Sustainability Sessions: Happy, Healthy Career Advice

Following last week’s discussion about sustainable fashion, this week Fearne Cotton, June Sarpong MBE and Emma Gannon joined Melissa Hemsley to share their advice for maintaining a happy, healthy career in the latest instalment of the Sustainability Sessions.


The word “networking” strikes fear into many, myself included. Although I love to meet people, discuss ideas and find out about people’s passion projects, put this into a professional context and I frequently become mumbly, clumsy and far from my best self. Walking into Ennismore Sessions House for the Sustainability Sessions last night, I was desperately hoping to avoid another encounter along these lines, scrabbling around my mind for a few confidence-inspiring quotes, trying to calm my feelings of imposter syndrome and focus on the evening ahead: a panel discussion on how to have a happy, healthy career.

So hearing that one of the evening’s panelists Emma Gannon, a podcaster-best-selling author-broadcaster and someone who I’ve admired greatly over the last three years, had a similar feeling walking into the Women of the Year lunch just hours earlier was not just surprisingly reassuring but felt even (almost) relatable. Melissa Hemsley’s Sustainability Sessions seem to instil similar feelings across its audiences; the intimate set-up and lively, laugh-a-minute conversations provide a perfect framework for honest and reflective advice and idea exchanges.

Last night, Melissa and Emma were joined by June Sarpong MBE, the new director of creative diversity at the BBC, and broadcaster, podcaster and author Fearne Cotton to discuss their creative careers and the 21st Century world of work. Here are some of the highlights from the sincere, candid and open discussion:

It’s OK to say ‘no’
Fearne finds herself in a positive professional space: “I’m giving so much less of a shit these days,” she said, admitting she’s saying no to things, being honest and caring less, and as a result she’s saying how she really feels. Gone are the days of sandwiching requests to colleagues with effusive praise and polite “if it’s not too much trouble”-type requests.  Since moving into a more autonomous work set-up, Fearne is thriving from taking back control, setting boundaries and “saying goodbye to stuff that doesn’t feel right.”

The panelists all said they’d faced burn out at various points in their career, and stressed the importance of saying no. “Nothing is worth bad health; nothing is worth your mental health going down the drain,” said Emma, speaking not only about taking on an overwhelming volume of projects and commitments, but also about office politics. Having always planned to “invest in myself,” she said that the pressure of office politics played a part in her decision to go freelance several years ago, leaving a sought-after role at Conde Nast to pursue her podcasting and blogging full time. “Work place politics can make you really ill,” she said, encouraging anyone who finds themselves in a difficult professional environment to “keep your side of the street clean” and always ensure you keep email trails. 

Celebrate the everyday successes

June made the astute observation that so often we focus on our professional highs and lows – not the day-to-day steady successes, the seemingly “stagnant” space between the big wins and losses; “We’re obsessed with extremes!” she shouted. This came as a revelation to Fearne – as well as many others in the room – who instantly agreed: “And I’m only figuring this out now!?” Both June and Fearne applied this to their experience in television, an industry where presenters (actors, producers, scriptwriters – the list goes on) are often made to feel disposable, followed by a constant sense that there is always someone standing in the wings ready to take your place if you can’t cut it. 

Maintain a positive headspace

Although it’s no easy task, the speakers agreed that maintaining a positive headspace is crucial to overcoming professional obstacles. “I dreamed myself into this career,” said Fearne, who attributes much of her success to her enthusiasm and her ability to envision her dreams as though they are already a reality in her mind. June has taken to meditating to maintain her balance and wellbeing, and Emma finds that solo trips to the seaside help to bring clarity to her busy mind.

Surround yourself with the right people

In a similar vein, the panel noted that surrounding yourself with the right people can be one of the greatest assets you can bring to your career – these won’t necessarily be friends or colleagues, but individuals working in your sector or area of interest. Whether it be a mentor or a sponsor, as June suggested, finding the people who can “light up” the fields you are passionate about will drive your enthusiasm forward. With sponsors, June said to be clear about how they can help you, whether it’s an email introduction or a piece of advice on a specific problem you’re facing.

The discussions always end with a recommendation from the panelists, a takeaway for the audience that will continue to inspire. Emma recommended the podcast Hurry Slowly; Fearne recommended Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic; and June left us with a quote from William Sloan Coffin Jr.: ‘Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, and perhaps the most dangerous thing for a society to be without’. 

On the topic of networking, Melissa shared a helpful tip from the careers advice platform The Step Up Club, that I’ll end with as my takeaway from the evening; networking needn’t feel intimidating, if you mentally reframe the term to mean “conversations with purpose.” Speak and listen with purpose, and see where it can take you and who it can introduce you to. 

In the concluding Q&A, an audience member asked for advice as she finds herself in a negative and upsetting work environment. A few tears fell as she spoke, and the atmosphere in the room shifted from one of celebration and praising the panel’s individual successes, to one of collective support and understanding. Fearne and June stressed the importance of setting boundaries and shared tips on how to change the situation for the better, but perhaps the best outcome was that after the session, person after person came over to offer their support, to say “Girl, I’ve been there”, and to thank her for opening up as she did. Through the sessions, Melissa is creating spaces for, and encouraging, these conversations to take place openly and without judgement. In doing so, the evening demonstrated everything that the panelists had stressed – something I realised as even I – the clumsy mumbler – left with a couple of new professional pals too.

Find out more information on the upcoming Sustainability Sessions and how to get involved.

Read our takeaways from last week’s session on ‘The Conscious Closet’.

Be inspired by more personal stories in our Life As I Know It series.