After relentlessly working for 17 years this CA(SA) overcame a massive burnout and is now the Chief Happiness Officer

  • Hi, I am Murray Barnetson, a Chartered Accountant from SAICA (The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants).
  • I grew up in Pretoria, South Africa in a family of CAs. So, the path of Chartered Accountancy was pretty much planned out for me right from my birth!
  • After relentlessly working for 17 years, I reached my limit…in 2017, I was diagnosed with burn out which forced me to step back and badly hampered my health.
  • Since then I have prioritized health over business and have been striving to provide a sustainable ecosystem so that people can live worthwhile lives.

Back story

I was a happy-go-lucky youngster and just took life as it came. I didn’t give my career much thought. Nor did I plan what I wanted to do in the future although I have tried to set goals on a number of occasions.

My Dad, my sister, my uncle, my cousin, and some of our relatives are all CAs. (So, yes, there is a whole herd of us at family gatherings!)

When it was time to decide my career path, I too chose to become a CA. It wasn’t because I had to, but because at the time, it was by far the best tertiary route for general business. One could start their career a few rungs up the ladder, higher than their peers and the business knowledge received was very broad.

I was not the one to sit in university halls, so I studied through Unisa and qualified as a CA when doing his articles at EY. 

Post my articles at EY, I joined the businesses my Dad was running as the Group Financial Manager and worked with him for about four years. He made me reconcile bank accounts the VAT Control to zero, not even allowed to be out by cents. I always wanted to work in the family business and the experience I learned from him was extremely beneficial.

Trying my hand at business

By then I was in my late twenties and I was asking myself “what next?”, as all of us do, from time to time.

So, in 1999, my wife and I left for the UK to get some international experience intending to come back after about three years.

Whilst in the UK, I worked as a Director of Finance for a property development group in London and Group CFO for a telecoms company.

Fast forward, a few years later I wanted to get away from accounting and into business. So I bought a pub hotel in the Cotswolds with a hotelier mate of mine. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, foot and mouth flared up which cut travel to the countryside and I put that down to life experience.

returned to South Africa to run a new catering business my family had recently set up. The company was growing well but again, events outside of our control including the 2008 crash, forced us to close that unit down too. More valuable life experience!

After that, I joined an insurance Underwriting management agency as their Finance Director.

All was well but by 2011 I started getting bored and once again took the entrepreneurial leap – I started Part-Time FD to provide financial director services to several clients rather than just one. 

Growing the business full speed to being diagnosed with severe burnout

The service provider business was difficult to scale and like most entrepreneurs, with each day, I kept working harder.

My partner, Willem Haarhoff, also a CA, joined me in 2016 as part of the strategy to scale, but as a self-proclaimed control freak, I didn’t want to or wasn’t able to delegate.

By 2017, I was the CFO for 15-20 clients and was working from 6 am to 10 pm, throughout the week. I was on stimulants and then eventually sleeping tablets too.

At that time I didn’t realize I was powering my body with chemicals that would prove to be deadly one day. Moreover, I had an intense schedule and was starting to struggle with my mental health.

The unrelenting schedule and medication turned out to be a lethal combination that was slowly poisoning me.

I was pushing myself to the limit and then sometime in August of 2017, I started getting chest pain. My wife immediately shipped me off to the doctor who said I was in serious trouble. It was then that I was officially diagnosed with severe burnout!

Discovering the cause of my health condition

During that time, I saw 13 different medical specialists including GP’s, physicians, psychiatrists and immunologists, and none of them helped. I tried five or six anti-depressants but their side effects were as bad as the other health issues I had.

My sister then suggested getting my genetics tested. As a result, I discovered that folic acid is toxic for me as I have a double mutation on the MTHFR genes. The folic acid was a methylation blocker and was one of the biggest causes of my feeling so terrible.

I eventually discovered that all flour, maize, rice, and some other products must be fortified with folic acid by law so I had to stop eating any food with those ingredients in them.

After a very frustrating trial and error process, I eventually worked out what the right kind of food and supplements was for me personally, making a huge difference.

Rethinking business to focus on life integration

On the work front, I pulled back and my partner took on a lot of the clients.

Months into recovery, as I started feeling better, my team and I had to rethink our business strategy.

Part Time FD was started based on the decision of embracing technology to the fullest – Internet, electricity and a laptop were all we required. However, because it is difficult to scale and because of the relentless stress of being an FD for multiple clients, we turned the model upside down and in October 2017, we launched DoughGetters Accounting – a cloud-based bookkeeping, accounting, and tax company.

We continued with the “no offices required” approach but this requires a complete rethink on staff management so we have come up with an outcomes-based management approach and no longer have fixed office hours either.

We are focused on life integration as opposed to a work/life balance. Other than partnering with Willem, this was probably the second-best business decision I have made.

Life integration focuses on mixing work and life interchangeably so it’s important for us that our people enjoy what they do allowing them to work when they want to and from wherever suits them, be it from the side of a cricket field or their favourite coffee shop.

Learning the importance of “Health before Wealth”

A long time ago, I would have said things like “be more intentional with your career path” or “set goals”. But in retrospect, I think that would have ended up getting me even sicker.

Also, the things I have learned from the mistakes I have made are helping me now and it’s only now at the age of 51 that I think I am starting to find my sweet spot of what I should be doing.

After my health struggles, it’s much easier to say “no, I’m not going to do that because I don’t like doing it”. As a youngster, it’s not that easy to behave like that but if one learns about the “power of no” they can avoid a lot of the problems I endured.

Message to people struggling with stress

Even though I bounced back, it took me nearly 3.5 years before I could function for eight hours a day again.

My message to others is to avoid medication, especially stimulants and sleeping tablets unless they have medical conditions that cannot be treated by eating for your personal genetic makeup. I also highly recommend everyone to get their genetics and their amino acid levels tested as a start.

Also, make sure you are getting a decent night’s sleep every single night and get some exercise, even just a thirty-minute walk every day.

Most of us, especially as we get older, will have vitamin or mineral deficiencies. So, it’s necessary to get regular blood tests to understand the body’s performance and act on them immediately.

Lastly, learn how to master the “go with your gut” feeling. It’s a very difficult skill to learn but it’s key to your mental wellness and contentment as you get older.

Now It’s Your Turn…

Have you been in a situation like this? Do you think finance professionals overwork? Comment below and let us know how you handle “stress”.

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