Does client behaviour impact the mental health of agencies?

Photo by Bethany Legg on Unsplash

Recently, a few of us in the media industry took part in a closed debate in the Houses of Parliament around the motion that “client behaviour is a contributor to putting at risk the mental health of agency personnel”.

With mental health awareness topping the bill for many industries and businesses, this was an emotive topic. Regardless of which side of the relationship you’re on, the question of how much that impacts the health of those involved is a pressing one.

On the question of clients contributing risking agency mental health, I argued against the motion.

While some believe clients are demanding more for less, putting pressure on agencies, in turn creating stress for their people and leading to mental health problems, I don’t believe this is completely accurate.

The pressure of keeping up with the times

Certainly, the first part is true. Whether cutting budgets or asking for more within existing ones, clients need agencies to deliver more for less.

This is understandable: clients are under increasing pressure to keep up with an economically, politically and socially changing world. Pressure to innovate, grow market share, win over customers, improve productivity and efficiency or make a positive impact. And this leads to more pressure on their agencies.

The second part of the argument on its risk to agency mental health, however, is not something I recognise.

Understanding mental health

For clients and agencies to maintain good mental health, the first step is understanding its causes and influences. It’s no secret that mental health is important to me as a person and to MediaCom as a business, and for us to effectively take responsibility for this we must understand what impacts mental health.

The mental health charity Mind states that:

“mental health problems can have a wide range of causes. It's likely that for many people there is a complicated combination of factors – although different people may be more deeply affected by certain things than others.”

When it comes to stress, it’s stated that only “severe or long-term stress” has a significant impact on mental health.

This isn’t about “having a bad day at work” or “facing a tough deadline”, it’s about sustained severe stress. This is important as stress itself is not negative, and a lack of stress can be just as bad for mental health.

For me this clears up whether client behaviour puts our mental health at risk. There’s no doubting that client work can be stressful, but for it to be harming mental health we would have to believe behaviour is directly causing “severe and long-term stress”. And that isn’t fair.

The responsibility of agencies

As clients demand more great work for less, it is the job of agency leadership and senior account management to manage that pressure so that excessive, long-term stress does not arise. There will always be instances of poor behaviour from either clients or peers we work closely with – or both – which can impact our levels of stress and anxiety. What’s important is how an agency identifies and approaches dealing with this.

Here are three things that I feel are the most vital to ensuring positive mental health:

1. Human conversations: It’s important that agencies have frank, open discussions with clients at the contract stage – and on an ongoing basis – to help everyone be clear on what clients can reasonably expect and help them define how to work together.

But we also need to be brave and have open conversations with clients about the issue of stress. It’s not strange or unprofessional to pretend stress doesn’t impact staff, and clients know they’ll get better work from their agencies if they work in a respectful, collaborative way that values agency personnel. Drawing a line on what level of pressure is unreasonable can be a tough conversation, but managers and business leaders must have them. Otherwise we are failing our people.

2. Training our people to look after those around them: The second way we can make sure that pressure from clients does not lead to “severe and long-term stress” is by training and developing managers to recognise the signs of short-term overwork. This will help them manage their teams appropriately, intercepting and responding to any minor issues before they become major ones.

By training them on this – how to spot problems and then how to address them with clients – you give them all they need at a skills level. You also reinforce that protecting mental health in this way is part of their job and the business supports them completely in it.

3. Training our people to look after themselves: Finally, we need to help staff handle stress and their feelings through training in mindfulness, resilience and stress management. This equips them with life skills that will be important both in and out of work.

It’s important that individuals understand they are responsible for skilfully managing their own feelings and their response to pressure. While an agency must ensure staff are protected from undue stress, we can play a role in protecting ourselves. The agency’s job is to teach them how to do that.

The media industry is built on the relationships between clients and agencies, but it isn’t helpful, or responsible, to blame clients for poor mental health. Many clients are putting more pressure on agencies, but this should never translate directly into poor mental health for agency personnel. And if it does, it’s not the client’s fault, it’s the agency’s for not having those conversations with clients and taking steps to protect their staff. And if they don’t, then the agency has failed to do a vital part of its job.

Josh Krichefski is chief executive, EMEA, at MediaCom

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