Bailey Calfee
Jun 1, 2023

How agencies are addressing mental health in the workplace — and what they can do better

Agencies are taking increased steps to support the mental health and well-being of their employees. But simply offering unlimited paid time off or adding a new ERG won’t cut it, according to creative talent.

How agencies are addressing mental health in the workplace — and what they can do better

“Stress has been such a natural part of advertising for forever,” says Jeff Howle, EP+Co’s SVP and director of culture and integration.

That doesn’t mean agency culture has to exacerbate it — in fact, it’s an agency’s job to manage workloads and employee well-being so the business can run smoothly.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, work’s impact on employee’s mental health became impossible to ignore, as a shift to purely remote work led to the dissolution of work-life balance across many industries.

As attention grew on mental health at the workplace, many agencies responded with initiatives targeted at helping their talent to protect their well-being. 

But as the pandemic turns endemic and leadership craves a return to business as usual, there are concerns that focus on mental health will fall by the wayside. This appeared apparent within Campaign US’ 2023 Agency Performance Reviews — in their survey responses, few agencies noted improvements to their mental health initiatives. 

It’s also hard to accurately gauge an agency’s level of mental health support on internal programs alone, as industry professionals from junior to leadership note that the most important factors of maintaining mental health in the workplace come from interpersonal support and organizational values.

“There are only so many issues the industry is tackling, and we’re such a ‘hot moment’ industry,” says James Kinney, chief people officer at Media.Monks. “Everyone was hot on DE&I, now everyone’s hot on mental health — but the issues were here, they are here and they’re going to be here.”

Company initiatives that purport to support better mental health often fall short because employees are not consulted on their needs. “In a lot of organizations, these initiatives are dictated, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do because we, the executive team, think it’s the right thing to do,’” notes Garrett Garcia, president at PPK. The top-down approach does not properly address employee issues, he adds.

Before identifying  areas for improvement, though, it’s necessary to break down the efforts agencies have implemented and what is working for talent.

Current agency initiatives

The influx of attention on employees’ mental health has made plain the lack of resources previously available in the workplace. “Until COVID, we were just relying on Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) — just like every other business in America,” says Phil Schermer, founder and CEO of Project Healthy Minds, a non-profit focused on providing access to mental health resources.

EAPs offer minimal resources to support mental health, including access to a limited number of free counseling sessions and free online resources to help manage burnout. The offerings vary across companies and are rarely used by employees, according to Schermer.

To bulk up their offerings outside of EAPs, many agencies now provide employees with access to holistic and healthcare-focused apps to promote mental wellness. For example, VMLY&R provides coaching and therapy via Ginger, Initiative provides free therapy sessions on Nivati, McCann offers Talkspace for therapy and Headspace for stress reduction, and many agencies offer the Calm app at a free or discounted rate.

Certain agencies, including McCann and Initiative, bring in mental health experts for seminars and workshops. McCann has a Wellness Wednesdays speaker series for topics on mental and physical health. Initiative holds guest seminars on topics such as leading with empathy and managing burnout.

Such initiatives intend to help talent manage their workloads. “Not to say that the work is getting lighter — the work is still there — but we're helping them manage it and making sure that they have the resources to help them get through those challenging times,” says Kimberly Miller, chief experience officer at Initiative.

Many companies also have employee resource groups (ERGs) focused on mental health where employees can speak more freely about what they’re going through. ERGs tailored to certain minorities both promote representation and provide an outlet for intersectional issues related to mental health.

“Mental health is an equity issue, because there are underrepresented groups whose [mental health] is being exacerbated when something occurs in the world and they’re still coming to work,” says Media.Monks’ Kinney, who believes mental health should be addressed with an intersectional approach.

But ERGs need to be thoughtfully created and are not the only way to support talent. “While those are incredible places for community, it can sometimes feel like you've just been put in a corner to talk with people like you over there rather than making it known throughout your company that this is a safe space and that you are cared for, supported, understood and empathized with,” points out Tori Young, a senior copywriter at Havas-owned Arnold Worldwide.

Attention to adequate time off

The issue of employee burnout also bubbled to the surface during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown after many months of working from home led to the Great Resignation. That mental crash made it clear that employees were not taking the time off they needed in order to rest and reset.

To agencies’ credit, many leaders understand that people are hesitant to take time off, and have instituted measures to keep track of how much leave is being taken across the company.

You can offer [employees] the sun, the moon and the stars, but they won't take it if they don't actually have a culture that enables them to feel empowered and to feel like they have a voice.
— Craig Atkinson, CEO, Code3

“We monitor time off usage not from an abuse standpoint — because we haven’t seen that at all — but from an under-utilization standpoint,” notes EP+Co’s Howle, a sentiment shared by many other industry leaders.

In order to get people to take their time off, leadership must first identify why employees aren’t giving themselves permission to rest. This could be a fear of burdening the rest of the team with a heavy workload, a feeling that even if time is taken off they’ll still need to be reachable, feeling the weight of too many responsibilities or a company culture that doesn’t respect personal time off.

“If you don't have a culture that allows people the belief they can take it, it doesn't matter,” notes Code3’s CEO, Craig Atkinson. “You can offer them the sun, the moon and the stars, but they won't take it if they don't actually have a culture that enables them to feel empowered and to feel like they have a voice.”

For talent to feel comfortable taking a break, they need to be clearly offered the permission to take paid time off. “Normally what you get from that person is the idea that, ‘I can't possibly leave because I have this many deliverables and these clients want to do this, and I’m entirely replaceable,’” says Atkinson. “People get a sense of, ‘if I'm not there, the world's going to fall apart.’”

It’s up to the company to create a system that disrupts rather than reinforces these thoughts. Failing to do so can result in burnout and stress, both of which have the potential to limit the quality of work output. “Especially as creative, it helps so much to step away and come back to the problem,” notes Noelle Griffin, a copywriter at 22Squared. “Just to disconnect for a little while actually does improve the work.”

The issue of burnout has drawn renewed attention in recent months as industry-wide layoffs impact workloads.

Ensuring proper coverage and client relationships

Just as important as encouraging an employee to take leave is ensuring that their co-workers have the resources to cover their work while they are away. Policies like unlimited paid time off are “totally irrelevant if you can't use them,” says Atkinson. 

To ensure no one is overworked, PPK’s Garcia says his company utilizes project management software which is checked on a daily basis. If it looks like someone has too much on their plate, the work is restructured.

Kinney notes that Media.Monks’ global structure ensures that talent is able to stick to their working hours without feeling the need to over-work themselves to meet client demands. 

“We’re 24/7, always-on, but it’s counterintuitive to how that sounds — it means we’re handing off the baton to someone else in another time zone,” he says. “We have a unique amount of coverage that we're able to give a project to ease the workload and at the same time respond to a client.” 

Agencies must also prioritize their talents’ needs when clients ask too much of them — whether that means pushing back on demands or adding more staff to an account.

“Agencies are under pressure to deliver faster and more efficiently, so it is a huge challenge as we think about how to help balance that,” Howle points out. That pressure shouldn’t fall on talent — there must be a work structure in place to support them.

Enforcing mutual respect and understanding between clients and agency teams is a necessary element of the relationship, says Initiative’s Miller. Initiative works to embed this with empathy charters, “which basically asks our clients and our client teams to have mutual respect and understanding and empathy for one another,” she says.

Atkinson points out that Code3 has hired a chief client officer whose responsibility it is to establish fairer service-level agreements (SLAs) with clients — and enforce them. “This is exactly analogous to employee mental health,” he notes. “You can have all the SLAs in the world, but if the clients ignore them and you don't hold them accountable, it doesn't matter.”

Ensuring that client relationships are healthy from the top down can help to ease the burden on lower-level talent and allow them to spend more time doing what they’re good at. “I know that they're fighting the good fight up top when it comes to ridiculous client asks,” says Arnold’s Young of her managers.

Setting boundaries — whether that means actually logging off at the end of the work day or saying no to a tight deadline — can expose gaps in the workforce or prove that a client’s demands are not feasible.

“My supervisor has been encouraging the team to practice the mentality of letting things take their natural course: If you say no to projects because you simply can’t, and they don’t get done or don’t go the way [one] wants, and people are mad, that’s when you realize that some things are not right,” says Estella Xian, an associate design director at Ogilvy. 

These boundaries will support mental health and, in turn, the work. “The underlying stressor for people in the industry is the pressures of time and client expectations,” notes Fitzco creative director Stephen Lintner, who adds that his mental health is supported by “having people who can communicate clearly, effectively and with accountability to clients and to set realistic expectations for deliverable timing.”

Importance of supportive management structure

While executive leadership teams are responsible for instituting policies and creating a company culture conducive to mental well-being, these priorities do not always trickle down to middle-management, which makes management training and KPIs a must.

“I'm trying to ensure that everybody that runs teams inside of our org follows that same methodology because that's how it feels real to the staff,” says Atkinson. “I can do anything I want but it still doesn't feel real to them if their bosses aren't doing it.”

When managers set forth open lines of communication, employees feel more supported and better understood. “It helps to know that when I do need a break, I can get one, and when I need to take time for myself or if I'm feeling super burnt out, I'm not going to be screaming into a void,” says Young.

Failing to take a manager’s behavior into account has the potential to derail mental health progress. One way to gauge a manager’s success is by asking their direct reports  for feedback.

For instance, Code3’s manager surveys ask questions like whether a manager provides timely feedback and whether an employee’s career goal and path is clear. “Someone's not a leader if they're not doing those things, and so they’re all held accountable for doing them — it doesn't fall into the extra credit box. That is the baseline,” says Atkinson.

Any agency that is slapping a policy down on paper and then being like, ‘all right, we're done here’ is massively failing.
— Noelle Griffin, copywriter, 22Squared

Additionally, managers need proper resources to become better leaders. 

“Even though we encourage our managers to check in with their people on a one-on-one basis monthly, they're not always equipped or trained to handle the severe things that a lot of our people are dealing with,” notes Miller. Extra mental health resources, then, can offer support to talent while lessening a manager’s burden.

“One of the things that we've been doing recently as a management team is getting more training on emotional intelligence and communicating with people to understand where they're coming from, what their emotional outlook is on how things are affecting them, and spotting burnout and identifying when people seem overworked,” notes Fitzco’s Lintner. “This training is helping to address a lot of the gaps that policies can leave.”

Effective communication of expectations

Especially now, with work-from-home and hybrid work models the norm, it’s necessary for each individual to know exactly what is expected of them.

“There are fewer opportunities for face-to-face direction, training, coaching — and with those opportunities fewer and farther between, it’s even more important to create better and more open lines of communication,” says Garcia.

Ensuring that an employee knows what is expected of them can prevent unbalanced workloads and ease worries that one is, without knowing, not doing enough and will face retribution or negative feedback during yearly reviews.

“I personally believe that the best way to have positive mental health is to understand what your relationship with your workplace is,” says Atkinson. The more specific, the better: “What does doing a good job mean? What does being successful mean and how is that defined? In each individual role, what are the things you are expected to deliver?” 

Many agencies also see limitations in the annual review process — instead favoring more frequent and informal meetings between managers and direct reports.

“We encourage all of our middle to senior managers to find opportunities once or twice a quarter to have informal reviews,” notes Garcia. “Those opportunities are signals that the door is always open and if we can signal that it's a two-way conversation, the gaps between those informal and formal review processes will be more visible opportunities for an employee to come and have a dialogue with their managers if things aren't going well — or are going well.”

What employees want from their workplaces

Employees understand that mental health awareness is relatively new in the workforce, as younger generations vocalize their needs and the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated large shifts in how we work. They say they are simply seeking an honest effort to make positive change rather than perfection from the get-go.

In order to properly address the issue and provide proper support, it’s necessary not to treat mental health as a one-and-done issue. “There's no one-policy-fits-all,” says 22Squared’s Griffin. “Any agency that is slapping a policy down on paper and then being like, ‘all right, we're done here’ is massively failing. You need to come back and address when things happen, and understand that every one person is different.”

Experimenting and taking employee feedback into account will make it easier to gauge what works and what needs improvement.

“This isn’t just a moral argument, it’s an economic argument,” he says, pointing to a Blackrock study which showed that companies with higher retention rates outshine those with higher turnover, and resignations are increasingly tied to dissatisfaction with mental health and workplace benefits.

Leadership should be open and receptive to hearing what employees are feeling, and create forums where talent can speak freely and without fear of retaliation. “We're so siloed these days that you don’t get to hear how busy and actually how stressed out others are,” says Ogilvy’s Xian. “Maybe your supervisor is much more stressed out than you think they are, but they don’t let it out and vice versa.”

Bringing that understanding to the forefront of professional relationships will foster more empathy across organizations. “I find support for my mental health…in the way that leadership is communicating and allowing flexibility and rest,” notes Young.

“Every CEO needs to be role-modeling this [openness],” notes Project Healthy Minds’ Schermer. “You want to change the stigma around mental health in the workplace, and if you can’t even talk about the issue, it’s very hard to do anything else that will actually move the needle.”

Agency leadership also needs to accurately represent its workforce when it comes to addressing mental health. 

“When things are happening in the world that affect my mental state as a Black woman, it is impossible for a white man in leadership to empathize with me,” says Young. “What I crave more of in the industry in general is a more diverse leadership landscape because you don’t feel like you have that true, authentic support when no one at the top can understand what you’re going through.”

Monetary assistance for accessing mental health services is also an industry-wide need. Stress is a given in this industry, and having resources to deal with it should be just as commonplace. And those resources must be easily accessible — seeking treatment for mental health issues such as anxiety and depression is already an overwhelming task that is exacerbated when a company’s policies and programs are not clear.

Campaign US

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