for the many friends I have, not only back home, but for the ones I've made here. I'm grateful that I've had this opportunity to travel and work. I'm grateful for the amazing Pad Thai I ate at Buddha Bowl the other day and that I get to go back there tonight. Whether they're big or small, doing this consistently over the years has re-wired me to see more positives than negatives (at least most days, because hey, no one is perfect).

4) Shake things up with travel. Travel is great for your mental health. It increases gratitude (for example, I am going to be grateful for things like consistent running water or electricity back home). It helps you become more cognitively flexible since you have to deal with the unfamiliar by navigating new situations and cultures - leading to more creativity and empathy. And, of course, it reduces stress by removing yourself from day-to-day life, giving you new perspectives - and giving you something to look back on when life does start to stress you out again. All of these things contribute to hitting that "reset button" that so many people have talked about here.

5) It's important to find balance. I've often compared my mental well-being to a table. Each leg represents a different area in my life - work, friends and family, hobbies, and self-care. If all four of them are sturdy, then I'm pretty strong. Even if one is a little wobbly, I'm still stable and can stand. When two legs start to go, I'm still standing but I'm definitely not sturdy. And if three or four go, then I completely fall down. This has made me realize the importance of living a balanced life. I make sure to carve out time for the things I love to do, like hiking, reading or travel. I put time into relationships with my friends. I try to do things for myself, like going for runs or cooking healthy meals. And after being here, I've finally learned that it's OK to take time for myself and not put absolutely everything I have into work. The result? I've gone from struggling with anxiety on a daily basis, to only really feeling it when I have to face freakishly large spiders.

6) Take good care of your health. While I've been slacking on this overseas, when I'm at home, I place a lot of emphasis on physically taking care of myself. One of the big ones for me is sleep. A Joe Rogan podcast recently made its rounds through my office like wildfire. To sum it up in a sentence, you basically need at least seven hours of sleep a night for optimal (or even functional) mental and physical health. If you have two free hours, I highly recommend checking it out here. Another is exercise. Most mornings I get up and hit the gym before work to run or spin. I actually feel a bit "off" when I don't do this. ZGM (the company I work for) also brings in a bootcamp instructor twice a week, and signs up for things like running or bike races, to keep those endorphins flowing. Eating right and not going crazy on alcohol are also key contributors (although I know this can be a challenge for me when all I want are carbs and bourbon at the end of a stressful day). So, whenever possible, strive to take care of yourself physically, because this helps you mentally.


Maybe it's because of the challenges I've had growing up, my terrible streak with relationships, my high-stress job, or just the way I'm neurologically wired, but I've been passionate about this topic and my own self-care for my entire adult life. Not only have I had the incredible opportunity to step away and explore this more in Ubud, but I feel lucky to have the chance to turn this passion into something tangible at ZGM.

Over the next few months we'll be working on a mental health initiative. While we're defining the details, it'll likely include some research on advertising (in Canada) and mental health, ideas on how companies can combat these issues, and something to creatively connect people. I'll be posting updates about it here, so be sure to check back if you're interested!

Anyways, I hope that some of the things I've learned have resonated with you. A lot of it you might already know. Or you might have other things to add to the list. Regardless, I hope that people (like you and me) continue to open up and talk about their feelings and experiences, because that's the first step to make everyone feel better - and more connected.

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