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The importance of mindfulness: How ad agencies can help their staff overcome pressure

Jon Kwan

Ahead of Nabs' WellFest tomorrow, Jon Kwan writes the first in a series of articles looking at wellbeing, health and happiness among advertising and marketing professionals.

National Stress Awareness Day took place last week. You may ask yourself why we’d need a day to raise awareness about stress. But when you read the statistics, it soon becomes clear. Suicide, often as a result of a mental illnesses such as depression, is the biggest killer of men under the age of 50, eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. In 2014’s Labour Force Survey, the total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2013/14 was 487 000 (39 per cent) out of a total of 1,241,000 cases for all work-related illnesses.

Having worked within the creative industry for many years, I understand first-hand the stresses and strains of modern life, working under pressure and to deadlines. Seniority and industry experience doesn’t seem to render people immune to these strains either. With more responsibility, more senior clients and bigger budgets, the stakes and pressure can be much higher.

We often have no idea what lies beneath the surface and cannot recognise that somebody is struggling until they have a breakdown or fail to come in to work one day. Like many before me, I have suffered from work-related stress, depression and even panic attacks, so know how seemingly innocuous pressures can build to the point of breaking.

Under difficult external circumstances, negative thoughts and emotions emerge in the mind, like malevolent entities seemingly conspiring within to make you think badly about yourself or others. These can then manifest as a range of unhealthy behaviours such as conflicts with co-workers or feeling angry or depressed. I had been defenceless in this internal battle and spent a few years enthusiastically self-medicating, but after a particularly difficult patch I resolved to do something positive and really understand the workings of my mind.

After years of study, training and practice, meditation, Buddhism, tai chi, yoga and shamanism have all begun to inform my self-awareness and helped me to see my own mind with greater clarity, and this can be applied to your wider workforce too. These mindfulness methods can help you to relax more, think more positively and react less negatively in situations you would find stressful before.

Often we overlook just how important looking after our minds can be. Whilst we take care of our bodies by going to the gym and eating well, we could be approaching the health of the mind in the same way.

Stress remains a big taboo subject in the workplace. A Nabs survey last year found that 52 per cent of those surveyed were worried about admitting to feeling stressed to senior staff, in case it’s viewed as a sign of weakness.

It is important then, that organisations and their senior teams invest in this area to measure, track and improve wellbeing, identify problems with staff before they reach breaking point.

It’s through understanding and accepting the reality of the complex web of perceptions, processes, and personal relationships within an agency, that we can take the first step to creating a truly positive working environment, which will ultimately be most conducive to creativity and innovation and hence produce the best work.

Not only can mindfulness and related programmes significantly improve resilience and wellbeing, they have been proven to be truly worth the investment. A study by the Harvard Business review found that every dollar invested in the intervention yielded $6 in health care savings. The fact is that a happy workforce costs less too.

Whilst suicide may be at the extreme end of the spectrum, mental health issues are on the rise. Proactive employers can use mindfulness-based programmes to boost productivity and wellbeing and help ensure their team keeps thriving no matter what work issues arise.

Jon Kwan is the founder of Pomelo and will be speaking at Nabs' WellFest, a travelling roadshow of workshops, entertainment and activities touring agencies on 11 November.

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