Dear adland: Talking about the industry’s mental health is no longer enough, it’s time to take responsibility

56% of the industry shows signs of depression. And the only way to improve that number is to start doing something about it, writes Quiip's Amber Robinson.

I have fond memories of working for large advertising companies in my 20s – brilliant colleagues, exciting clients, insane parties. We did amazing work and I learned so much. But I also can’t reflect on that period without thinking about what made me leave: my first anxiety attack after a particularly hideous client WIP in which the senior account manager bailed, I was left to run the meeting as a junior, and I was thrown under the bus by a media agency also involved. 

And the consistent overwork, plus being compensated by excessive amounts of free alcohol as a ‘perk’, took a toll on my physical health. There was a lack of any form of workplace support at the time, with no HR team or any process for escalating complaints. I could go into the rampant sexual harassment (this was a good decade or two before #MeToo, but I’m sure you get the point). At the time, I thought my experience was unique. I thought, maybe, I just couldn’t handle the pressure.

I’ve since transitioned to the online media industry, which has its own share of issues. Overwork, burnout and online toxicity are the chief concerns. Thankfully, with time, experience and greater self-awareness, I’ve developed much better coping skills to deal with them.

“Not many of us want to do the downward dog with the CEO”

And it’s been heartening to see adland leaders share their experiences in the form of the Heart On My Sleeve story book. De-stigmatising mental illness is extremely important in an industry where an alarming 56% of workers show signs of depression.

We can’t take all the stress out of working in the advertising and media industries (hello – the frantic pace is half the fun!) but we can build resilience in ourselves and our workplaces to better cope when times are tough. ‘Resilience’ is the process of adapting well in the face of stress, suffering or trauma, and I really like the term because it acknowledges that bad things can and do happen but that we can bounce back.

Individuals can’t be resilient on their own, however. They need supportive, resilient and healthy communities around them to thrive. Currently though, only 46% of workplaces in the media, marketing and creative industry have a mental health policy in place, despite the industry having double the rate of anxiety than the national average. Employers clearly need to step up.

Self-care has to be embedded at the organisational level. Build it into your culture, lead from the top and nurture it as a practice within your team. Take threats to employee health and wellbeing seriously.

The Australian Community Managers Network heard of an instance where one community manager had an online stalker and her workplace did nothing. In fact, for community managers who have been harassed or bullied in the workplace, only 26% received support from their employer.

Do give your workers access to outside help via an employee assistance program. Encourage flexible work options and schedule meetings in regular work hours. Reconsider sending emails outside core hours, or at least lose the expectation that they should be answered during what should be leisure time.

Teach employees to look out for each other and recognise when someone isn’t okay, or when their behaviour seems slightly ‘off’, which could indicate that mental health is on the decline.

Let your teams discover what self-care and wellbeing initiatives look like for them, rather than imposing one-size-fits-all initiatives like lunchtime yoga, because, let’s face it, not many of us want to do the downward dog with the CEO.

For some people, this could mean working from home one day a week, for others a lunchtime sports team or some fresh fruit and healthy snacks in the office. A supportive culture where it’s okay to say ‘no’ to unreasonable demands is also tremendously helpful.

These are all simple, low-cost initiatives, realistic mindset and culture adjustments rather than huge financial investments or enormous change programs.

Individuals have a role to play too. Part of self-care is walking away from workplaces that don’t support you and setting healthy boundaries with your manager and team.

Our industry now has a benchmark for mental illness of 56%. Talking about mental illness isn’t enough to bring that number down – it’s time to take responsibility.

Amber Robinson is a social media strategist at Quiip


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