How to recognise and prevent agency burn-out

The fast pace of the advertising and marketing worlds is part of its enduring attraction, but running on adrenaline isn't healthy or sustainable, so how can we minimise burn-out? Dr Norman Swan offers his tips...

Burn-out is a catch-all phrase for people who are tired, chronically stressed, have lost interest in their work and can’t find motivation.

It’s a messy combination of symptoms where chronic stress gets conflated with depression, anxiety and tobacco, alcohol and other drug use.

Tonic-Health-Media-Dr-Norman-SwanThe last thing any agency needs is churn of creative staff or loss of energy and innovation. Agencies know, a disengaged account manager or creative lead can send clients looking elsewhere, so they put a lot of thought into office design and how to balance a high-octane environment with what appears to be opportunities to ‘chill’.

However, as an observer of the industry for many years, I’m amazed at its capacity for self-delusion that all this effort and investment is paying off.

Talk to drug and alcohol experts and they’ll tell you that having a job in advertising is a significant risk factor for substance abuse. In most other sectors that would be cause for serious concern and examination of work practices and job related stress, but anecdotally, in advertising, it’s a badge of honour.

It could be that agencies unwittingly hire more people with drug problems or it could be (perhaps more plausibly) that agencies inadvertently nurture a problematic work culture.

There’s been lots of research into the kind of chronic stress that produces burn-out. Professor Bruce McEwen, a highly respected neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York, calls it ‘allostatic load’. We need stress in our lives, and it’s not all bad, but there has to be a balance.


Silhouette of stressed business woman in the office.When ‘allostasis’ tips over, it affects the whole body from head to toe, inside and out – from the immune system to hormones to the arteries and the heart, not to mention brain function.

What causes us to go from managing stress successfully to full-blown burn-out is often a loss of control, the feeling we’re on a treadmill that’s being driven by someone else. The timing, speed and incline feels like it’s being set without any discussion with you or understanding of your capacity.

It’s this kind of atmosphere within a work environment that creates a failed system, not designed or resourced for success.

Managers and supervisors bear responsibility for the welfare of staff. However, management positions are often occupied by people with the technical skills required by the industry but who may not know enough about effective people management.

These managers are therefore unable to recognise distress, depression and anxiety or worse, see them as a sign of weakness rather than a cause for intervention.

Gas or steam leaking from an industrial pressure gauge. HD 3d Render.So, what can media agencies do to reduce burnout and turnover and instead increase engagement and productivity?

Well, it isn’t about ‘working less hard’ and unfortunately there isn’t a cookie-cutter approach, but here are a few things to consider:

Management training and development at all levels
Research from the Black Dog Institute shows that managers provided with mental health training ‘feel more confident in discussing mental health matters and have staff that display reduced psychological distress’.

Training and development of staff to ensure they have the capacity to take on an increased workload and feel comfortable to express their concerns if they are struggling
Tonic Health Media have begun a cross-agency initiative called Psych Up, aiming to educate over-worked and stressed agency staff with simple, evidence-based ways to stay fit and healthy in the workplace.

Man drinking at the officeA no-tolerance policy to drug and alcohol abuse (both during and after work hours) and assisting staff who may be struggling with substance use
The ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality that pervades the advertising industry is part of what makes it an appealing career for young people. And while a work fridge full of beer might be part of the culture, managers and agency peers need to understand the difference between ‘enjoying a drink’ and alcohol abuse.

Regarding other forms of substance abuse, it’s an agency myth that you need to be ‘wired’ in order to generate good ideas, when in fact, it’s quite the opposite. A clear mind encourages improved creativity and intelligence.

Good nutrition and physical activity are great, and agencies should provide the opportunity for staff to engage in healthful activities
On this front, many agency are taking meaningful strides by providing healthy options in kitchens and vending machines. However, these are not a substitute for a well-managed and planned organisation. A fresh box of bananas every day isn’t a substitute for feeling heard and understood by your employer.

By implementing the above, media agencies can de-stigmatise mental health and drug and alcohol issues in the workplace, develop a more engaged, stable workforce and increase recognition and support of people in distress.

Dr Norman Swan is co-founder of digital health network Tonic Health Media. The agency is currently running an mental health initiative with the major media agencies. 


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