Murray Barnetson: From burnout to buoyant CFO

DoughGetters’ Murray Barnetson makes a case for taking care of yourself to avoid burnout.

Murray Barnetson grew up in Pretoria, with a family where CAs were in high supply. “My dad, sister, some uncles and cousins are CAs, so it ran in the family. Dad was entrepreneurial as a CA and through him I realised that the CA qualification has two main streams: one is practice, one is business.”

Not one to sit in university halls, he studied through Unisa and qualified as a CA when doing his articles at EY.

After 17 years of post-articles experience as a financial director both in South Africa and the UK, he founded Part Time FD in 2012. The firm provides financial director services to clients and prides itself in providing a complete financial management solution to SMEs.

Going full speed
As an ambitious, high performer, Murray poured his heart into nurturing the enterprise, but being a self-confessed control freak, he never thought anyone could do the job better than him. Scaling the business turned out to be exceedingly difficult as he slaved day and night to service the growing clientele.

By 2017, he was the CFO for 15-20 clients. “Even if you are a part-time service provider, the responsibility is still a full-time one,” he notes. “It got to the place where in 2017, I was working from 6am to 10pm, seven days a week without a break. I was taking tablets to get to sleep and taking stimulants to stay awake during the day.”

The unrelenting schedule and medication turned out to be a lethal combination that was slowly poisoning him. His stress turned to depression and despite being exhausted and in a downward spiral, he kept powering on, pushing himself until his body signalled that something was seriously wrong. Eventually he started getting chest pains, so his wife marched him off to the doctor, who told him that if he did not take his foot off the gas, he would be in serious trouble.

A life-changing diagnosis
Murray was officially burnt out, a term often thrown around, but which the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified as an “occupational phenomenon”. WHO defines burnout as: “A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Some of its markers are feelings of being depleted or exhausted, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job, and reduced professional efficacy.”

Following doctor’s orders, Murray pulled back on the work front. “My partner took on a lot of the clients. That was when we decided to change the model of the business and focus more on the bookkeeping, tax and accounting side, which is also easier to scale.”

Though he was on the mend, in the back of his mind, he knew that there was something more complex that had led to the burnout. He went on a journey to find answers and saw 13 medical professionals, “They included GPs, immunologists, endocrinologists, psychiatrists and physicians. They did test after test and most of my results were normal. They tried five or six antidepressants and various stimulants, but the side effects were often worse than the symptoms. Eventually my sister suggested that I get a genetics test, and this turned out to be a massive turning point.”

The tests he undertook focused on nutrigenomics. This examines a patient’s genetic variations to identify areas of weakness (and strengths) and focuses on using food and supplements to support the system where there are genetic deficiencies or what foods to avoid. His assessment revealed that his genetic make-up was not suited to chronic stress and he discovered that he has a double MTHFR gene mutation which inhibits the way the body processes folic acid, the man-made version of vitamin B9. The results also revealed that his liver is sluggish, so avoiding certain toxins is key.

Murray learned that in the 1970s medical scientists discovered that folic acid could reduce the rate of spina bifida by 30 percent so most countries started fortifying foodstuffs, mainly grain, including wheat, maize and rice. This means that almost everything a modern-day human consumes contains folic acid. The problem, which is only now becoming apparent, is that 50 percent of the population has at least one mutation on the MTHFR gene and 30 percent have a double mutation. In these cases, folic acid is often referred to as a methylation blocker, an important and very complicated cycle in the body. In his case, because his body was depleted, the folic acid impact was far more noticeable, and eating a pizza would mean he couldn’t work for two days. “My brain felt like it was stuck in syrup,” he says.

“What people don’t realise about stress is that it affects everybody in a different way. The effect on my body was that my organs were starting to shut down. Everything I did and ate had a huge impact on me. For example, certain types of exercise would invigorate me, while others would wipe me out for up to a week – similar to what the pizza did to me, but worse,” explains Murray.

A better, more holistic way of life
Armed with his newfound knowledge, he made changes to his diet, and his health improved within days.

Months into his recovery, he has bounced back massively but still battles on some days. Further blood tests revealed very depleted levels of some amino acids, which makes sense given the genetic make-up and stress he has endured. He is very hopeful that supplementing for those amino acids will get him to a better place than ever before. Now in a much happier space, Murray says it’s about working smarter, not harder.

Reflecting on the pressure that comes with an economy battered by Covid-19, his advice for other leaders is that they should be aware of the toll and consider psychological support and in more severe cases, DNA testing for their teams, and treat it as a sustainable business issue.

“A lot of the stress and pressure we are facing is new. Many industries have changed, some will recover, or will have a long uncertain journey to recovery. I learned the hard way that there is a finite amount you can draw on someone’s ability or time and if you consistently push on that, you’re asking for trouble at some stage.”

For him, it has become more obvious that companies that care about the workforce will have to start investing in support from a psychological angle, for instance with coaches who are able to help employees navigate tough times.

On a practical, day-to-day level, he says that keeping in mind that people are working remotely business leaders need to be explicit about what is urgent and what can wait. He points out that in the absence of face-to-face interaction, some employees can feel overwhelmed with multiple tasks that seem hugely important, and it can be stressful to juggle them all.

“Consider redefining outcomes from your staff, and give them more clarity as to what they really need to achieve for the company. You need to insist that staff take breaks and holidays, for at least two weeks at a time because the body needs a stress-free period to flush out the stress hormones and refresh itself.”

Murray now operates by the 80/20 principle, which says you identify the inputs that are potentially the most productive and prioritise those.

Reflecting on his career, he says: “I’m in a far better place than I have been in a while. I have finally discovered my niche and along with my partners feel that we are changing the face of accounting through bleeding edge technology.”

Murray’s current venture is Doughgetters Accounting, a dynamic, fresh platform that supports client’s bookkeeping, accounting, payroll and business ecosystems through the cloud. They also help clients design and implement back office ecosystems by plugging in apps to each other to provide efficiencies previously only available to much bigger platforms like SAP.

He has learned that when you face a health challenge you need to be as proactive as possible in your healing and be part of the solution. “If the doctors are not making any difference, you have to research and study yourself as well and challenge them on information you find. If they can’t answer or don’t make sense to you, keep looking for somebody who can. That's why it took 12 practitioners before I found a nutrigenomicist who made a massive difference. Also, through research, it helps you work out why you are not feeling good and what to avoid. I now know my triggers and detect small changes much faster.”

Murray is proof that pushing and powering through doesn’t always end in victory, that there is a far more elegant, sustainable way of finding success. “But,” he concludes, “never give up. Unless you have serious defects, there is always a solution. You just have to find it! For both back office ecosystems and one’s health”, he says with a wink.