The ad industry is prioritizing employee mental health in the wake of the Great Resignation and a rise in mental health issues among agency employees
All major ad holding companies, along with several independent agencies, have now said they intend to address mental health as a priority. The advertising industry is notorious for its long hours and lack of work-life balance, and mental health issues are being placed front and center as potential and current employees begin to demand change.
What’s being done
The four biggest holding companies have developed mental health initiatives to support their employees:
- WPP recently launched the Mental Health Allies program, through which they have trained 250 of their employees to act as volunteer Allies, listening, supporting, and providing mental health resources to their colleagues.
- Publicis’ Wholeself program focuses on employee emotional, physical, and financial health, and is responsible for initiatives such as adjusting the company’s leave policies and guidelines to be more accommodating of mental health needs (including changing the phrase “sick leave” to “wellbeing leave”).
- IPG’s Inclusive@Work website provides wellness resources to employees through a DEI lens, such as information on responding to racial turmoil or political upheaval.
- Omnicom is also focusing on the intersection of DEI and mental health by hosting an OPEN Chat series, the next of which will focus on Black Health and Wellness.
Four leading UK-based creative agencies, Space Doctors, This Way Up, Robot Food, and Ragged Edge spoke with Creative Boom to describe the ways they are supporting their employees’ mental health and wellness. That includes bonding excursions that take place outside the office, providing a week off and a learning budget for employees to take a course on a subject not work-related. They’re also, like many U.S. agencies, offering summer working hours during which their offices will close at 1pm. There are also group therapy sessions for all employees – during work hours – designed to promote discussion around subjects like time pressures, deadlines, creative fatigue, and creating a rewarding and sustainable work-life balance. Similar efforts are underway at agencies like Summer Friday –which opened just last year in an effort to build a new type of company that focuses on ensuring happy, healthy employees – and Jennifer Bett Communications, which offers mental health days and stipends for yoga and mental health services.
Changing the pitch process
Pitching has long been one of the most difficult, time-consuming, and stressful aspects of traditional advertising work. Last week, the UK-based Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) and Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) announced their new Pitch Positive Pledge, which focuses on three areas of “positivity” both agencies and brands can ensure throughout the pitch process: being positive a pitch is necessary, running a positive pitch that incorporates wellbeing, and providing a positive resolution to the pitch, including feedback on an agency’s performance. 70 signatories have already committed to the pledge, including the brands Unilever and Samsung and the agencies Havas Media Group and Wunderman Thompson.
Pitching will likely look different in the future no matter what, as COVID forever altered the pitching landscape by making virtual pitches the norm. Worklife reports that while virtual pitches have removed the emotional and physical toll that lengthy business travel can take on agency employees there can be other stressors in the virtual pitch environment. Pitching virtually puts pressure on agency employees to build rapport and relationships in a less conducive environment, sometimes prompting them to share more personal stories and background information. Questions and back-and-forth can also come off more sharply over formats such as Zoom, sometimes making employees feel interrogated as opposed to engaged.
Incorporating inclusive practices into pitch meetings (and meetings in general) can help take some of the pressure off agency employees, especially women of color, who are often excluded or undermined in meeting settings, Ruchika Tulshyan, author of “Inclusion on Purpose,” says. Facilitating meetings in a way that ensures all present receive equal speaking time, shutting down interruptions, and giving credit to the originator of the idea, not someone who repeats it (a dynamic particularly prevalent with white men receiving accolades for repeating an idea first voiced by a woman of color), are all methods to help reduce meeting stress and build a culture of inclusion. Continue reading an excerpt from Tulshyan’s book here.
Privilege, allyship, and mental health
It takes education, resources, time, and money to even be able to recognize a situation as a mental health issue, let alone take the steps to deal with it. This Mental Health Awareness Month, company leaders are beginning to share their struggles with mental health problems publicly through LinkedIn and other social media platforms. Although such honesty can help drive the conversation forward and remove some of the stigma around mental health, less privileged employees still do not have the same access to mental health resources. That’s a problem, according to statistics from Nabs, a U.K.-based wellbeing charity dedicated to supporting the ad industry Calls for mental health support from advertising employees are up 15% from last year, and up 30% from 2020.
If agencies combine the expectation of 12-hour workdays, high workloads, and tight turnarounds with mindfulness sessions and massages once a month to promote “wellness,” that can feel disingenuous, particularly when lower-level employees with less time and money are struggling to access therapy, per WorkLife.
Harvard Business Review published a list of ways coworkers and executives can step up and be a true mental health ally. Takeaways include:
- Talking to colleagues one-on-one about mental health challenges, making sure to take time beforehand to reflect on your own mental health biases and choosing a neutral space to have the conversation, such as somewhere outside of the office.
- Using supportive language, i.e. encouraging but not providing unsolicited advice, cooperating with your colleague’s needs instead of insisting they should see a doctor, etc.
- Educating your employees on mental health by spotlighting personal stories, providing workshops and classes, and communicating via different Employee Resource Groups.
- Revising company policy to accommodate mental health needs, including making it clear that mental health stigma is a form of discrimination, developing office accommodations for those experiencing mental health struggles, and providing mental health-specific coverage in your employee healthcare package.
Do corporate titles perpetuate bias?
Organizations are notorious for creating complicated, egotistical working titles, and the ad industry is no exception, writes Angus Kneale for Campaign. He argues that the long-established pecking order created by titles such as CEO, CMO, Senior Executive Vice President, etc., is not only outdated, but is more about imposing a contrived hierarchy on employees than reaping any real benefit, with negative DEI implications.
Creating empowerment from the bottom up and flattening the playing field isn’t just the more inclusive thing for agencies to do, it can also help business, by allowing previously suppressed good ideas to emerge. Kneale points out that removing titles from employees also promotes transparency, which is always helpful for building a more inclusive culture.
The ongoing response to the reversal of Roe v. Wade
Stagwell and Omnicom joined other agencies and holding companies this week in announcing they will cover employee travel to seek abortion services, in the wake of the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion indicating the reversal of the Roe v. Wade decision, which will likely lead to significant abortion restrictions in red states. Rana Reeves writes for AdAge on other ways agencies can respond to the news:
- Frame the conversation as a larger healthcare issue: similar to the ways in which companies encourage employees to vote without telling them who to vote for, advocate for equal access to healthcare without explicitly mentioning abortion.
- Assume all communication to employees and customers could easily become public (as covered in last week, PR firm Zeno was called out for an internal communication advising its clients to stay silent on the Roe v. Wade news).
- Stay true to your agency’s values – in 2014, Black Lives Matter was considered controversial, but in 2020, companies were scrambling to show support, so is your agency going to be ahead of the curve on abortion access or similarly scrambling in the future?
Globalizing DEI programs
DEI programs and initiatives at agencies are often developed and implemented with a US-focused lens, but this focus leaves out the experiences of many agencies’ global workforces. Fast Company provides a breakdown of ways agencies can be inclusive of all employees, not just those based in the US. These include disaggregating employee experience survey data by region to understand each locality’s specific needs, using correct regional terminology (i.e. not using the phrase “African American” to refer to non-American Black people), and conducting research and data collection on what groups are underrepresented in which regions.
New DEI perks at agencies
- More agencies are offering the use of virtual assistant apps as a perk specifically intended to reduce stress for working parents, particularly working mothers, reports WorkLife. Ubiquitous use of virtual assistants can also help flatten the corporate hierarchy by giving entry-level and lower-ranking employees access to the same kinds of services provided to the C-suite.
- The New England-based marketing agency Overabove worked with its employees to design a new office building that looks a lot like a traditional home, helping to bring domesticity into the workspace and encourage employees to bring their full selves to work, per WorkLife.
We’re also reading:
- The gender pay gap isn’t the only way women are earning less money than men – the gender pension gap also exists and is potentially widening, reports The Guardian.
- Omnicom’s Rapp Worldwide agency has hired Nicole Simpson as their inaugural U.S. Director of DE&I, per MediaPost.
- Building Leaders and Creators (BLAC), a nonprofit internship program dedicated to creating opportunities for young Black creatives to break into the advertising industry, is expanding its reach, according to Reporter Newspapers.
- How merging DEI work with learning and development initiatives could help organizations recruit and retain employees, from Thomson Reuters.