‘Subconsciously I still draw smileys every day’

Introducing Maarten Heetla, Manager of Digital Integration/Architecture at Accenture Interactive

A few years ago, a portrait about 30-year-old Maarten Heetla would have read very differently to the portrait you’re about to read. It took him quite a while to move past the taboo and embarrassment that he feels still cling to mental health issues and the act of being open about them. By sharing his story, he hopes to help break down barriers and inspire other people to seek help or speak up too. “Saying how you really feel can still be quite difficult in the corporate world.”  

Maarten was born in Meppel, a small city in the northeast of Holland. He describes the first few years of his life as “very happy”. “Until the age of four I was a happy, well-functioning child. But then my behavior started to change and I became more and more angry, aggressive, or at times, withdrawn. While I managed to act ‘normally’ in school, things deteriorated quickly at home. My parents took me to the doctor, who diagnosed me with pretty much every mental disorder out there. ADHD, PDD-NOS, ODD – I seemed to tick every box. In his opinion, medication was the only solution. And so that’s the approach we took. I started taking Ritalin at the age of five, and that was that. 

Aside from causing me to gain quite a bit of weight, the meds also flattened my mood and behavior. After a year of me taking them, my parents started to openly question whether pills were really the answer. They didn’t like the idea of their six-year-old son on medication and wondered if there wasn’t perhaps another way to deal with my issues? They followed their intuition and decided to look for a psychiatrist who was willing to explore alternative options with them. That decision, and my parents’ determination to find better ways to handle the problem, had a massive impact on my life. I’m forever grateful to them for fighting for what they believed was right for me, and I have no doubt I’d be a different person today if they hadn’t.  

Half a decade of intense therapy 

Five years of intense therapy followed. Once a week, my mom would pick me up from school early to drive me to Assen for a 1,5-hour cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) session. While CBT was often used to treat adults, it wasn’t a common treatment for children at the time – in fact, my parents were told that at that point, I was the youngest child to receive this type of therapy in the Netherlands. I vividly remember how every session started with me having to draw a face that expressed how I was feeling at that particular moment. One day the face would be smiling, other days its mouth would be a flat line, and on others it would be looking sad. That activity forced me to learn how to identify how I was actually feeling and acknowledge my own emotions. When I had mastered that skill, everything changed. Gradually I learned how to deal with my emotions, my ADHD and, essentially, myself. 

However, it still took me a long time to get over the shame and taboo that is often associated with ADHD and similar mental health issues. It was only when I was 20 years old that I started to appreciate what having ADHD has given me, and began using it as a skill. Today, I consider my ability to identify and manage my own emotions very valuable, and greatly benefit from the numerous tools that I learned at therapy. Subconsciously, I still draw mental smileys every day. Once I’ve established how I’m feeling at a particular moment, I’m then better positioned to respond appropriately and act upon that emotion. I personally believe that you can never resolve someone’s ADHD – not even with medication. For me, it’s not about getting rid of it; it’s about learning how to cope with the characteristics and using it in a way that benefits both me and the people around me. I’ve found that I can now draw on my diagnosis as a strength. ADHD has given me my love for structure (and therefore my ability to create it), my disciplined character and my capacity to be extremely focused, which are all ‘benefits’ that help me in certain ways in life.   

There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to humans

My parents’ drive to think outside of the box and explore different avenues was life-changing. It also forms the basis of my main take-out from the whole experience: that there truly is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to humans. As cliché as it might sound, it remains true: every human being is unique.  

This is why I feel we as a company need to focus on the individual and constantly consider what they personally need to develop and perform optimally. I firmly believe that you can only perform to the best of your ability if you’re happy and energized. For me, it’s my number one priority – both in my personal and my professional life – to create an environment in which a person can flourish. And in order to achieve that, we need to ensure that everyone’s personal needs and wishes are fulfilled.  

However, this isn’t only the responsibility of the company; the individual has a role to play here too. They should regularly reflect on how they’re feeling and continually assess whether what they’re doing professionally resonates with their personal values and purpose. It can be very challenging to be that honest with yourself and to build in those regular moments of reflection, but it’s so important. Only if you keep looking in the mirror, can you ensure positivity and satisfaction at work. In this way, constant reflection contributes greatly to your well-being and also helps to make you a happier and more productive employee. So it’s not only you that benefits, but also your client and employer. Talk about a win-win-win situation!”  

You can’t play at the Champions League level every day

At Accenture we still have things to learn and changes to make when it comes to focusing on the individual and their personal needs. We’re definitely in a transitional phase and we are most certainly making progress, but there are still important steps to be taken. After all, if we’re committed to regularly assessing how happy our clients are, we should be doing the same for our employees too. We are already measuring almost everything that can be measured, so why don’t we measure their happiness?  

I often compare our work to playing sports at the highest level. Working for Accenture means you’re playing Champions League. As any professional soccer player knows, you can’t keep performing like that every day. We all need to look after ourselves to ensure we keep fit and stay at the top of our game. In professional sports, that requires considering what you eat, how you train and what your recovery trajectory looks like after a game. These parameters will be different for everyone. Essentially, companies should consider these sorts of factors when ‘assessing’ employees.  

This is especially important because it’s still not always easy to be open about how you really feel in a corporate environment. For example, if you’re up for a promotion, you probably wouldn’t even consider talking about how you struggle with the pressure to perform or the mild burnout symptoms you’re experiencing. While your workplace should feel like an open, safe environment where you can express your real feelings, it doesn’t always work this way in reality. Looking out for our employees should continue to be at the top of our agenda. 

Practicing what I preach

Coaching plays a crucial role here. It’s the best way for us as a company to monitor how employees are doing and feeling, figure out what they need to succeed as well as what frustrates them, and anticipate issues appropriately. I started on a trajectory to become a coach a few months ago. So far, it has been an extremely interesting and insightful process. I can’t wait to practice what I preach and help colleagues to overcome obstacles and access what they need to thrive. In the same way that I feel that this company offers me the perfect environment in which to explore, learn and grow, I think I would find it very fulfilling to play a part in creating a similar setting for my colleagues. 

I’ve had to learn how to create the right conditions for performance for myself too. Today, I have no trouble whatsoever with closing my laptop and walking away for a bit when work is just not flowing and I’m struggling to think. By quite literally distancing myself from work, I give myself the time and space to be more creative and productive. Most importantly, it helps me to enjoy my job more. Forcing myself to push through a mental block is completely counterproductive: it only leaves me frustrated and at risk of going into a downward spiral. The only way to prevent or break that pattern is to get a change of scenery. I just need that headspace to find the energy to do my job again. A perfect way to achieve this is to get on my racing bike for a few hours to clear my head. This approach is yet another way for me to look in the mirror, mentally draw that emoticon and establish both how I’m feeling and what is best for me in that moment. I always return home from these rides with a smiley face.   

What I do

As a digital architect I am constantly thinking about solutions and developing new ones. The solution in question, which could be a new app or the optimization of an existing platform, differs depending on the goal, of course. I map out where we want to go, explore options that will take us there and ultimately decide which one is most suitable. 

A day in my life

As a morning person I like to get up early. But I never get out of bed without first reading something – often a few pages of a book about the brain and people; I never read fiction – followed by a cup of coffee with Juliëtte, my girlfriend. My ideal day includes a lot of communication and interaction with colleagues, which is what energizes me the most. I love thinking up new ideas, working on a project as part of a team and achieving great success together.  

Advice to fellow and future colleagues

Look at the people around you and listen to them. You can learn so much from your colleagues – from both their achievements and their mistakes. But above all, don’t forget to look at and listen to the most important person: you! 

Maarten Heetla (1991)

Studied: MA Information Science, University of Amsterdam (2015) 

Started working at Accenture: October 2015 

Relationship status: Living with Juliette (Juul) 

Loves: Being around people and walking in the Oosterpark with Guusje, our Labradoodle 

Gets annoyed by: Injustice 

Favorite food:  I love food in general but if I have to pick one dish it would be a Tournedos Rossini. I have special memories associated with this meal 

On my nightstand: My e-reader 

Listens to: Pretty much everything. If you look at my playlists on Spotify you’ll find anything from songs by Lil Kleine to piano ballads 

Last purchase: A new harness for Guusje 

Would like to sit next to in the plane: ​​Sir David Attenborough. His drive and passion are really inspiring. He moved me again with his speech at the recent UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) 

Life-changing event: My parents’ decision to get me into therapy 

The best lesson life has taught me: Never stop listening to your inner voice 

What I learned recently: That coaching people is not about telling them what to do  

Most beautiful place on earth: Singapore. Walking down the carpet in Changi Airport feels like coming home to me  

Hobbies/passions: Cycling 

What my colleagues don’t know about me: The story I shared here 

Life motto: You are the master of your own destiny. As you are in charge, don't let others decide your journey for you. And look after yourself as well as you would others 

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