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How do you solve a problem like... lockdown fatigue?

Each week, we ask readers of The Drum – from brands, agencies and everything in between – for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners.

It’s no secret that for many staff, working from home during the pandemic has been pretty exhausting. And despite the views of the prime minister, who referred to work from home arrangements as “days off,“ the year has been tiring for everyone, with the usual means of recharging one’s batteries – a quick holiday away, or even just a pint at the local – off the menu.

We asked marketers and agency figures from across the world what measures they’d put in place to address their colleagues’ lockdown fatigue.

How do you solve a problem like... lockdown fatigue?

Trevor Robinson OBE, executive creative director and founder, Quiet Storm

Honestly, I don’t have a magic cue to enthuse people to get back to work and fight off fatigue! And lockdown has been especially hard on our creatives. But over the last year, we’ve had regular Zoom drinks to talk about non-work-related things. We’ve sent out wellbeing surveys to keep morale alive and make sure we’re listening. In response, we've implemented wellbeing benefits and encouraged more flexible working so people can balance their lives.

The promise of a Covid-friendly setup in the office is a compelling one. Seeing each other in person will definitely help shake things up and re-energize the team going forward.

Jessica Gilmartin, global head of regional marketing, Asana

Every knowledge worker – all 1.25 billion of them worldwide – has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to our data, 71% of workers experienced burnout at least once in 2020. Marketers experienced it more than any other industry, with that figure stretching to 85%. This isn’t surprising. On top of the mental toll of continuous lockdowns and the uncertainty of the pandemic, workers are finding it harder than ever to separate work and life. In fact, three-quarters of knowledge workers struggle with switching off as a result of remote work.

To create a workplace that fosters employee wellbeing, Asana has focused on finding ways to prevent burnout before it’s too late. I use Asana to map out my team's campaign calendar so we can re-prioritize and load balance work before burnout strikes. I’m also constantly reminding my team to take a holiday (even if they're staying home), create separation between their work and home time, and block time off for lunch. Asana has been extremely forward-thinking in supporting our employees' mental health, in particular, providing monthly company-wide holidays for all of us to be able to fully disconnect from our work. More than ever, we need to put our people first and the work second.

Tahlisha Williams, chief inclusion, equity and diversity officer, North America, Wunderman Thompson

It’s a harsh reminder that we are all living the reality and trauma of staff fatigue when you think of the events surrounding Covid-19: virtual work, political uprisings, racial injustices, economic hardships, change, and loss of every kind – and all in a year’s time. Employees are simply finding it hard to recover, and as an organization, we recognize that this is not, nor ever will be business as usual.

We’re in unchartered territory and often look to the voices of our employees to figure out better ways to support them. By continuously connecting with our employee community, we’re able to have conscious conversations beyond the work and learn firsthand how to create resources for and best support our biggest asset, our people.

Beth Freedman, UK chief executive officer, Dentsu X

At Dentsu X we continue to do what we did throughout lockdown; we listen and look for cues that people are struggling. We unashamedly ask, ‘are you okay?’ and ‘how can we help?’ and then we act without hesitation.

The last few months have been even more challenging because we can see the end of lockdown on the horizon. To combat this, we’ve focused on actions that can provide the most relief to our team and break the fatigue of isolation and endless screen time. This includes meeting-free days, lunch-hour protection, continued support for flexible working schedules, and a weekly drop-in forum with me and the agency exec for any team member to share thoughts, concerns, or ideas.

We have a family mentality here, and this increase in sensitivity and hyper-vigilance of our collective wellbeing will be something we strive to maintain even in a post-Covid world.

Richard Friar, managing director, Starcom

’I home from work’ was an expression I heard early in the pandemic. It's not as funny as it sounds, and is unfortunately far too common.

At Starcom, we place a strong focus on being kind to ourselves and to each other. This has driven a set of behaviors that we’ve adopted as a team – from finding our own daily rhythm (for me it starts with a run), reclaiming our lunch hours (eat, walk, no meetings!), and celebrating every success (big and small).

This is underpinned by Headline – our amazing team of mental health ambassadors, who provide support to anyone who is finding the situation particularly difficult. These important steps go some way to helping our team WFH, not HFW.

Lucy Doubleday, managing partner, We Are Social

With little else going on over the winter, people have been throwing themselves into work. We’ve tried to combat fatigue primarily through a combination of small habit changes and distractions.

Examples include blocking out lunch hours, keeping the office open for those who need it, internal Random Acts of Kindness postcards, a kids’ art competition, wellness sessions (such as 'learning about the power of joy'), and leadership being open about their own struggles.

But after the initial rush of Zooms, we’ve also found that people don’t want too many prescribed company initiatives. Here, listening to feedback has been essential. People want the freedom to socialize with colleagues and teams in their own way, they want to find their own tribes and groups and we facilitate this, but let others lead conversations. We already spend a lot of time online, so we’ve learned not to add to the load and let people form their own habits.

Clare Lin, senior director HRBP APAC, Verizon Media

We’ve stayed mindful of the burnout, rising stress, and anxiety levels of our employees and launched our Work Wellness campaign designed to empower employees to improve their wellbeing and practice self-care. For any support to be meaningful, it has to be relevant to an employee's unique challenges and fit their lives – there can be no prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach.

Unlike regular years, we noticed employees were not taking leave as travel plans ceased. In response, alongside implementing flexible work arrangements for employees, our leaders and managers were reminded to encourage their teams to take time off to relax and rejuvenate.

Traditionally, employees have feared opening up about mental health issues in the workplace, so we have created an open, safe space for communication and dialogue through channels such as virtual Q&As with our leaders, 24/7 confidential crisis counseling support, and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) such as our Neurodiversity ERG and the Parents And Caregivers Together (PACT) ERG in addition to regular activities such as virtual mindfulness sessions.

Doug Main, creative director for creative digital agency The Bigger Boat

If you’re only thinking about this now, then you’ve probably missed the boat. We’ve enjoyed a designated wellbeing hour every Friday. It’s been great for not only discussing and exploring different ways of alleviating fatigue – such as meditation, yoga and time management – but it has given us a focal point to come together as a collective and share experiences.

I’d also recommend providing goal-setting frameworks that enable employees to play a larger part in your wider business goals. Colleagues who are given the tools to really influence growth plans are re-energized and motivated to do more, as well as helping them to feel valued that their voice is being heard.

Courtney Berry, managing director at Barbarian

One of our biggest challenges is that we can‘t address the real source of staff fatigue—facing unprecedented challenges for over a year while also needing to move at clip speed in a static environment in which we’re under-stimulated.

While we can’t control the macro-issues going on in the world, we as agency leaders do have some power to safeguard our teams’ calendars, and therefore sanity. We’ve implemented a strict ’No Zoom Zone’ on Wednesday afternoons to provide a reprieve from back-to-back calls. Additionally, we have a daily 45-minute ’Boost Break’ hold for Barbarians to use as needed. These are sacred blocks on our calendars that are simple tools for everyone to respect each other’s time and mental energy.

Andrew Carlson, chief experience officer, Organic

Top-down solves won’t help a dislocated, bone-tired team. Company policies that felt stiff and icky in person are ten times more so distributed. At Organic we’re focused on gardening over directing. We can't force anything, but we can make it more likely something good will happen.

We remind people to take their vacations. We give teams autonomy to set their hours and work style. We trust each other. Camera-on is optional. We have realistic norms for DM hours. Outlook’s Send Later function was made for this moment. Hug it with both hands. We do the group things like trivia nights and team Headspace subscriptions but you have to be careful not to force the fun. If you schedule another video call it better be worth it.

Camilla Harrisson, CEO and partner, Anomaly London

Lockdown fatigue is recognized universally but experienced individually. The unrelenting intensity of remote working and the ‘bleed’ into home life means personal boundaries have become critical. Some people need to work earlier, others later. And everyone needs breaks.

There’s no silver bullet but companies can create a more flexible culture that empowers staff to work in the best way for them. For example, we provide remote exercise classes, psychotherapy sessions, Headspace Premium, and time management training for everyone. And most recently we’ve even given everyone a step tracker and are encouraging ‘actually mobile’ phone calls instead of the never-ending Zooms.

Kathy Delaney, global chief creative officer of Publicis Health and Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness

Zoom fatigue is a very real thing. Even for the most self-absorbed people in adland, looking at a screen all-day-long and staring at yourself can take a toll. For many people, especially creatives, the energy we receive and give back when we’re physically together is difficult to replicate in a fully virtual environment.

A simple solution is to earmark one day out of the week when video calls are banned. Let’s start the #ZoomFreeFriday movement! Voice and text conversations are fine these days, and we won’t have to worry about being ’on’ all of the time.

Jemima Monies, deputy managing director, Adam&Eve DDB

Little things can have a big impact. We’ve made lunch breaks mandatory when no meetings can be booked, actively discouraging anyone from wolfing a sandwich at their home desk. We’ve put a 20 or 50-minute ceiling on meetings to ensure there’s always ten minutes downtime before the next one starts, preventing back-to-back Zoom calls.

And we’ve introduced a delay send (to the next day) email policy for work messages after 6 pm. Individually, these things might not sound earth-shattering but collectively, they’ve helped people practically while sending out an important message about our commitment to mental health and wellbeing.

While you’re here, fancy taking a quick survey to help The Drum gauge the impact of the last year on marketers’ mental health? The survey is open to anyone that works in advertising or marketing, anywhere in the world, at any level of seniority, and it’s completely anonymous.

Feel like joining in the discussion? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com to be included in future editions of this series.

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