‘Don’t start an agency if you suffer from anxiety’ was poor advice, and here’s why

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Don’t start an agency if you suffer from anxiety. This is something I’ve been told many times since I became managing director of a creative agency.

“It will only amplify your anxieties.”

“You’ll struggle to cope.”

“The pressure will be too much and you’ll crash and burn.”

And this well-meant advice came from a ton of different respected sources: agency owners, consultants and even friends and family (disheartening much?).

As you can see, I didn’t actually listen to these well-meaning advice ‘gems’ and went my own way – taking everything I’ve learned from my journey with anxiety over the course of my life and using it to actually help, not hinder, my journey.

The truth is, my anxiety started to manifest when I was only two years old. I first went to see a psychologist when I was five because I was terrified of witches in the toilet (there was an entire covenant living in my parents’ piping, I swear). And this went beyond typical childhood fear to a fully-fledged terror that consumed me.

By the time I was 15 I couldn’t sleep in my own bedroom. I would wake up terrified from repeating nightmares and run to my three-year-old sister’s room where the terrors wouldn’t be able to find me.

And then came the dreaded imposter syndrome, one of anxiety’s most evil friends. (Not sure what it is? Read about it here).

At uni I was convinced that I passed with flying colours because I worked harder than my fellow students.

“If they had worked as hard as me, my grades would pale in comparison.”

You might relate to these kinds of imposter-y thoughts. Most people have them at some point in time, but coupled with life-long anxiety they’re amplified ten-fold.

So, why would I start my own creative agency? Surely it’s a recipe for anxiety-inducing disaster?

It could have been, but I had some tricks up my sleeve.

The hidden power of anxiety in business

Through years of therapy and mindfulness I learned to embrace some of the beautiful gifts deriving from my anxiety and impostor syndrome. Mainly, the ability to take empathy to a whole other level.

I found that through my intimate relationship with anxiety I could intuitively ‘feel’ others and understand their needs.

The problem is, many corporate companies create environments that aren’t taking the fundamentals of mental health needs into their culture.

You get employees having to deal with fast-paced madness, finger pointing, high stress levels and a lack of communication on a daily basis. And even people who aren’t prone to anxiety will suffer from that kind of toxic culture.

I realized I could use my own long-standing history with anxiety to create a different kind of culture. The positive, relaxed kind that’s more productive, more open and more understanding. And more focused on the people that make it what it is.

This means...

Creating a no-finger-pointing zone

There’s a big tendency to play the blame game in corporate culture.

You know the type of thing: “I couldn’t do it because X didn’t do Y.”

This is a toxic characteristic that nurtures animosity and defensiveness, and completely denotes the purpose of a team. It also means issues don’t get resolved. They just get rolled over to the next person in the chain of blame.

Instead of pointing fingers, teams as a whole need to collectively analyze what went wrong and work out how to fix the problem on the process level.

No blaming allowed.

When things go wrong the solution is a process rooted in evaluation, pragmatic problem solving and, above all, compassion.

And the result is a team that isn’t scared to make mistakes and feel the freedom of being able to learn from them, while being supported.

Keeping a relaxed office environment

All creative agencies are fast-paced. It’s just the nature of the beast.

But by keeping the atmosphere calm, I’m able to help team members to reduce their stress levels. I can notice when the pressure is getting to someone and step in to diffuse the situation.

A relaxed working environment is part of our culture. And because it’s my role to facilitate that culture – and keep people feeling calm – I don’t get as anxious myself.

In my book, productivity shouldn’t be related to stress.

‘I’m so stressed because I’m so busy’ doesn’t have to be a natural progression that’s simply a given.

Calmness equals clear thinking, which is why rational thought often goes out the window in hyper-stressful environments.

So, by keeping a relaxed office environment, you’re actually nurturing a more productive way of working.

Make sure communication is open and honest

When team members feel like they can’t express their concerns or frustrations, these tend to build up and lead to a culture of complaining and complacency.

We’ve all been there.

If I know my frustrations aren’t going to be heard, why should I work hard when I can just sit around complaining with my colleagues?

Team members should feel like they can voice any concern and know that it will be solved together.

And that applies to everyone in the company. We embraced a flat company structure, so even junior members of the team can have the freedom to contribute to any discussion and be open about any issues they may face.

The result is no nasty undercurrent which resonates round the team. Everyone feels heard and they learn faster – and happier.

The power of mentorship and one-to-ones

You know the dreaded one-to-one.

Your six-monthly one-on-one comes around (which is actually an appraisal in disguise) and you know there’s a severe level of finger-pointing coming your way.

In reality – and for the benefit of mental health, let alone productivity – one-on-ones should be focused on mentoring and development, not a scoring system nor telling your employees what they’re doing wrong.

I believe in monthly one-on-ones that are focused on progression, how employees are feeling in their role and how to build on that to reach an even higher emotionally-balanced state.

It all comes down to your brand culture

Of course, all of these points need to be infused and cemented into your culture. Your internal values need to reflect this open, compassionate way of working and behaving.

And that goes for everyone, from the managers to the newbies. It needs to be demonstrated as a dealbreaker – you simply don’t behave in any other way.

It only takes one team member to behave in a toxic way and it can have a hugely negative impact on the trust levels in the team.

The culture needs to encourage positivity and stop old agency habits from creeping back in that can be damaging not only to the agency culture as a whole, but also to individuals.

I’ve created a brand culture that puts so much emphasis on mental health that I actually have way less anxiety than when I worked in other places.

My advice? Keep it chilled, keep it cool and keep it constructive.

I say, let old agency habits stay in the past. Agency owners – we’ve got the future of mental health to think about.

Nitzan Regev is managing director at The Creative Copywriter.