‘We’re no good at saying no’: How adland’s overwork culture is dragging us down

Mumbrella's Josie Tutty speaks to leaders from across Australia's advertising landscape about shifting the culture of endless hours and weekend emails to something more sustainable.

In May 2013, 24-year-old Li Yuan, an Ogilvy & Mather China employee, collapsed at his desk in Beijing from an apparent cardiac arrest. Although the company has since denied any wrongdoing, Yuan had been working until 11 pm every day for a month.

Later the same year, Young & Rubicam Indonesia copywriter Mita Diran died after working continuously for three days straight.

On Christmas Day 2015, 24 year-old Dentsu employee Matsuri Takahashi jumped to her death from a company dormitory in Japan. She had worked over 100 hours of overtime in one month.

Matsuri Takahashi, the Dentsu employee who leapt to her death

Japan even has its own word for the phenomenon: Karōshi, or ‘death by overwork’.

In 2017, things don’t appear to be getting any better – and it’s not just an Asian problem. A recent Adweek article listed examples of employees getting called back into the office at 10pm, a woman who worked 36 days straight until 3am, and a father who recorded videos of himself from his office so his kids wouldn’t go so long without seeing him.

So how do Australia’s advertising and PR industries size up to the rest of the world when it comes to achieving a work-life balance? And more importantly, are its leaders in a position to turn things around?

According to Kimberlee Wells, CEO TBWA\Melbourne, the nature of the agency model can often be to blame for high working hours. “The strong deadline orientation through our work means that if somebody says jump, agencies turn around and say ‘sure, how high?’… we’re no good at saying no. We haven’t trained ourselves to say ‘wait a minute – how vital is this?'”, she says.

Wells: ‘We’re no good at saying no’

When it comes to tackling a culture of overwork embedded deep into a company’s core, strong leadership is essential to stymieing the problem. In the case of Dentsu employee Matsuri Takahashi, that leadership wasn’t in place.

Just two weeks ago, Dentsu’s president Toshihiro Yamamoto released a statement in which he highlighted the PR agency’s failure “to fulfil the social responsibility of a company”. Back in December, Dentsu CEO Tadashi Ishii said he felt “deep responsibility as a person for overseeing the management of the company”.

According to Wells, “there’s definitely a requirement for managers to identify those individuals who are not taking leave and to force some leave on them. That’s where forced leave around Christmas becomes an enormous productivity benefit to the individual.”

Research from the PRCA and PRWeek has shown that over one third of the PR industry has suffered from mental health problems. The respondents listed stress, pressure from clients and workload as some of the key factors which impacted their mental health.

“The mental health aspect is critical, because if we haven’t got that in our people, we in all honesty haven’t got a business,” said Wells.

The belief that a worker should battle on no matter what is, from her perspective, a serious problem: “Encouraging someone when they call up and say ‘I’m not feeling well I’m going to work from home’ today, to say to them ‘no, if you’re not feeling well, don’t work. Turn everything off.'”

“We’ve fallen into this belief that things will stop if we do, and they don’t. They keep going,” she adds.

Compared to the rest of the world, Wells says, Australia is certainly not the worst. “We’ve got one of our team working in the agency at the moment from Tokyo, and they can’t believe the time that we finish, because they ordinarily would be working until 11.00pm, midnight, 1.00am everyday,” she said.

Wells points to her head of art, Eric Benitez, who recently joined the company from Brazil. He told her: “In Brazil we would work as if we were pitching every single day.”

“In the pitches of the past, you’d bribe your people to be there with shitty takeaway food, pull out the red wine, and the white wine, and try and make a bit of a party out of the fact that they were working hard.

“We try and keep everyone just on water. And that’s to help them build their reserves for a really intense period. And once that period is over, then it’s an encouragement to have some sleep, take a break, recover your mental energy.”

Matt Tindale, MD Linkedin also believes health is a necessary factor in avoiding burn out: “If you’ve got a happy, healthy, balanced workforce, they’re going to be so much more productive and way happier in what they do. I think this is something that the leaders of pretty much all companies need to lead by example.”

“We’ve got running clubs during the day, we’ve got a gym that we encourage people to go to,” he says.

“Little things really help – no weekend emails, no late night emails, no calling on holiday – it just shouldn’t be done. That might be your decision, because that’s when you feel most productive, but you should never assume those sort of things to people outside of office hours, because it just sinks into the culture.”

“It’s important to promote flexible working hours.”

Emma Heath, founder of copywriting agency Words by Nuance has close to a decade of first-hand experience on the front line at some of Australia’s biggest agencies.

She defines burn out as “when you’ve got nothing left in your tank, and sometimes you don’t know that you’re running on fumes until you absolutely crash.”

Heath: ‘It’s got this illusion of glamour’

Heath points out that the very nature of the agency model means there’s no inbuilt time for reflection because there are always deadlines to meet, new pitches to make: “It’s down to that pace and pressure, and that constant need for newness.”

And when it comes to job safety, advertising agencies have something of a Devil Wears Prada problem. “It’s got this illusion of glamour. Everyone wants to do it. You know that if you’re not going to do your job someone else will just come and do it,” Heath says.

“It’s actually really impossible to pretend that your employees don’t have a personal life. I think increasingly, by recognising the role work plays into someone’s bigger picture, that’s really important to help keep them happy and well and productive.”

“If someone’s having a meltdown, is it okay to say ‘hey, are you alright?’ and even if it’s not affecting their work yet, preventing things is easier than reacting.”

damning report on the entertainment and creative industries in Australia, which detailed how drug and alcohol abuse along with suicide attempts are far higher in the entertainment industry than in the general population. Speaking to Susan Cooper, general manager of Entertainment Assist, it’s clear that many of the findings can also be applied to creative industries in general.

“From a societal perspective, it’s a challenge across the board, because we have tools that will allow us to work crazy hours now,” she says. “We’re contactable 24/7, so we’ve developed this complex where if we’re not working and not contributing, we’re not being the best we can be, which is a real challenge.”

“If someone’s not able to perform or present well all the time, then sadly there are always going to be 100 people standing behind them who can do their job, because supply always outweighs demand.”

For Cooper, sustainability is key to keeping a business afloat, and yet overwork is sustainability’s antithesis.

“We’re like gophers on a wheel, madly treading, just trying to keep the pace without first stopping and going ‘how can we do this and make it sustainable?’ and that’s the key.”

“How can you have a sustainable industry when you haven’t got well people working in it?”


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