A Call for Mental Health Support in Advertising
As I sat down to write this piece, I was simultaneously listening to my email ping every 2-3 minutes with a new request, trying to push back on triple (yes triple) booked meetings and scarfing down what is known as a “sad desk lunch” (sandwich and lukewarm soup dripping over my computer) while I continued to multitask my way through the morning. At one point, my deskmate asked, “What are you working on?” Mid-chew and with napkins, empty LaCroix cans and crumbs littering my desk, I mumbled, “An article about mental health and advertising.” I then realized how ironic the whole scene was. But also, how perfect of an illustration of this huge, but largely ignored issue.
So please, put down your sad desk lunch. And pay attention.
A Common Struggle.
At this past week’s 3% Conference, an underlying theme emerged quite immediately to me: many of us in the advertising industry are struggling with maintaining our mental health. And we’re terrified to admit it.
In session after session, I heard both women and men alike tell stories about how long hours, competing priorities, and endless, impossible deadlines led to an eventual breaking point. People referred to sustained, eighty-hour weeks, workloads that even the bravest of workers couldn’t surmount and the complete inability to take vacations (or even attend conferences) without having to check into work or dial into meetings. To anyone else – this is pretty alarming. To those of us in the advertising industry – this has become the status quo. These stories are all too common – and are almost always rationalized as just coming with the territory and part of the normal churn-and-burn way of working in advertising.
When people have to reach a breaking point to make a change, there’s a clear problem. In an industry where we equate time with money, try to do more with less, stretch people for seemingly unending periods of time or move people from one project to another without a break – the problem is only getting worse.
There needs to be a major shift in the industry. But where do we even begin?
The First Step? Admitting There's an Issue.
We first have to recognize there’s a problem. And this isn’t an easy thing to do. At its core, mental health is a largely stigmatized issue and one that most people (even outside of the advertising industry) attempt to cover and hide. But the reality is – every single person in this world has mental health, just like physical health, and it can rise and fall at any given moment. In fact, one in five American adults is struggling with a mental health condition or addiction. At this rate, it is more than likely that one of your close colleagues is quietly struggling with a mental health issue. This could be anything from Depression to Anxiety – and requires proper care and attention, just like physical health.
Beyond just admitting that we all have mental health, it’s equally (if not more) important to realize the impact to our business. In an industry that requires an engaged, sharp, resilient and creative employee base, it’s that much more important to address this issue within advertising. By pushing mental wellness aside, we could also be putting our businesses at risk – with burnout often leading to missed deadlines, “dropping the ball” or ultimately just not showing up. Alarmingly, there are over 200 million missed work days every year due to mental health issues. I can only imagine similar numbers when it comes to people ultimately deciding to leave their jobs due to poor or unsustainably-stressful work environments.
The Second Step? Being Better Advocates.
Not only do people in our industry commonly ignore the signs and symptoms, we also actively encourage bad habits. We walk around with self-made merit badges of I worked the latest or I worked on three pitches last week and only slept for four consecutive hours. Or, in my case, I continue to eat lunch at my desk and refuse to take a break, even though I know it would be good for my overall well-being.
We need to stop equating overworking with excelling. Instead, it’s important to identify and escalate these behaviors as potential problems and address with solutions. We need to check in with the team member who is working all hours of the day/night and assess the risk of burnout. We need to encourage team members to take breaks, get outside and make it a priority to eat a work-free lunch at least once a week. Essentially, we need to open our eyes to the subtle cries for help – well before people reach breaking points.
For those of us who are leaders in our departments or managers of teams, we also need to live by example. The single biggest reason I prioritize my own work/life balance is because my department head prioritizes it (and makes sure we know that). If you work eighty hour weeks, your team is going to feel that it’s necessary to keep pace with you. Practicing healthy behavior will encourage healthy behavior.
The Final Step? Creating Healthier Environments.
For real change to occur, major structural changes also need to be rolled out across the agency world. And I’m not just talking about a few sessions to discuss stress reduction or offering on-site yoga. I’m talking about specific changes to the way we do business, both internally and externally.
While there are many ways to encourage employee well-being, one of the biggest themes is around disengagement – creating environments where people can truly unplug outside of the work day, can take vacations without being bombarded with emails and can even take “mental health days” to rest and recharge. Many companies are putting strict guidelines and structures in place that make it easier for employees to disengage. For example, German automaker Daimler instituted an out-of-office email system where incoming emails are set to auto-delete while employees are away from the office, ultimately eliminating the age-old and stress-inducing overflowing inbox upon return to the office.
While changing things overnight may seem daunting, even just a few small changes can clearly make a huge difference.
It's Not Someone Else's Problem.
It is our collective responsibility to make mental health a priority in our industry. It’s not just the right thing to do. It is essential for the sustainability of what drives our business every day. In fact, every $1 invested in mental health awareness and support has a $3 to $5 return. Which makes sense, given that healthier, happier employees make better work.
Let’s all agree to do better. And let’s get rid of those sad desk lunches once and for all.
For anyone who is in serious crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK for help.