Opinion

Agencies boast about their happy cultures – so why are staff so miserable?

As a new survey reveals evidence of widespread depression, anxiety and stress in the creative, media and marketing industries, Adam Thorn argues bosses are more interested in their own PR than tackling the real issues.

Six weeks ago, I moved into my first apartment on my own, which, approaching 32, felt like a major life milestone. Always thrifty with money, I’ve tried to kit the tiny unit out as economically as possible. The fridge, TV and sofa were second-hand from Gumtree (my mates hurling the three-seater on the roof of the GoGet and secured with surf straps), while the rest of the furniture, cutlery and what-nots were bought from Target and K-Mart. In fact, the only thing I really spent money on was a printed canvas I designed myself of a little-known boxer called Chuck Wepner, which now hangs on my bedroom wall.

My canvas showing Chuck Wepner’s greatest moment

I tracked down and interviewed Wepner eight years ago when I was a journalist at British lads’ mag Loaded after first spotting his story in a small column tucked down the bottom of the BBC Sport website. Wepner was a chubby amateur juggling a day job from New Jersey when, in 1975, he was given an improbable shot at the heavyweight title against Muhammad Ali, in his next bout after The Rumble in the Jungle. Nicknamed The Bayonne Bleeder because of his propensity to cut after taking a punch, Wepner told me he’d scrapped with as many men in the streets as he’d fought in the ring.

Wepner was taking a predictable pounding until, early in the ninth, he landed a huge right hand which knocked the champ to the canvas. Of course, Ali soon recovered and won, but Wepner almost, almost went the distance – lasting until just 19 agonising seconds before the final bell in the 15th round.

But things took an even more improbable turn. Because watching that fight was a then unknown actor called Sylvester Stallone, who had blown his last ten dollars to watch it in the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. As legend has it, Sly raced home and, in 48-caffeine fuelled hours, wrote the script for Rocky, the movie that reimagined the American dream. Anyone could rise up from nothing, it preached, everyone would eventually get their shot at success, so long as they were prepared to go through years of misery at the start to get there. Rocky became an inspiration not just for wannabe boxers, but countless unsigned bands practising in garages, boys kicking footballs against walls and – yes – even self-important cub journalists looking for their first scoop.

And for years, I’ve always considered The Struggle the greatest of all the narrative tropes. It fascinates me. Until I was invited onto a Never Not Creative podcast presented by Andy Wright. If the name sounds familiar, it was Andy who this week released a report which revealed those in the creative industries are disproportionately suffering from depression. He appears on this week’s Mumbrellacast talking about it.

I was appearing on his show to talk about my Mumbrella feature investigating how young journos are struggling to get their break, when Andy pointed out something which never really occurred to me before. Don’t you think, he asked, we have a propensity to celebrate the struggle? To romanticise it too much?

Never Not Creative’s Andy Wright

It’s an important argument, because mental health issues are not always the result of one person’s personal demons, but often caused by real-world and preventable stress. While it could be the struggle to pay the bills, it’s more often, I’d wager, the result of workplace bullying and cosy old boy networks that penalise the juniors starting out, trying to rise up the ladder. The people, I’d argue, who bear the brunt of the stress. And in the creative industries, full of highly-strung egomaniacs, it’s probably more common than anywhere else. Juniors take the abuse because they hope one day they’ll be the ones calling the shots. “We all have to pay our dues,” they’re instructed.

Which made me think: perhaps Wepner’s story isn’t such a perfect fable after all? Surely the best creative ideas, for instance, emerge when people are happy and relaxed, not crying themselves to sleep after the latest hairdryer blast from an unhinged executive creative director?

It’s an important point because I’ve always been deeply cynical about businesses that loudly boast about their great workplace culture. You’ve seen the websites that show off the office dog, ping-pong tables and annual days off. Well, I’ve always thought talking about being a nice person doesn’t make you a nice person so, if that logic runs correctly, bragging about your great culture doesn’t count for anything. Hell, don’t truly nice people let their actions do the talking? The reason businesses in 2018, particularly creative agencies, boast so loudly is not always because they give two hoots about their staff, but because they want to impress clients, win pitches and, obviously, make more money.

The fallacy of these boasts of a happy workplace are put to shame by Andy’s research, which surveyed 1,800 people in the media, marketing and creative industries. In total, 56% were suffering from mild to severe depression, a figure 20% higher than the national average across all industries. Crucially, the creative sector was by far the worst the of the three, with 61% showing symptoms of depression. And when you drill down, the causes of these appear to be work-related. Half of employees work more than eight hours a day; a third work weekends at least once a month; while top stress factors included pressure from above, juggling too many tasks and working when sick.

Just think about that for a moment – perhaps the one industry in Australia that most prides itself on delivering happy workplaces has got itself in a situation where the majority are just downright miserable.

A good culture and therefore good mental health is something that can’t be artificially manufactured through website marketing puff or days off. It should be organic. A rancid culture occurs, on almost every occasion I’d argue, because the dickhead at the top piles the pressure on the person below him or her, who then, stressed and exasperated, hurls that on to the footsoldiers. I’m sure you’ve all seen the pyramid where the shit trickles down to the bottom. Yet people in these worlds seldom look out of their echo chamber, thinking it’s somehow OK because in the razamataz world of media, normal rules don’t apply. But that’s clearly not true.

In my decade in advertising and journalism, I’ve worked for all manner of office despots. From the tabloid dinosaurs who practically pinned me against the wall when stories fell apart to the passive-aggressive admirals who gradually wear you down through rapid-fire rhetorical questions, brutality has been rife. But I’ve also been lucky enough to work for bosses who realise the easiest way to get the best out of me is to simply support and encourage me.

At Loaded, my then editor was the type of guy who would work late with the troops and make them tea, even if he had nothing to do himself. He insisted on being the last out every night. And when the publisher was on the brink of going under and refused to pay me, he offered to settle my debt out of his own salary. He never told anyone that but, to his credit, doing the right thing was more important than office posturing. He’s one of the best managers I’ve ever worked for.

“For 22 years, when I was both amateur and pro, I always had a job while I trained,” Wepner told me. “I used to run in the morning, come home and shower, go to work all day and at night go to the gym. It was pretty tough to hone my skills because I was a part-time fighter.” I think maybe what Wepner was telling me was that, had his earlier days been easier, had he not had to work so hard, maybe he would have been better. Maybe he’d have beaten Ali, and gone one further to achieve his dreams. Maybe it was the stress and the struggle and the worry and anxiety that held him back – not inspired him on?

We should be careful not to see a tough workplace and difficult early career as a right of passage – but something we should try harder to eradicate.

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