Adland: Please give your teams the space to feel sad during this bushfire crisis

Marnie Vinall returns to work today. It feels surreal for her to go back to briefs in the midst of a national bushfire emergency, but the work is there and it needs to be done. As teams across the country return to the office though, they need the space and support to feel sad.

Last night, I sat in my bed and wondered how I would get dressed and go to work this morning while my country burned. While Australians felt the incredible pang of heartbreak that comes with lost homes, towns and community members. 

Last year, over the second last weekend of November, several states were severely hit by bushfires. In New South Wales, 1.65m hectares were destroyed, and six lives and more than 600 homes lost. In Queensland, 180,000 hectares were burned and 20 homes ravaged. But we watched this unfold with the terrifying knowledge that Australia’s fire season hadn’t even properly begun.

The following week at work, I pored through updates during my lunch breaks in a desperate attempt to find out as much as I could. Then, I would return to my desk with a heavy heart. Often, when I could, I would take my computer into private meetings rooms or nooks, working away from my team.

I didn’t want my solemnity to come across as being ‘negative’ in the office. I was conscious that I was quieter than usual and didn’t want to appear to be ‘bringing other people down’ (something I’ve been reprimanded for in the workplace in the past). 

But now, in January 2020, it’s even worse. To date, in the 2019-20 bushfire season, we’ve lost an estimated 6.3m hectares, 1,300 homes, 25 people (with a further 6 missing), and half a billion wildlife. And it rages on.  

I’ve had a lot of conversations with my friends about the surreal nature of going to work and pretending for nine hours a day that our country isn’t in a crisis.

Over the Christmas and New Year break, the majority of my conversations friends, family and strangers were about the fires. When I’m at home, I’m constantly scrolling Twitter and refreshing Celeste Barber’s donation page. But as of today, the time I’ll be able to dedicate to that will decrease substantially. 

And that’s okay. Life goes on. The work is still there and needs to be done. #ScottyFromMarketing isn’t nailing the PR game, so someone needs to.  

But, as employees, we need the space to feel sad about what’s happening. We shouldn’t be scared that, if we don’t put on a happy enough face, we’ll seem ungrateful for our jobs, like we’ve got a bad attitude, or too negative in a positive work environment. You don’t know who around you has been touched by these fires and how. You also don’t know how it’s affected their mental health. 

Natural disasters have an enormous effect on stress and anxiety for those who suffer through them. This trauma can extend to those who witness events, including the destruction of homes. Watching towns that you’ve grown up in, holidayed to, or have a special connection to burn and suffer has an impact.  

There is also sufficient and convincing evidence that the unprecedented extremes of Australia’s bushfires are linked to climate change. As research suggests, climate change is likely to have significant negative mental health effects, especially felt by those already vulnerable to pre-existing mental illnesses.

I’m not saying the work shouldn’t be done and we should all just simmer in sadness. But we do need to give ourselves, and our co-workers and employees, a break to feel the impact of the utter devastation we’re facing. 

For the past few weeks, when someone asked me how I was, I gave a sombre reply.

From today, I’ll have my game face on, ready to build relationships and hit KPIs. But inside, I’ll still be as saddened and angry as before I returned to work. 

From today, I’ll sit at my desk and go through emails, write copy for campaigns, smile at my co-workers and access certain content. But my heart will still be utterly broken. 

How do we carry on with spreadsheets and briefs while our country is literally on fire? We just do. But in the background is the fear, the loss, the devastation. We can’t turn it off.

Marnie Vinall is a publicist and copywriter for 3 Phase Marketing 

If you’d like to assist with bushfire recovery, relief and rescue efforts, please explore the options below: 


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