How to manage stress in ad agencies

How to manage stress in ad agencies

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Stress in ad agencies is a problem that’s seen daily, but not spoken about until something horrific happens. The truth is that extended working hours are so normalized in the industry, that it wasn’t until recently that we started addressing them as an issue.  

What stress can lead to

In 2020, a woman from India who had a very promising career in advertising died due to a work stress-induced cardiac arrest. She was in her 40s! One of her colleagues shared her story on LinkedIn in a post that had 31k reactions and more than 1200 comments, most of them discussing the “toxic” work culture in ad agencies.  Unfortunately, her death wasn’t the first related to stress in the industry (and regrettably will not be the last.)   

In 2016 Dentsu CEO Tadashi Ishii resigned his position after the suicide of 24-year-old junior employee Matsuri Takahashi, who jumped to her death on Christmas Day 2015. Takahashi only started working for the agency in April 2015 and was soon doing 100 hours of overtime a month, according to BBC 

How stressful is the job in ad agencies? Why are stress levels so high in the industry? What has been done about it? How can healthier workplaces be created?   

When the pandemic hit in 2020, most workers saw it as an awakening. The great resignation saw employees quitting their jobs on mass in search of a better work-life balance. The uncertainty that Covid-19 brought increased the already high-stress levels that agency workers managed. It added to a long list of issues the industry was already facing: more demanding clients, almost impossible to meet deadlines, high pressure, overwork, etc.  

Something needs to change in an industry where employees showing the bags under their eyes is considered a badge of honor. Especially if this industry is interested in attracting younger generations of talent. Young millennials and Gen Z are more aware of the importance of their well-being, mental health, and work-life balance. Most of them will not settle for a job that sucks the life out of them. 

Is advertising a stressful career?
Burnout in ad agencies

Let’s face it. The work culture in the ad industry can be very toxic. Just run a quick search on Reddit and you’ll see questions/comments like:  

  • “Is it normal to cry a lot at agencies?” 
  • “I am getting bad anxiety from work” 
  • “Is life at an agency chaotic everywhere?”
  • “Ex agency employees, how long did it take for you to burnout?” 

The last one is particularly interesting since it’s taken for granted that eventually, all agency employees will burnout. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as the result of “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Why should you care about all of this? Let’s talk about numbers. In 2019, the World Economic Forum estimated burnout’s global price tag at $322 billion.   

Realizing the severity of stress in ad agencies and starting to talk about it is an important first step. But we can’t just remember that it’s a concerning issue today or when another promising talent dies because they can’t handle the stress anymore. Managers and agency owners need to remember that they rely on their talent to deliver the campaigns that delight their clients. Taking care of that talent is now more important than ever, especially because it’s getting harder and harder for the industry to attract the younger generations of talent.  

Why is there so much stress in ad agencies?

Nowadays, agencies are offering flexible working hours to their employees and other benefits, but is it enough? The answer would be no according to 2020 research backed by social purpose organization UnLtd. Participants said that companies did those things “pretending to care” about their employees mental-health and well-being. Posters with positive quotes, yoga classes, mindfulness initiatives just won’t do the trick anymore. This study showed that people wanted less of that and more genuine leaders with empathy, clear objectives and more flexible working conditions.  

The truth is that when it comes to ad agencies, stress has an immense number of variables: From the city the agency is in, to the team a person has to work with, project managers, clients, accounts and more. And yes, the clients have a huge say when it comes to the work and agency does. Normally they don’t care if they don’t respect the plan that was already agreed on. As if time pressures weren’t enough, another thing that increases stress in ad agencies is the relentless push for more from less.  

If we take a closer look at the common causes of this condition in any industry we will find: Work Overload, increased pressure, role conflict, lack of feedback, and lack of fairness and equity from managers. The feeling that employees’ needs are not taken into consideration in decision-making and disconnected values are other common causes of burnout. Now, aren’t these all things that ad agency employees face on a daily basis?  

Telltale signs that employees are feeling burnout

According to WHO, employees that are feeling burnout will show:  

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion 
  • Increased mental distance from their job 
  • Feelings of negativism or cynicism related to their job 
  • Reduced professional efficacy 

But this is all preventable. Agencies need to provide better management support and understanding of what is causing their employees to feel burnout. 

Managing stress in agencies

The agencies’ leaders can make fundamental changes to the culture of the business. This might be tricky since this is a chronic problem in the industry that has been going on for years. In other words, those leaders may not know how to make the required changes. However, there are ways for agencies to drift away from it by:  

  • Making sure your agency has the right tools and systems to manage workloads  
  • Providing recovery time 
  • Making sure your team works a reasonable number of hours 
  • Using your talent’s greatest strengths
  • Fitting your employee’s abilities with their role and responsibilities
  • Valuing and respecting your employees.  

Ultimately, equipping managers to prevent burnout will be key. If you prevent burnout in your agency, you’ll have fewer people calling in sick or actively seeking a different job. Keep in mind that by providing the right resources to keep your employees motivated and engaged, your agency will be more profitable and productive.  

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