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Heavy is the head: agency leaders on preserving their mental health during the pandemic

Much has been said about the extent to which the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted mental health, and many employers have been keen to address and minimize the difficulties their employees might be facing at this time. But for those at the top, added pressure and the sense of responsibility for workers’ futures can make for a burden that’s heavy to carry alone.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a severe impact on the mental health of workers at every level, with the struggles around remote working, the pressures of homeschooling and fears over job security, furlough and reduced pay forcing agencies to introduce new measures that care for employee wellbeing. But what toll has it taken on the people behind the tough decisions?

The immediate reaction of many agency bosses when the Covid-19 pandemic first hit was to go into problem-solving mode.

“When all this first began it was very clear that we were in completely new territory,” says Engine chief executive officer Jim Moffat. “In moments like this, what everyone wants is leadership, and for me that meant clear messaging and being completely transparent about what was going on.”

Tanya Brookfield, the chief exec of Elvis, found herself adapting quite quickly: “I’m fairly practical and I wasn’t really thinking about how I was feeling or coping because I was so focussed on doing what was right for the good of the business and the good of the people in it.”

However, she says, it was only a matter of time before the reality of the situation hit home: “As an individual, it’s quite hard – these situations do make you soul search and think about what you stand for. I know in some businesses this period became solely about profit margins. For me, it was about retaining jobs and I was certainly confronted with where my values lie and how I needed to cope.”

Heart on the sleeve

In some instances, bosses have struggled themselves with the emotional impact of lockdown restrictions – including Katy Wright, the managing director of FCB Inferno. “I have only recently taken on the MD role, and I lost my mother to cancer a few months ago. While I have always found work a real refuge, it’s not the same without the camaraderie and interactions of the office and it has made me even more protective of the staff – especially those who live alone.”

Wright says that being so honest probably resulted in her receiving more support. “I have been blown away at the volume of lovely messages I have had from all levels of the agency… and while I’m aware that this may not have happened had I not been so open about my loss, I think it shows the importance of honesty at this time.”

Other bosses say they have struggled to find a balance between being open and honest with employees about their own personal struggles and still remaining calm in order not to encourage further anxiety among staff.

Rania Robinson, the chief executive and partner at Quiet Storm, says that, at times, all good leaders should show vulnerability. ”We are humans, not machines, and people can relate to that. But what I don’t think you can do as a leader is let people see that you are worried, because it will only worry others much more.”

She says there is no doubt that a leadership role can sometimes be an isolating one, and therefore finding networks to turn to for support is essential.

“At Quiet Storm, we have all sorts of surveys and check-ins for our staff, our people have reviews, and if someone does a good job we’re quick to ping them an email to say ’well done’. No one does that for the CEO. And it can be lonely, so you have to get good at finding support networks.”

A problem shared

For those heading up agencies owned by holding companies, such as WPP’s Wunderman Thompson, there is an obvious network of further national and international leaders to turn to for counsel, says chief exec Pip Hulbert.

“As a WPP agency, I feel that a lot of our internal culture has come from WPP. It has been very supportive and it really does feel like everybody has become closer to support each other. There are many initiatives within the business as a whole, but they are looking after leaders as well.”

For those at the helm of independent agencies and without that internal network of leaders, it is important to look to external networks for support, says Robinson.

“I’m a part of Wacl (Women in Advertising & Communications Leadership) and so I have a group of women in that community who have been my support system and, frankly, it has been completely invaluable. Having people who are not in your business who you can talk completely honestly with can lead to frank conversations where you don’t have to be afraid of showing vulnerability.”

When it comes to dealing with their own mental health, most bosses agree that the best course of action is to take their own advice and open up to the people around them about the difficulties they are facing.

Sean Thompson, founder and executive creative director of Who Wot Why, emphasizes how leaders feel a sense of responsibility for their employees, but not necessarily for themselves. Consequently, he says, their mental health can suffer.

“Many leaders might think that they are made of resilient stuff, but that is often not the case. The pressure on leaders is immense and the management team has to support each other and know when one of them is feeling more vulnerable.”

Likewise, Elvis’s Brookfield says that in an industry such as advertising, which is notoriously competitive, it is more important than ever to be vocal about mental health and wellbeing.

“I’d happily talk to any other leaders about this topic because I think we don’t do that enough,” she says. “We can all be so obsessed with competition and pitching and who’s the enemy, but quite frankly there’s plenty of work to go around so why on earth wouldn’t we support each other?”

Perks of the job

For many bosses, the sense of responsibility for the livelihoods of their employees may have been a source of great stress throughout this period, but it can also be a motivator to carry on.

FCB Inferno’s Wright says: “We have to have a look at ourselves and realize the impact we are having on other people around us. People look for strong leadership in times like these and need reassurance that the boat they are on is being steered by capable hands.”

Engine’s Moffat concurs that while the burden of responsibility for keeping a business afloat is a challenge, it comes with the job. “At the end of the day, no one is going to get their violin out for the CEO,“ he says.

“There is a responsibility that comes with seniority, and when you have people who are dependent on you for their future and their family’s future, then it really becomes your honor to do the right thing.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has doubtless affected the wellbeing of workers at every career stage, and those in positions of power are no exception. While the struggles of balancing the financial and emotional repercussions of the pandemic are certainly a challenge, leaders have a duty to care for themselves too if they are to support the people who rely on them through this next chapter.

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.

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