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Each week, we ask readers of The Drum – from brands, agencies and everything in between – for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners.

A mental health survey of marketers and agency workers conducted by The Drum has found that a majority of staff say their mental health has got worse during the pandemic, and that demanding workloads are a major factor in their mental wellbeing. Most alarming of all, almost half say their employers offer no mental health support.

It’s clear that, with client demands unlikely to decrease as the UK and US economies look forward to recovery, industry leaders need to do – and communicate – more to offset the impact on staff mental health.

How do you solve a problem like... pandemic workloads hitting marketers’ mental health?

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Jennifer Black, managing director, Havas London 

No-one should be surprised that a heavy workload and poor mental health go hand-in-hand, nor that the pandemic has exacerbated both. But there is an opportunity here. Working together throughout lockdown shattered barriers between agencies and clients, facilitating a level of candor and understanding – on a fundamentally human level – that wasn’t there before.

If we can retain that level of openness, we can have the difficult conversations around formerly taboo subjects like deadlines, workload and, yes, mental wellbeing that, while straightforward, actually have the capacity to make a real, mutually beneficial difference. There is an understanding that we’re in this together. 

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Christi Tronetti, marketing director, M&C Saatchi 

We’ve taken a number of actions to support our people during these challenging times, including the introduction of Open Blend, an online tool which monitors employees’ wellbeing, capturing what is most important to them as an individual and gauging their overall happiness and work satisfaction in the moment. The aim is to empower staff to unlock workable solutions that help them blend their working and home lives in a positive way that suits them. 

In addition to this, we’ve launched mindfulness, meditation and psychotherapist sessions, resilience workshops, an employee-led mental wellbeing group, mental health first-aid support and enforced Zoom timeouts. 

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Val DiFebo, chief executive officer, Deutsch NY 

Burnout is a major mental health issue and one that we’ve worked to address through implementing tools like organized flexibility and enabling staffers to create schedules that work for them, as well as providing outlets to de-stress at work like yoga and meditation. Yet creating a healthier state of mind is not as simple as limiting the number of hours one spends working. It’s about the quality of that time, and the onus is on leaders to actively listen to the needs of employees to build an environment where ideas are cherished and valued. 

In this remote world, it’s important that I find ways to maintain our community. Our Zoom happy hours have evolved into interactive game nights, cooking activities and even scavenger hunts that breed connection, involve a lot of laughter (and competition) and keep employees from feeling isolated. 

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Jacquie King, chief people officer UK and Europe at Grey 

In 2019, Grey established a Mental Health Allies program for our people and trained several employee volunteers and line managers to gain the skills to become an Ally and identify when people were struggling. We’ve made other professional resources available from Bupa and Self Space and encourage people to keep talking through joining drop in calls, support groups and employee assistance programs. We have blocked out 12pm-2pm as non-meeting time and introduced more flexibility in ways of working by empowering people to manage their time to have the freedom to fit work around their home life. 

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Rico Chan, head of APAC sales, Verizon Media 

Mental health has been an organizational priority for us at Verizon Media, even before the pandemic, and there’s never been a more urgent time than now to address it.  

The stigma around mental health, especially in the workplace, is one of the biggest barriers to addressing the issue. It is only when employees feel safe to speak up will we start seeing policies making an impact and the conversation normalized. Apart from internal policies to create a safe, supportive, stigma-free workplace that includes 24/7 confidential crisis counseling and virtual Q&As with our leaders on the topic, we are also working with brands through the Mind Together coalition to destigmatize mental health at work and set a new standard in how employees are supported. 

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Richard Ezra, chief marketing officer, Lion Brand Yarn Company. 

At Lion Brand, we lead with a message of connectivity and positive spirit, both in the products we launch and within our tight-knit team. Mental health is, in fact, our driving purpose for 2021, because of the hardships we’ve all seen throughout the pandemic and the proven mental health benefits of knitting and crocheting. Our new charitable partner this year is Mental Health America (MHA), an organization that’s provided us with new tools of how to communicate with our consumers, and also to better communicate with each other.

Throughout the month of May, we’ll be hosting a virtual run that urges our consumers to get outside for their own mental health, and all proceeds from related merchandise will be donated to MHA. True to form, our staff won’t just be watching our consumers take part in this, they’ll be joining them, getting fresh air and boosting their spirits. Our employees are encouraged to interact with our consumers in every way possible, and that sense of community is what’s kept all of us going through 2020 and beyond.

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Carly Avener, managing director, Leo Burnett 

We all know there will always be more work to do than hours in the day in our industry. If colleagues are working longer hours to boost productivity as the Bank of England has suggested, it means they have less time to detach from work to relax and recover. This further blurring of the line between work and life is a problem for the mental health of our industry. 

We all need more good days at work, and that’s no different whether in an office or at home. So while we need to empower (and trust) people to set their own boundaries and choose to work when, where and how suits them best, we as business leaders also need to support those boundaries and step in to help our people when those boundaries are eroded.  

At Leo’s we have assigned everyone a wellbeing buddy to check in every couple of weeks to ask each other how they’re feeling, how they’re coping with their current working situation and to see if they need any additional help or support. We’ve also introduced ’no meeting’ zones into the working week as well as an early finish on a Friday, whatever the season! 

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Stephanie Marks, managing director, Havas Media 

If employee welfare isn’t at the top of your organization’s agenda, you’re doing something wrong. Our health and wellbeing program is award-winning and grows year-on-year. Havas Equalise covers the whole spectrum of physical and mental wellbeing (including a Cuddle Club for you and your pup). 

But it isn’t just about the resources we’ve put in place, it’s also about our behaviors as an organization; ensuring we as leaders make the right choices and helping our people to do the same, whether that’s turning away new business opportunities because the resource isn’t there or empowering teams to create their own boundaries and ways of working.   

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Andrew Swinand, chief executive officer, Publicis Creative 

Mental health is a continuum. Inputs and outputs. You have to respect the effect of what you ask of people, and you have to grant people the space to manage those effects.  

Flexibility and open communication: source what works best for teams – meeting-free days, midday ‘power hours’, clear project hand-off points – then build responsible solutions, and protect what you’ve built. 

Support and resources, time and space: people manage mental health in myriad ways. We’re all different. For some, it’s conversation, physical activity or engagement. Others process through quietude, meditation or solo ventures. Make it possible for people to create their own practice.

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Joe Maglio, chief executive officer, McKinney  

At the onset of the pandemic, we brought social workers into the agency (they’re still with us) to provide an outlet for our people, doubled-down on employee experience with episodic and surprise-and-delight moments to combat feelings of isolation, and put our internal communications channels into hyperdrive to keep everyone connected. We have had weekly all-agency meetings to openly discuss the industry and the world around us, while also celebrating accomplishments – both personal and professional. Importantly, we made the decision to create a new role to direct our DEI efforts and have an amazing leader in place who is taking us forward. 

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Ruth Bernstein, chief executive officer, Yard NYC 

The best leaders recognize that thinking time, and time in general, are not just things to be slotted into charts or budgets. They understand that an empty spot on a calendar should be seen as time for mental health care, not an opportunity for more work, and that a call taken outside in the sunshine rather than hunched over a desk can make the difference between a bad day and a good day.

The executive that leads rather than follows in this new approach to better mental health at work will reap the dividends of a workforce looking up from their laptop and seeing a brighter future where work isn’t the be-all and end-all. 

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Wasim Choudhury, chief operating officer and chief finance officer, MCD Partners 

At the end of the day, it’s about checking in with your team and creating an open dialogue. At MCD Partners, we intentionally set up weekly Zoom meetings to check in on wellbeing and create a space for the team to share, if they’re open to it, what’s going on both at work and outside of it. These check-ins allow us to address anything that we’d talk through in person, from brainstorming new ideas to talking through challenges the team might be facing with workloads.  

We’ve also proposed employees make room for dedicated time each day to do something they enjoy outside of work – whether it’s family time, Netflix, cooking, exercising or any combination thereof. As we continue in our virtual, remote world, there is an irreplaceable sense of community, and I know that’s largely impacted both myself and the larger team. We can often get caught up in a ’getting things done’ mindset v really checking in and communicating what’s realistic based on workloads, bandwidth and overall mental health. 

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Eric Moore, chief executive officer, Elephant  

The pandemic obliterated the social infrastructure that agencies worked so hard to create with a physical office. The result was a vacuum – and work filled that void. The increased stress, isolation and lack of boundaries challenged our mental wellness on every level. 

At Elephant, we have a foundation of mental health offerings, including on-demand counseling and online support services. We also recognized how socializing with each other is fundamental to work health, so we rebuilt our social infrastructure for today’s world and formed the Elephant Social Club. From PechaKucha night to Drinks & Learn, to Open Forums that address challenging topics, we’ve begun to rebuild the balance we lost. 

Moral of the story: all work and no play makes us dull... and maybe a bit down, too. We’re fixing that. 

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Blythe Spiegel, director of people and culture, ViralGains 

It’s essential to continually offer creative ways to support mental health. One key area should be increasing employee check-ins (both team and individual) to ensure everyone feels supported and has the tools needed to do their job efficiently as they navigate the challenges of adjusting to new routines that they were not necessarily prepared for. This combined with regular, scheduled virtual team events to lighten the mood or release stress (such as happy hour, group journaling and meditation, ‘get to know your team’ trivia, and birthday celebrations) helps keep employees feeling more in control of their workload.

Each week, we pick a new topic for discussion. Want to join in? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com to be included in future editions of this series.