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Agency leaders have a duty to discourage advertising and media's unhealthy long hours culture

The advertising and media sector has always harnessed what can only be described as bragging rights concerning the "work hard, play hard, work harder" tendency of the industry.

We all laughed (slightly hysterically) when the EU brought in its Working Time Directive a few years back, and cried with quiet envy for our friends in Sweden who, as national standard practice applied in October, are now only required to work 6 hours a day.

But why are persistent long working hours in the UK still seen as a hard earned decoration of merit? In this day and age, of increased levels of workplace related stress and poor sleep habits (due in part to anxiety and of taking work to bed), why do some people still think that recording 'only' 8 hours of daily work on your time-sheets represents some kind of failure to commit?

In the last couple of years, it has become increasingly evident to me that long hours are nothing more than a relentless spiral of pressure, stress and diminishing focus. There is something oddly narcotic about working 12-hour days week after week after week. People seem to struggle to pull themselves out of the habit, whilst willingly beating themselves into a state of total exhaustion and worse. And it does nothing for the quality of output.

An exhausted person is a perpetually distracted one. One who is unable to concentrate, to think creatively, to collaborate effectively, to spot opportunity, to invest time and emotional energy into work or relationships. And yet we are, as the cliché goes, a people business. It's the quality of the individual ideas, conversations, approaches, angles, expressions, evaluations, that our clients pay for and that our business successes are built upon.

So what about if we, as leaders, just actively discourage it? What if, rather than expecting more and more hours every week, we just gave some back – let our people choose the type of working pattern that best suits them; paid for them to go and learn new skills outside of the office, skills that might have nothing to do with the job they're here to do, but just something that will help them thrive; empowered and upskilled people to manage time effectively, to prioritize, to learn to say no, to sleep better, eat better and switch off more completely?

At Maxus that's exactly what we've done with Never Stand Still - a whole programme of initiatives to give people time back and to help them keep moving forward in a positive and fulfilling way, both in their career and their life outside of work.

Retention is a significant challenge in media and marketing at the moment. Millennials, who are becoming a significant proportion of our workforce, are fiercely ambitious and openly look for employers who offer the most rewarding career and the best, most fulfilling life possible. Promoting a healthy work/life balance, inviting people to learn new skills and offering lots of opportunity for exercise and socialising are all ways to nurture their fantastic hunger to grow and move forwards.

In this time when work infiltrates life 24/7, I believe it's the responsibility of all employers to provide their people with the tools, training, empowerment and support to live the best lives they can. That means cutting down the late night office hours, and crafting a culture in which people thrive in and out of work, in order to inspire a more balanced, more productive, more creative and happier team of people.

Anna Hickey is managing director of Maxus UK