Bryce Whitwam
Oct 26, 2016

How to cure the agency overtime problem

Dentsu’s mandate to reduce overtime hours is not going to address the problem of overwork, writes Wunderman's Bryce Whitwam.

Bryce Whitwam
Bryce Whitwam

Editor's note: This column has sparked a strong reaction. Please see "On suicide, overtime and responsibility".

The recent news around Dentsu employee Matsuri Takahashi’s suicide last Christmas being the result of “karoshi” or “death by overtime” has again ignited a discussion around work/life balance in the advertising industry world and what needs to be done to prevent this terrible tragedy from ever happening again.

Overtime should never be celebrated as a symbol of success in an agency, production house or client office, but the fact remains it’s often unavoidable, especially in high-growth markets like China, where agencies and clients are expecting to grow much faster than elsewhere.

Dentsu’s mandate to reduce overtime hours is really not going to address the key problem. Agency leaders need to do a better job of listening to their employees. Millennials need more frequent engagement than the standard annual performance review. At Wunderman we have launched a program that encourages leaders to meet frequently and more informally with their subordinates. It helps us better identify and resolve the pressure points staff might be facing.

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Between these sessions, Wunderman utilises a fun and interactive survey platform to improve employee engagement through quick and fun pulse surveys, enabling us to understand employee feedback by teams. We can separate our creative and data teams into different groups, for example, helping regional leaders improve their staff engagement plans.

Agency leaders also need to learn to manage excessive overtime (OT) and find ways to combat excess stress in the office. Staff under pressure can handle stress easier when they work in a relaxed and healthy environment.

At Wunderman Shanghai, we’ve found a great OT stress reliever: yoga. The agency’s yoga program was designed by China marketing veteran David Turchetti who exited the industry in 2008 to follow his passion for teaching yoga. Turchetti was previously CEO of mobile marketing agency 21 Communications.

"The team at Wunderman was a little surprised at first, because many of them thought they were coming to class just to get a good stretch", said Turchetti. “But yoga, above all, is a spiritual practice. We read ancient scriptures of yoga together in every class and spend time chanting and discussing how to live yogic lives.”

Turchetti’s methodology starts with basic techniques for calming the mind and helping participants find a state of mind which he calls “presence” or “mindfulness”. Especially with the explosion of mobile communications, employees rarely have the opportunity to focus on any one thing for more than a minute. When they come to the mat, mobile phones are not allowed and I encourage them to leave their work worries behind and connect to the present moment.” Beyond physical aspects of yoga, the Wunderman program continues with “developing mental clarity” and “yoga for creativity.” 

Wunderman is not the first company to recognize the value of yoga in the workplace. More than 1,000 Google employees have taken the company’s signature “Search Inside Yourself” mindfulness program. Forbes cited the program as a “genius perk” for increasing employee profitability and retention.

Overtime is not going away anytime soon and we agency leaders need to find better ways to listen,  but also combat the stress and pressure. If the growing waiting list for Wunderman’s yoga program is any indication, investment in agency wellness is likely to expand in the future.

The agency work culture won't change, but we can change the wellness of the staff.

Bryce Whitwam is CEO of Wunderman China

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