Sarah O’Farrell chats to Mary McCarthy about ambition, mental health and finding the right company for you
Sarah O’Farrell is Behavioural & Psychological Sciences Lead at Accenture Health
I’ve spent nearly a decade working as a behaviour scientist in industry. It’s now becoming a mature field, but when I started, I had to create my own jobs through conversations with leaders.
I live in a gorgeous area but my London experience has not been all Primrose Hill; I’ve lived in a warehouse with 10 others, paying £500 a month rent, eating rice and soy sauce.
I’m up at 7.30am and can’t function without coffee so I have some with oat milk. I'm vegan six days a week for environmental reasons and as I become more immersed in my Masters in neurosciences at King's College and learn more about animal cognition. But I’ve learned my body needs some meat and dairy.
I do my deep work first thing – writing reports, research or writing a proposal for a client. My afternoons are for collaboration, US calls and if particular people are in London for business, I jump at the chance to meet for a working lunch or breakfast.
I’ve started going into the office a bit, but it’s still a faff; you need to book two day in advance. I’ve been through a tough time recently so I structure my day mindfully; I arrange to meet someone for coffee or have a friend call for dinner or I go to a yoga class if I’m home all day.
I’m lucky I have amazing friends here – my best friend from UCD lives around the corner – who have supported me through thick and thin.
In 2002, I studied International Commerce because I liked the idea of working in a large organisation with lots of people. I also taught horse riding part time in Cherry Orchard Equine Centre, Ballyfermot; I had a pony growing up in Enniskerry and worked in a local horse-riding school in sixth year; it was a perfect part-time job. Today, sometimes I go out for a gallop in Windsor Park or across the South Downs, but not as often as I like.
The horse-riding school in Ballyfermot created so much positive social change and opened my eyes to the possibilities of introducing alternative options to shape behaviour.
I did my BComm with German as I had gone to St Kilian’s German school, so was fluent, but first-year in college threw me and I repeated it.
I struggled with balancing teaching horse-riding and my studies but Deirdre Linehan O’Brien at UCD told me it was OK, it was hard to transition from school. When you are not fulfilling a commitment, you already feel bad so when someone says “life gets messy at times” that’s very helpful.
In Commerce, I was taken with consumer psychology, the way marketers convince us and the possibilities of taking tools that change behaviour and applying them to social and humanitarian problems. I did the post-graduate marketing programme at Smurfit and after that, was torn between academia or industry.
The buzz of industry won. But the 2008 financial crisis had just happened and when I applied for a load of management consulting jobs, I did not get one response and I was heartbroken. I packed my bags and headed to the south of France. My parents had an apartment in Nice and as a child we would visit a lot so I knew the area.
I saw an ad in the paper for hosting at a villa owned by the guy who had set up the sofa company DFS. I just had to say ”hello” and bring guests their drinks and food. I was working in the kitchen when I heard an ad on the radio looking for volunteers for a charity set up by this bombastic German guy who had a vision to digitally deliver mindfulness skills.
I tried to double-hat it, but then said I needed paid work and for eight months helped him with fundraising. It was risky to stay longer. I had just graduated and had to get into an organisation that was better run. I met Shaun Whatline of sponsorship agency Redmandarin through the charity and went to work for them in London, but after a year just advising was not enough, I wanted to be out there using marketing to help people make changes for better health.
A friend recommended a Ted talk by Ogilvy vice chairman Rory Sutherland and our ideas matched up perfectly.
I had tried many times to land a job at Ogilvy but had been rejected because you had to start at the entry level with account management and I struggled with operational tasks, so I took the bull by the horns and emailed him, laying out my thoughts.
We chatted for two hours over a load of whiskey sours at the Ivy Club – I was 25 and this was my first foray into a private members club – and after I shared some of my marketing ideas, he referred me to the team in Ogilvy to interview for a role as strategist. A few interviews later and I got the job.
I did this for 18 months but I was saying yes to everything and taking on too much. I needed a big life change so did a Masters in social cognition at UCL where I got such a grounding in behavioural science. I then did six months of a PhD where I worked with behavioural scientist Paul Dolan (author of Happiness by Design) at LSE. But then Bupa offered me a really interesting position.
At Bupa, I discovered mental health needs were not being met which was part of the reason for high absenteeism. So we designed new interventions.
It was exciting stuff. but then the MD of communication consultancy Hill+Knowlton Strategies, who I had met at LSE, told me they wanted to set up a behavioural insight team and it was a big promotion for me. But after 18 months, a headhunter approached me about working on a behavioural science team in New Zealand.
The company made it so easy to move, I met a Kiwi and we fell completely in love. New Zealand was going great and we only moved back to London because of his job. We were there nine months before corona hit and our relationship fell apart.
I wanted to go into innovation and through a boutique recruitment agency I got the Lead Inventor job at ?What If! – an innovation consultancy which was later bought by Accenture.
I would research to find the innovation white spaces and worked mainly in the health space. The experience I got, along with my academic work helped me better understand mental illness prevention, or how to develop better interventions, which led to my current job. I help our clients innovate to deliver better mental health.
Towards the end of lockdown, I started my new role. Starting any job is difficult but when you can’t see people face to face it’s tough. But hats off to Accenture, they have been very open and transparent. They told me we will figure it out together, I did not need to hit a slam dunk every day.
Before corona, I was travelling to places like Switzerland and New York. I enjoy meeting clients, attending conferences and networking and I missed that.
I struggled with long days at the computer. Both myself and my ex-fiancé worked in management consulting and we were incredibly busy as companies were trying to reinvent how they did their business. I found it draining because I got my energy being out in the world with others.
Before I started with Accenture, they told me to take time off to recharge. They knew about the broken engagement and that my physical health had suffered with a thyroid disorder.
I was 32 when I was diagnosed with ADHD and it’s disappointing as all the problems in my early 20s were repeating in my early 30s.
I was constantly taking on too much and getting burnt out is one of the hallmarks. I would hyper focus on work and studies and I always excelled but had nothing left over for other areas in my life such as managing my life admin, making sure bills were up to date, getting to correct airports on time.
I was going to see psychologists, even a psychiatrist, but nobody picked it up and when I finally got treatment I felt ‘why did someone not tell me earlier?’ – it would have saved so much hassle. While medication made me feel I could cope and gave me confidence, I did not want to go this route.
I’ve already struggled with anxiety and depression and I wanted to deal with it another way.
I got an amazing therapist who helped me develop emotional and relational strategies which helped me communicate with my employer. I’m really, really good at certain things, not as good at other types of things, and I’m going to need some support.
Having those conversations at work is scary; maybe you feel some people use them against you, consciously or unconsciously, but you have to overcome this.
It’s so important you feel the company you are working for supports you and I really feel Accenture has got my back.