Read our new manifesto
Feature

Do you mind? How agency heads hope to support employee mental health through the pandemic

As the coronavirus pandemic continues its grip on the world, the ‘second pandemic’ of resulting ill mental health pervades. With no definite end to lockdown restrictions in sight and virtual working the new norm – how is the advertising industry supporting its workers for the foreseeable future?

The advertising industry has long been infamous for its stressors – with long hours, tight deadlines, high client expectations, and stiff competition among the identifiable marks of the trade – it is “notorious for employee burnout,” says Ewen MacPherson, group chief people officer at Havas UK.

As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, the increased need for robust care around mental health and wellbeing has become apparent. Yet with national health services struggling to cope with increased demand, and private healthcare inaccessible for many due to the financial repercussions of the pandemic, there is an increasing expectation for employers to take responsibility for their employee’s mental health and wellbeing. The Drum explores what agencies are doing to support industry worker’s mental health at this time.

Already an issue

Prior to the pandemic, Uzma Afridi, head of careers at Nabs emphasizes that “concerns were already being raised in the industry around a lack of work life balance, the pressures of presenteeism, the lack of flexibility, and employees having to ‘cover’ at work – which is when members of marginalized communities feel as though they have to change or hide parts of their identify or behaviour in order to fit in at work.”

Therefore, many agencies already had certain mental health and wellbeing measures in place, which they were able to rely upon when the pandemic first began.

Nicola Murray, business director at M&C Saatchi explains, “We have our designated mental health first aiders, who were already in place prior to the outbreak, but we increased the communication around them and their availability to make sure they were accessible to everyone in the business.”

Yet for many, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated issues around mental health and wellbeing, with emerging evidence also suggesting that the impact of lockdown restrictions have not only worsened mental health, but widened the inequalities that contribute to ill mental health.

Those factors include social isolation, job and financial losses, housing insecurity and loss of quality in living environments, as well as the loss of traditional coping mechanisms due to closures and the need for social distancing.

As a result, “employer responsibility has certainly shifted,” says Louise Lang, interim managing director for Northern Europe at Virtue.

“In the past where people might have looked to their home or out-of-work life for positivity and balance, Covid has removed all sense of that control. Working hours might not have changed, but it's taking up so much more of our mental capacity.”

Finding balance

Due to the pressures of remote working, the struggle to maintain a work-life balance was an initial concern for many agencies, several of whom told The Drum that following the shift to remote working, they were quick to emphasize the wellbeing aspects of their employee care strategies.

“For example, back in April a lot of our staff were concerned about nutrition,” says Murray, “so we booked in some sessions with a nutrition expert to address those concerns around that time.”

Similarly, over at Havas, the team in charge of wellbeing made an effort to digitize the programme that was already in place in the office. “Our HIIT instructor who already came into the office once a week moved his practice online, and so as much as possible we tried to continue as normal, although we did see demand for certain other offerings increase.”

“Personal development coaching sessions that were previously available on a first-come, first serve basis suddenly became so popular we had to almost double our provision,” says MacPherson.

Beyond yoga

Yet Afridi from Nabs emphasizes that, as the pandemic has gone on “organizations are beginning to realize that [mental health care] goes beyond yoga classes.”

“Proper wellbeing support is ensuring that your staff are supported with empathy and compassion and that their individual needs are met. It’s also about recognizing people’s needs within the D, E&I space, ensuring that minoritized groups are treated with equity.”

Many agencies have now pivoted to a multi-pronged approach. Joe Conrad, founder and chief executive officer of Denver-based indie agency, Cactus explains: “First, we built YOU @ Cactus, a personalized well-being platform for our team. We also give every employee a subscription to the Calm app to help support their mental health anytime, anywhere. And finally, we dedicate a full half-hour every week to what we call ’Thrive Thursday,’ where we encourage our employees to keep that time sacred and use it for their personal mental health.”

Across the board, agencies have observed that the most effective way to ensure good employee mental health has been a comprehensive, preventative strategy – handled on a case-by-case basis.

MacPherson from Havas says: “Different people need different things at different times, so our mindset is very much that we need to be as accommodating and as flexible as possible or as required on an individual basis.”

In many instances, it would appear to be the small, practical changes that make the most difference. Whether that be anticipating employee burnout following a big deadline, or encouraging employees to take breaks as needed, especially for rest and physical exercise.

As Lang from Virtue explains: “People were showing difficulties maintaining boundaries, and so we reinforced that it is not a problem to ask for a bit of downtime. These things might seem small but they are not insignificant.”

“They are also especially effective if managers are offering them preemptively, as opposed to employees having to ask.”

Throughout the pandemic, work has been an immense source of stress for many. From the pressures of home working, balancing home working with homeschooling, and struggles with maintaining a work-life balance – to fears over job security, redundancy, and financial difficulty due to pay cuts. There is an increasing need for employers to recognize the pressures on employees, and care for them as individuals accordingly.

As Afridi for Nabs explains, when it comes to best practice, “the pandemic has brought to life the fact that mental health covers a broad spectrum, and that mental health challenges can impact anyone.

“This is a step forward in reducing the stigma around mental health; we’re seeing more people speak openly about their challenges, and how they’re seeking support for those be it through therapy or a helpline such as Nabs’ Advice Line. Agencies can’t ignore mental health, and hopefully, this change in attitudes will encourage them all to put wellbeing support in place for their employees.”

Check out The Drum’s special Health hub, which examines how the key players – from health agencies to pharma firms to brands – are doing their part to return the world to normality.