Vox pop: How can agencies improve the mental well-being of their staff?

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Research from Opinium has demonstrated that 92% of people in agencies have suffered with mental well-being, compared to 62% of the wider population. In this Drum Network vox pop, we pick the brains of some of our members to determine how to improve that statistic, and ensure the mental wellbeing of our friends and co-workers.

Caroline Goodwin, operations director, Tangent

Agencies are very good at ticking the boxes when it comes to the quick perks to make their people feel good, like free food, massages and running clubs - which we have! But few tackle the issues that run a bit deeper which can have a direct impact on the mental well-being of a workforce.

We believe that the only way you can make a difference is by communicating, and by that we mean actively asking and actively listening to what our people have to say. Our people and culture manager has a track record of increasing corporate happiness by implementing a variety of initiatives based on the quarterly employee feedback we ask for.

For instance, 47% of our staff are parents and they were looking to see more flexible and remote working schemes to balance parenthood with their careers. Unsurprisingly, this work benefit was also the top request for non-parents. So we quickly instigated a 3-month trial of a new flexible hours policy which we have now permanently adopted.

In addition to this, line managers are encouraged to have regular monthly catch-ups with their team to untangle any topic that may be hard to address in the day-to-day whirlwind. This ensures that we can work to find an agreeable solution for all parties, before any issues boil over.

It’s been said before, but an agency’s only currency is their people and their talent. Consistency with your comms at an agency-level and on a one-to-one basis is the only way you’ll be able to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly. And more importantly, try to find solutions to fix it.

Kristina McCoobery, co-founder and COO, INVNT

As agencies we operate in the ‘people business’ – our employees are our most important asset so first and foremost, it’s vital that we’ve all got a robust people focused strategy in place, a team dedicated to constantly finessing it, and that it is woven throughout all elements of our business models. In recent years the HR Director has stepped up to the c-suite and for good reason – the mental and physical wellbeing of our people is just as – if not more – important as our other key operating functions.

This people strategy should recognize, celebrate and reward employees, and incorporate tactics that prevent them from burning out both physically and mentally.

A transparent culture where conversations are had regularly and feedback shared both ways, from management down and back up again, is important for boosting employee morale as it enables them to have their voice heard.

Incentives let employees know they are valued, and can include providing them with ‘skin in the game’ when they fulfil certain criteria, hosting regular off-sites, and allowing staff to keep the AMEX and airline points they accrue for their personal use. These all act as reminders that we appreciate all that they do for the business.

And if your team worked overtime, thank them and ensure they take some time out to recoup and see their friends and families. It’ll work wonders for their physical and mental wellbeing and they’ll be more productive on their return. At INVNT we call them ‘chill days’ as we recognize how important it is to have this kind of downtime.

Agencies are made up of motivated and intelligent individuals who can become disenchanted if they are no longer challenged. We need to nurture these qualities with internal and external training and mentoring programs, as they ensure employees are constantly learning and growing both professionally and personally.

Finally, every business has a vision, so shout it from the rooftops. By voicing your vision regularly your teams know that they are all working towards a common goal. It unites them and inspires them, and reminds them of the value they add to the business on an individual and departmental level.

Gavin Sherratt, managing director, Mashbo

Agency life is often fast-paced and high pressure, so it’s no surprise that 92% of people working in an agency environment say that have suffered with mental well-being. Of course, putting measures in place to look after your team is important. Offering flexible working, ensuring that people are taking breaks, getting exercise and getting out of the office at a decent time, as well as training people to better understand their own mental health and that of their colleagues through accredited courses like Chasing The Stigma’s ‘Ambassadors of Hope’ [https://chasingthestigma.co.uk/ambassador-of-hope-mental-health-training/] programme should all be standard in this day and age. The sad thing is that it isn’t.

You see, what really needs addressing - if we truly want to reverse this shocking statistic - is the long-worn trope of agency culture. The ‘go hard or go home’ and ‘LET'S EFFING DO IT’ mentality means that so many of the things that contribute to poor mental health - stress, pressure, anxiety, heavy workload, long hours and poor sleep - are seen as intrinsically interlinked with being effective and successful in the agency environment. Agency leaders need to be more thoughtful and considered in managing and motivating teams. Creating a culture in your agency is great, but not if it’s based on worker-hostile practices such as excessive overtime or unrealistic deadlines. Ultimately this just hurts performance, morale and - most importantly - the individuals in our care.

We need to start highlighting the agencies doing amazing things, by working reasonable hours, putting mental health on a par with physical health and having a happier, balanced and productive workforce. That’s our vision at Mashbo. So many of our team have lived experience of mental health issues. We use those to inform our working processes so we can all be happy and productive in our jobs. We’re not perfect yet, but we are doing everything we can to break that archaic agency mould and do it the Mashbo way.

Dave Reed, director, Giants & Titans

Agency cultures that have built up over time have a lot to answer for when it comes to mental health.

All too often employees are time-sheeted to the minute with the aim of maximising billable time, with recruitment taking place only when the agency is significantly over capacity. This results in added and unnecessary stress and pressure being placed on individuals, often leading to a culture that favours presenteeism rather than productivity.

At Giants and Titans, we’ve made a conscious decision to invest in a larger headcount and will often recruit based on forecasts to avoid placing added pressure on our staff.

We’ve also made sure that there isn’t just one person with a given skill set. Each member of our team has another person with overlapping skills to work and share ideas with, so that they don’t feel that if they go on holiday the shit will hit the fan.

While this all sounds like common sense, from hard won experience we’ve seen that reasonable working hours are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to agencies.

Mental health is as important as physical health. As employers we focus on reducing stress and unnecessary pressure in day to day activity, so that when we introduce added benefits like flexible working it really is seen as a benefit rather than a slap in the face for employees who are regularly working evenings and weekends.

The incidences of negative mental health will only continue to grow when there are agencies out there that see their staff as assets to be sweated, rather than people who are supporting the agency’s own wellbeing.

Katherine Sale, director of operations, Croud

Putting mental health at the forefront of policies is key. At Croud, we focus on making wellbeing a priority, and any struggles around mental health a normal, open conversation - it's vital to normalise speaking about mental health in the same way you would physical. One in four people suffer with depression in the UK, and by recognising this as a challenging yet very normal part of life, we empower and encourage our staff to speak up if they're struggling.

We've implemented several initiatives at Croud to help improve the wellbeing of our staff. These include having mental health trainer first aiders (MHFA) in every office, who have completed the St John’s Ambulance MHFA course, as well as a wellbeing board in each office, which promotes resources from mental health charity Mind. Employees are encouraged to have open, positive conversations with their managers about their personal lives and challenges, and having the wellbeing boards present sends a clear signal that it’s ok to talk about your mental health and wellbeing. Similarly, staff are encouraged to start every meeting with two minutes of 'human time', where we talk as individuals about how we are feeling, what we did at the weekend, and so on. Agency life is notoriously hectic, but we make it a priority to start each meeting with a human element before diving into the work.

One-to-one stress management workshops offer staff a chance to work through the sources of stress - whether personal or workplace - as well as ways of alleviating stress. Regular lunchtime mindfulness sessions, run by our qualified mindfulness coach, also promote relaxation in the workplace, offering a great way to revitalise yourself for the afternoon! Finally, we all know that physical exercise contributes to mental wellbeing, so at Croud, we support the team with funding towards their classes. Whether it’s a gym membership, ChromaYoga or pole dancing, it doesn’t matter - whatever makes you feel good is good!

Maire Heinsen, directors PA, Sagittarius

As someone who started her career in an Agency in a client facing role this resonates with me. With the constant need to deliver for our clients; ensure we were delivering their brief and goals, plan new activity and projects and balance the agency books. I was regularly the first person in the office and the last to leave, working evenings and weekends and travelling nationwide at the drop of a hat. Over a period of 7 years I worked my way into a fairly senior role in the company with a team of people. Part of me loved the role, the company, my clients and part of me grew to hate it.

The night I came home from work and my partner asked ‘what shall we have for dinner?’ and my answer was ‘I’m having wine’, I knew things had to change. But what? How?

Fast forward (quite) a few years and having taken a break from the agency world and been adamant that I wouldn’t go back, here I am. But, with a young daughter and wiser perspective. As Directors’ PA, I have been able to work with our Head of Talent to look at ways to improve the mental wellbeing of our team.

At Sagittarius, we have hosted Mental Health First Aid at Work training for the team. We talk about Mental Health and Wellbeing. We established a Healthy Minds and Bodies committee aiming to improve the all round health of the team. The committee look at exercise, nutrition and mental health initiatives – whether it is our ‘Walk it Wednesday’ or healthier snacks in the office as well as reminding the team that they can take advantage of our work from home policy.

Our Head of Talent regularly checks in with the team and we all look out for each other – those whose behaviour changes or they ‘just don’t seem themselves’.

As for me, whilst I’m not client facing, I look after our two CEOs. I have taken control of my own wellbeing – I exercise regularly and I set limits to my work day, prioritise family time and plan and take my holidays.

Nicki Thornley, HR business partner, Space & Time Media Ltd.

As employee wellbeing continues to rise on the employee agenda, it is apparent that our industry is not doing enough to address mental wellbeing.

Essential to an effective mental health strategy is commitment from senior stakeholders to move towards a proactive and preventative company culture.

Line managers play a key role in the mental well-being and engagement of their staff. The framework for good people management rests on strong HR policies, clear communication, good management skills and ensuring staff are equipped with the necessary skills to meet the demands of their job.

An effective induction programme gives starters a positive introduction to the organisation and a realistic expectation of their role: a clear understanding of their position within the wider setting and an outline of their function and its requirements.

Educating staff on mental health reduces the stigma attached to it while providing the necessary skills to recognise symptoms and the confidence to address matters relating to mental health. Line managers should be trained to recognise the workplace triggers for stress and anxiety and empowered to help colleagues avoid them. These might include excessive workloads, unrealistic deadlines, long hours and a failure to take breaks. External triggers of stress are more difficult to recognise and symptoms vary from person to person with some people displaying no obvious signs.

Evaluating health and well-being through staff surveys enables us to assess feedback and to track changes over time. The results yielded should be the foundation for a health and well-being strategy that is aligned with the organisation’s key objectives.

Employee assistance programmes offer counselling support for mental, financial, physical, and emotional wellbeing to employees 24/7, either face-to-face or by phone. These programmes are confidential, often well used and can help prevent issues from escalating.

Alongside the pastoral imperative, an effective mental health strategy will also have a marked impact on commercial performance, through a reduction in sickness, a decline in presenteeism and improved staff turnover. It will work to improve performance and increase engagement, enabling the agency to retain the talent of the future.

Juliet Rowles, head of HR, Haygarth

The nature of agency life is busy and fast-paced meaning that we don’t always take the time we should to look after ourselves and often fail to prioritise our health and well-being.

At Haygarth, we have been focusing on providing easy and accessible opportunities to help our employees prioritise their mental well-being. These include tips on recognising and managing stress, nutritional advice on how to aid overall health and well-being through our food choices, encouraging employees to be more active and get regular fresh air through walking meetings and protecting our down-time by limiting non-essential lunch hour meetings and avoiding sending emails out of hours.

We have had an overwhelming response to the introduction of our monthly Mental Health Conversations, a movement to talk more about our mental well-being at work with employees not only getting behind the importance of understanding more about their own mental well-being but also sharing their own personal stories to help educate others. Topics have so far included the autism spectrum, disordered eating and mental health in the LGBTQ+ community. These conversations have been a great way to start breaking down barriers, destigmatise mental health issues and encourage employees to address their own challenges.

At the end of every session, we share useful resources that are available if employees wish to gather further information on the topic discussed or seek advice or support. As well as our Employee Assistance Programme and other external helplines, we also have three trained Mental Health first aiders who are available for a confidential chat with anyone seeking advice or guidance on their own, a colleague or a loved one’s mental well-being.

By continuing to talk openly about mental health and focusing on providing ongoing support around this important issue, we hope to be able to help employees improve their mental well-being in the workplace and beyond.

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