Opinion

Working in this industry is good for our health – said no-one, ever

Adjusting what we choose to accept 'as part of the industry' could be the solution to its mental health problem, argues Andy Wright.

Could working in this industry be good for our health?

The first line I wrote for this article was actually, “is our industry bad for our health?” But I’ve promised myself, with everything that I’ve been doing recently, to try and find the positive in things, in order to find better solutions.

Looking into the crystal ball at future Mumbrella comments, I’m sure I’ll see something like:

Hanging on for dear life 28 Aug 18

“Could working in this industry be good for our health? Said no-one. ever.”

It wouldn’t be surprising. It would be the sort of comment that gets a wry smile, and a knowing smirk. Then we’d all get back to working overtime for something that we wholeheartedly believe in (or so we tell everyone else). Something that can cast us aside at any moment.

I’ve had the chance to take stock of a lot of things over the last 18 months. I’ve had a third child, exited a creative agency that I co-founded, started as MD of a software business, and been back and forth with a GP, counsellor, and personal trainer.

These changes allowed me to step back and take a good look at our industry. A chance to think about the experiences I’d had personally as well as the struggles that I’d seen other people endure. I’ve seen people have to take prolonged time off, change jobs, change careers and leave adland entirely.

This industry can be incredibly challenging and rewarding, but there are some things that we choose to accept “as part of the industry” that are having a detrimental effect on how well we can do our jobs.

Here’s what I mean. I’d like to state a few things that are perfectly normal in our industry. To clarify what I mean by our industry, it’s anyone who works in services connected to and within the creative industry. Probably better put: “everything under Australia’s media and marketing umbrella”. Sound familiar?

Norm no. 1

We quite often give our ideas, work and experience away for free.

Norm no. 2

We don’t pay interns, because it’s a privilege for them to get work experience, a chance at a foot in the door and, anyway, it’s what we had to do when we first started out.

Norm no. 3

We create workplaces that are great for the worker who can do 9-5.30 but reward those that stay back later with more opportunities.

Norm no. 4

We give our ‘product’ to the customer before they pay for it, and can be left waiting for payment up to 90 days after handover.

Norm no. 5

We tell stories of burnout as if they’re badges of pride, rites of passage, or that you’re just not a creative if you haven’t worked 60+ hours a week and three weekends in a row.

I could go on. And probably will, in some future posts. Of course, this is only one side of the story told from the services and suppliers perspective, but having spent an equal time on both sides of the fence, I’ll address the other side late – one step at a time. But right now, I think you’d be hard pressed to disagree with the statements above. I’m not saying they’re completely universal. But they are much more the norm than the exception.

I don’t think I need to tell you that these statements don’t exist in other industries. Say some of these things at dinner parties, barbecues or the pub and friends will laugh in your face.

We’re not stupid either. We’re smart people, capable of solving difficult problems. We have an in-built loyalty to not let each other down.

But it all takes its toll.

Back in 2016 I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. The doctor told me I’d probably had it for a long time. I never really got into the depths of childhood, but I can certainly think back to some things that probably contributed. The problem at this point in my life though, was that I had a family and a business and it was affecting the people around me (even though I probably wasn’t fully aware of it at that point).

Now work isn’t the only contributor. But when you spend at least 60%-70% of your waking hours doing work, it’s got to be one of the guilty parties, and is certainly linked to halting the things that can help get you out of depression, like exercise, healthy eating, time relaxing with friends and family, etc. Finding a level of good mental health is like finding all the pieces to the jigsaw, and work is one of the pieces that can be the hardest to find.

I can only see this clearly now, having made some significant changes to my own jigsaw.

Looking back, I look at our industry and the norms above and see how directly, and indirectly, some of the things that we accept as normal are actually hurting us. They hurt with stress on cashflow, lack of opportunity, burnout and lack of balance.

I know I’m not the first person to raise these things – and others have probably put it much more eloquently than I have – and I know I won’t be the last. But I do want to help change the narrative from one of awareness to one of action. I’d like us to be able to start sharing stories of how things have changed for the better, rather than stories of casualties and complaints.

In the last the months I’ve been gathering stories and experiences from people – either face to face, over Twitter, via Instagram stories, on Facebook, at events or just in pubs and cafes. I’ve heard stories bordering on abuse by employers and people having to change jobs and even industries. I’ve heard stories of work not being paid for after it’s been done. Stories of free pitching and long-term free internships. Stories of being looked over, or not being given opportunities because of gender. And way too many stories of burnout, depression and anxiety.

This isn’t a whinge about work being a bit hard or tough at times. This is about taking a good look at the system and accepted norms that result in these stories, and understanding that they just don’t make sense.

That’s why I started a community called Never Not Creative. I’ve been lucky enough to receive the support from my employer Streamtime to do so, who give me the time and resources to make things happen.

In a little over three months we have held events, prepared a survey into mental health in our industry, launched The Creative’s Pledge (a draft of which you can find here), grown a Facebook group of 600 active members and launched a podcast.

Three months in, this really is just the tip of the iceberg.

If you’re interested in joining in, we’d love to add even more experience and opinion to the community. Just jump into Facebook and search Never Not Creative.

But most importantly, right now, I’d love you to grab a coffee, tea or just find a quiet space for 15 minutes and contribute by taking the survey. This piece of research has the opportunity to raise and benchmark the state of our industry’s mental health.

The results will help us to clearly articulate the level of the problem the industry is facing, and very likely show that it’s something we should (actively) be doing something about. Not just more awareness, but actual action, policy and culture changes to help us all feel at peace with our work and to truly love what we do.

You can take the survey here.

Andy Wright is the founder of Never Not Creative.

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