Matthew Miller
Mar 22, 2022

Mental health: Provide an EAP and call it a day?

AGENCY REPORT CARD ANALYSIS: When it comes to nurturing overall wellbeing among employees, standout agency networks recognise that buying into an employee assistance programme isn't nearly enough.


Understanding that the wellbeing of employees is not only a good thing in and of itself, but also a crucial element in hiring and retention (and therefore in overall business success), agencies in APAC are taking the wellbeing of their employees more seriously than ever before. Or at least they're saying that they do.

In preparing our recently published Agency Report Cards (in-depth assessments of 41 APAC agency networks based on 2021 performance), we found that while talk was ubiquitous, many agencies failed to go much beyond the minimal, expected steps. For example, the rapid adoption of EAPs (employee assistance programmes), which provide easy access to one-on-one counseling, is undeniably a good development over the past few years. But EAPs are nigh on universal now, so if an agency touts this as a central part of its plan around retention and wellbeing, it's no longer impressive.

We assess most people-related aspects of agency performance—turnover, training, retention, mental wellbeing—under the 'management' heading in the Agency Report Card process. While this category also includes our overall assessment of all aspects of the agency's leadership, a genuine commitment to the agency's people is an essential component in achieving a good grade. In the latest report cards, only eight agencies improved their management grade over the prior year, while 13 declined and the other 20 saw no movement. 

Examining the efforts the strong performers take to support their people, we can distill a couple of commonalities—two lessons that are fairly easy to understand, but more difficult to pull off convincingly. They're also critical for other agency leaders (and leaders of any kind of company, for that matter) to absorb and live by. 

Be genuine

Without real effort to convince people that upper management seriously cares about the mental health of the staff members, it's all too easy for a wellness push to look like a check-the-boxes exercise. 

As with DEI, which overlaps with wellbeing in many ways, a commitment can't be faked. Especially given the stigmas that still exist around mental health, leaders must go out of their way to prove that nurturing mental wellbeing is not just something they talk about, but an actual priority. Otherwise people will never feel safe to discuss their challenges openly and seek help, which leads not only to suffering but also to increased turnover and its attendant costs: disruption of client work, the loss of prior investment in departing employees, and additional recruitment and training costs to replace them.

For example, PHD was one agency that stood out in this respect in 2021. Starting with regional head James Hawkins, members of the leadership team stepped up to make employee wellness a real priority. They made mental health a key message in regular communications in order to assure staff that "It's OK to not be OK". Underlining that idea, an internal publication dubbed #MindOverMedia’, saw members of the leadership team sharing their own personal mental-health struggles. "We wanted our people to know that their mental health won’t hold them back or define their professional success at PHD," the agency told Campaign Asia-Pacific.

PHD also signaled the importance and sincerity of its mental wellness effort by kicking it off with a regional ‘Big Meeting’, which featured an honest conversation about the topic and received positive feedback for its candid, human approach that wasn't "washed in corporate speak". On World Mental Health Day, in October, staff were given the day off to reflect on their mental health, with a community group sharing content and live sessions throughout the day—again normalising the idea of checking in on one's mental health and taking action when necessary.

Another media network, Essence, received one of only two grades in the 'A' range for management. The GroupM agency calls its employees 'Essentials', which appears to be a genuine sentiment rather than just a play on words. As a result, the agency shines in employee-engagement surveys, which show not only increasing satisfaction in 2021 but also rising ratings on metrics such as culture, career opportunities, manager quality and fair treatment. Part of this is due to Essence's strong performance on DEI efforts; acceptance and equitable access to opportunity are inextricable from a sense of wellbeing in the workplace, after all. 

An explicit emphasis on mental wellbeing in 2021 was also laudable, with tactics including the formation of community groups and a holistic Essential Well-Being Toolkit full of information on resources, benefits, best practices and tips. The agency also introduced Essential Afternoons: one Friday each month for employees to focus on themselves by taking advantage of opportunities such as training programmes, mentoring, guest speaker talks and gym hours. In 2021 the company built an online 'Shout-Out Wall' for people to highlight colleagues' achievements, with the highest-rated items getting celebrated during monthly company meetings.

In addition, Essence pushed its people to give colleagues "the gift of time" by eliminating unnecessary meetings.

Mental health is good business

That last point leads into the second common understanding that sets the overachievers in this area apart: Commitment to wellbeing and retention is good business. For example, cutting out pointless meetings doesn't just make people feel less burdened and stressed out, it also improves the agency's overall efficiency. Win-win.

TBWA, which joined Essence in securing an A-level grade for management, is one agency aiming to treat retention with the same rigour it treats new business.

The Omnicom-owned agency enacted a more data-driven approach to its retention strategy in 2021. This focuses on tracking departures to help identify early causes of resignation, as well as mapping out personalised, long-term career pathways aligned with a staffer's interests—even if those aren't what the person was originally hired for. Regional head Sean Donovan is eloquent about the importance of the effort: It helps the agency track trends and treat people as the multi-dimensional beings they are, which in turn helps people develop in accordance with their interests, rather than making them feel like interchangeable cogs. TBWA also rolled out "exhaustive" training on its data products and invested in mental wellbeing sessions. In Australia, leaders were introduced to a methodology called ARSENAL, which involves fortnightly checks on awareness, rest, support, exercise, nutrition, attitude and learning. TBWA's Singapore office won Southeast Asia Best Place to Work at Campaign's Agency of the Year Awards.

We were highly impressed with an effort RGA made to figure out what bits of new business it should pitch for in 2021. While this might not immediately seem related to mental wellness, it definitely is. The company developed a new-business scoring system which uses a matrix of questions tailored to each APAC market to generate a score between 0 and 100 for a potential pitch. RGA evaluated the system against its 2020 pitches, and discovered that it won none of the pitches it went for that scored under 50, but achieved a high win rate for those that scored above 75. The tool now helps RGA be more selective about the pitches it wants to go after. 

Similar to eliminating pointless meetings, there's a win-win here: Fewer resources wasted chasing unlikely wins, and less burnout due to the grind of incessant pitching. It's an effective solution that benefits both staff and the bottom line, and we’d love to see other agencies follow RGA’s lead.

The IPG agency also instituted a variety of other retention efforts. It doubled its investment in talent development, bringing in Addison Rose Vincent to lead workshops around mental health and resilience, True & North to conduct new business training, and Brad Waldron to conduct sessions on mindfulness. 

PHD also showed it gets the link between wellness and business activity: It ran training sessions to help employees set boundaries with clients. Demanding clients—and agencies unwilling to push back—are of course a central issue in the industry, leading to destructive factors such as unreasonable hours and pure frustration, which in turn lead to high staff turnover and make it harder for the industry to compete for talent with other fields.

Publicis Groupe (see the Publicis Creative and Publicis Media report cards) also took action on this front in 2021, instituting bonuses for those working with particularly demanding clients. The group has become something of a trendsetter when it comes to progressive, employee-centred policies, making headlines for its work-from-anywhere programme, its decision to pay back salary sacrifices, and a more recent move to pay bonuses worth US$1.52 billion to all staff. 

Meanwhile, the network has been overhauling its hiring, onboarding and retention strategies, with specific actions such as crafting better job descriptions, showcasing opportunities across the group, instituting a buddy system to reduce early attrition, devising personal career plans and benchmarking compensation against the industry. It also implements a standardised interview process to remove bias in the recruitment process. The company is also attempting to battle burnout head-on by partnering with Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global, for programmes centred around well-being, relationships, and resilience, which all employees have access to on the in-house platform Marcel. 

A final company worth mentioning, because it highlights training as another place where treating people well and building high performance are intertwined, is Accenture Interactive. The company also scored high in the management category in our grading, which as mentioned encompasses turnover, retention, wellbeing and training (among other factors). While it hasn’t been impervious to the 'Great Resignation', AI's attrition rate is well below what we saw in most other agencies. The company attributes this to the strength of its value proposition and the way it invests in talent. 

Parent company Accenture invests nearly $1 billion annually in reskilling, training and learning initiatives. And the priority placed on training trickles down to AI. The Interactive Learning team hosts monthly webinars for all employees globally, while several markets in APAC have developed their own skills sharing initiatives. Leadership also tells us that while many agencies were cutting staff or salaries during the pandemic, it was handing out promotions and pay rises. They say these approaches kept attrition low while allowing AI to scoop up an “unfair share” of talent. 

Campaign Asia

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