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A mental health survey released by The Drum last week found heavy workloads to blame for the poor mental wellbeing of marketing workers across the world. James Routledge, founder of workplace wellbeing organization Sanctus, outlines what leaders can do to acknowledge and act on the issues raised and tackle the biggest brief to date for the industry. 

Agency heads and brand leaders – we need to talk about The Drum’s mental health survey. 

In the middle of Mental Health Awareness week, three quarters of survey respondents stated their mental health struggles have worsened in the last year. Nearly 80% said they feel their employers weren’t doing enough or could do more to support them. 

This is a wake-up call to a mental health crisis in the industry. The call to action is clear: the industry needs to mobilize to build a proactive mental strategy and move quickly to address unhealthy working practices, which have been normalized.
The challenge is twofold: adequate and ongoing support for the majority who are still reeling from the psychological impact of the last year, and a robust safety net to support the anxiety-inducing transition back into the office. 

Where do we even begin?

In an industry used to working at speed, there are no quick fixes. We’ve been working with senior leaders on employee wellbeing and cultural change around mental health since 2016 and what we’ve seen is that for wellbeing initiatives to truly work, the onus on prioritizing mental health needs to come from the top. It needs to be embedded in the organization’s culture. Otherwise efforts can backfire, with employees potentially perceiving efforts as performative or piecemeal. 

Too burned out to be creative?

There are many factors that negatively impact people’s mental health. What seems to jump out from the survey, however, is the pressing need for the industry to tackle the workload problem. Nearly 95% of respondents stated that their workload had some form of negative impact on their mental health – surely that’s a stat we can’t ignore. 

The engines of the industry who have been putting in the hours appear to have been neglected, yet research on the benefits of having a happy and healthy workforce speaks for itself: it’s both good for the individual, and good for business.

Whether that’s reduced sick days and absenteeism or a deeper sense of fulfilment and higher motivation, prioritizing workplace wellbeing has positive impacts across the board – from culture, creativity and collaboration, all the way to the bottom line. Beyond the ‘benefits’, looking after your employees is simply the right thing to do. As employers, we have a duty of care to our teams. That’s a responsibility we need to take seriously. 

Change the culture, change the conversation

In the fast-paced nature of agency life, good intentions can often be sidelined as teams are constantly up against it with last-minute pitches and tight deadlines. The truth is, mental health and wellbeing is a complex topic and conversations around mental health in the workplace are still relatively new. 

It’s also important to recognize that there are a multitude of ways to provide support. The reality is, everyone is at a different stage on their mental health journey and one size doesn’t fit all – this is something organizations need to take into account when considering how best to provide support. 

Wellbeing support such as our one-to one Sanctus mental health coaching provides employees with a safe space to talk openly about anything that may be troubling them: it can be a moment to offload, a space to work through an ongoing challenge, an opportunity for goal-setting and personal development – or a place to identify an emerging mental health concern early on in order to avoid the onset of more severe issues. It’s a slightly more ‘proactive’ and ‘practical’ approach, whereas therapy can be quite an explorative process where you go deep into the origins of an issue. There is a place and a need for both, depending on the individual. 

What mental health support can’t do is plaster over internal practices that are detrimental to the welfare of employees. It’s shocking to see that just 4.8% of survey respondents reported their workload had not had an impact on their mental health. No amount of talking will make employees invincible in the face of conditions that can push people to burnout.

While the survey figures are alarming, the pandemic has alerted more businesses to the struggles faced by their employees. We’ve seen a 50% increase in demand for Sanctus coaching in the last year alone – a large portion of this is from the media, marketing and advertising space. 

To me, this also means that the narrative around mental health is changing. I started Sanctus after suffering from anxiety and panic attacks when I was building my first startup. At the time, the conversation around mental health was clinical and cloaked in shame. I wished I had a safe space to turn to, somewhere to talk about what I was going through. Things have changed since then, but with over half of The Drum survey respondents (51.7%) stating they are not comfortable discussing their mental wellbeing with colleagues, it’s clear there’s still a lot of work to do. 

Two-pronged approach

In terms of the challenge the industry is facing, it needs to start with honesty and self-reflection, and facing up to the fact that there is a problem around workload and burnout has been normalized. These are systemic issues that no amount of mental health or wellbeing support can resolve if left unaddressed. In addition to that, the approach I would suggest is two-pronged and mirrors how we like to support our partners: continue to focus on changing the conversation around mental health, while widening access to proactive, high-quality support.

James Routledge is founder of Sanctus, a mental health organization that works with businesses across the UK.