Not well. Signed off sick I think.
Stress. Don’t know when he’ll be back.
Hands up who’s had that conversation? I’ll guess quite a few of you reading this piece. It’s the elephant in the creative studio: burnout.
Agency life can be thrilling, varied and highly creative, with glittering rewards for the talented and ambitious. But the flipside is as dark as the nights spent working on a pitch are long. Think relentless deadlines, internal political rivalries, unsupportive (or unaware) senior management and squeezed budgets.
If that sounds like a pressure cooker furiously rattling and threatening to blast a hole through the ceiling, then that’s because it is. Advertising is an historically brutal industry that demands bullet-proof excellence to deliver the creativity and accolades clients (and agencies themselves) expect from some of the smartest people around.
The natural focus for this simmering pot of mental health issues would be the younger generation looking to impress at all costs. Lacking experience, they absolutely need an arm around them as they navigate their way.
But what about workers in their late 30s, 40s and 50s? Those of us whom, while better remunerated, are arguably under more professional pressure than ever at a time in life when elderly parents, troublesome teenagers and high living costs mean going home doesn’t necessarily mean switching off.
At Southpaw we believe that to effectively address mental health in our agency, then the idea that age brings iron-clad resilience worthy of The Terminator is a misguided one. As our ops director Dan observes, “Often seniors are shouldering a greater burden of pressure in the workplace and in many ways shielding pressure from those younger workers.”
It all starts with a conversation. But what if you’re scared that a request for help will end up with a poor performance review? In the agency, we acknowledge that the conversation itself is as important as the policies and pastoral care we adopt to take care of everyone.
Kirsten, an account Executive here at Southpaw, says: “There are many ambitious workaholics in this industry, and unfortunately, there is still a perception that asking for support with our mental health shows signs of incompetency, even if our employers don’t in fact view it this way!”
It’s good to talk
One of the upsides to agency life and its pressures is a heightened sense of camaraderie and friendship. There’s nothing like a soul-destroying fifth round amends process to bring a team together.
While natural conversations among peers and line management communications are crucial, two people from our strategy team - Laura and Faye - were recently trained as Mental Health First Aiders. This intensive course run by St John’s Ambulance is Southpaw’s obvious next step in making sure we have staff who know what to look out for if any one of us is struggling.
Laura says: “As we would expect our place of work to have someone trained to administer physical first aid, we should have the same expectations of someone at work being able to offer mental first aid. It needs to be understood and respected with the same level of importance.”
A listening ear at the right time can mean the difference between a breakdown and a breakthrough.
It’s not you: it’s the client
As anyone who has toiled over their part in an important client project knows, a lot of personal investment is put into what goes for feedback and sign off. And when that feedback isn’t what you expected, it can feel like a knife in the heart. It’s a tough lesson to learn, especially when you’re just starting out (although arguably it never gets easier).
Ben is one of our junior creatives: “I've recently started meditating every day which I've found helps me deal with stress. I think in creative, it's easy to fall into a pit of self-doubt and lose self-belief. It's important to remember that creative is subjective, but it's hard not to take things personally. You have to remember it’s never about you, people want perfection.”
Ben’s example of daily meditation to manage stress became a highlight in our recent ‘Wellness Week’ calendar, as Account Manager Cameron led us all in a guided meditation. An annual event, we use ‘Wellness Week’ as a way to find new ways to process stress and face tough decisions, be inspired and learn from each other.
You can’t fake it
As CEO of Southpaw, I have seen a vast improvement in my 20+ years in the industry. When it comes to mental well-being, I prefer the phrase ‘mental fitness’ and I think it’s brilliant that it’s become a mainstream topic, rather than a taboo.
In my first job in advertising in the late 90’s, people’s stress was managed by liquid lunches but now we have the ability to put processes, tools and new ideas in place to help support, inspire and develop our agency talents.
Part of the role and privilege of being a manager is to coach and develop your team. That doesn’t just mean telling them how to write a pitch deck, how to ideate or analyse consumer data. It means caring about the individual, understanding their world - both inside and outside work - and having an emotionally connected relationship. If you don’t have that, you might as well employ robots.
There is no question the younger generation has different expectations, needs and wants from those that have gone before them. But our culture has to adapt to encourage, support and connect with everyone regardless of age or experience. It’s so much more than dogs in the office and meat free Monday. A lot of businesses claim to have a great culture. You know when you actually have one because you can feel it and you don’t have to talk about it.
At Southpaw, we don’t take mental well-being for granted and we don’t believe that we’ve got everything right either. Every day is new with a different set of challenges to adapt to and support one another in. The main thing is, we’re doing it together.