Faaez Samadi
Jan 22, 2018

Overwork in adland: More than 50% say health affected

Overstressed, underappreciated, uncompensated and always-on: Breaking down our exclusive survey.

Overwork in adland: More than 50% say health affected

Let’s get straight to it. We at Campaign have always been passionate about taking on the industry’s most pressing, exciting, and also troubling issues. This article is about the last of those.

Usually, in an in-depth article like this, we would use these opening paragraphs to set the scene, to introduce the topic in a vivid and thought-provoking manner, as there are myriad nuanced issues in marketing and communications that require such an approach.

This is not one of those issues.

Every stakeholder in the industry—agencies, brands, consultancies, media, and the rest—has known about and talked about overwork for what now feels aeons. There is no scene to set. It is, simply, a blight on this industry—and many others. Talking in circles and pontificating on what the actual workforce feels or needs is a repetitive and largely pointless exercise.

Action always speaks louder than words, so we at Campaign decided it was time to take it. The best way to find out how employees, at all levels, feel about overwork was not to make assumptions on their behalf, but give them the opportunity to openly and safely tell us. Hence, the creation of our first workplace survey focused specifically on overwork.

The results speak for themselves. Here are some headline facts: More than half of respondents said they feel overworked, nearly two-thirds put in more hours than the average work week, almost all say they aren’t rewarded for it, and end up working during their holidays.

On top of these findings, we’re not afraid to say that some of our own assumptions were duly challenged. Perhaps some of yours will be too.


Campaign employed an independent consultant to help design, together with our editorial team, and operate the survey using Survey Monkey. The survey was live between 22 November and 5 December 2017, and garnered over 500 responses from more than 15 Asia-Pacific markets. Respondents ranged widely from employees just beginning their careers, to top management with several years’ industry experience, and include both agency and brand side staff, although just under two-thirds are agency people.

In the interests of full disclosure, not every respondent chose to answer every question, so we have outlined exactly how many people responded to each question to provide greater accuracy and clarity in our results.

If you'd like, you can also download the full results in a PDF (3.9 megabytes).

The mood

Before getting into the details, it is important to get an over-arching view of where advertising, marketing and communications finds itself on the issue of overwork. To that end, the survey found that 53% of respondents said they felt overworked, with 32% saying no and 15% not sure.

On the face of it, this may not seem as high as one would think, given the fierce debate regarding overwork, and the clamour only intensifying given the events at Dentsu over the past couple of years. Close to a third of workers believe they are not overworked.

That the issue has been front and centre so recently may well have had a positive effect on both employees and agencies. Taking this survey only a few years ago could have yielded very different results for this question.

As one female manager at a local advertising agency in Australia puts it: “I invested (and probably wasted) 10 years of my life working non-stop for previous companies, so I've now adopted a much healthier approach. I still work hard, but not insanely. My current employers push us, but the expectation is not extreme. They work as hard, if not harder.”

Progress then, it would appear. But the fact remains that more than half of the APAC industry workforce feels overworked, which is a significant number. Digging deeper, a worrying 50% of respondents said their health suffers from their workload, and 60% said the same about their personal or social lives—although presumably any amount of work gets in the way of these things.

Sue Olivier, regional director for talent development at Ogilvy & Mather APAC, tells Campaign that, perhaps as the aforementioned figures reflect, “serious efforts are being made to address this issue”.

“Ogilvy certainly has procedures in place to avoid sustained overwork and to manage the welfare and work-life balance of our staff,” she explains.

Similarly, Zarka Khan-Iltaf, APAC head of talent at IPG Mediabrands, says progress has definitely been made, but there is more that could be done. “Media is never going to be a nine-to-five job,” she states. “It’s a dynamic fast moving industry with quick turnarounds and tight deadlines; you don’t come into this industry unaware of that.”

The hours

Having explored the general industry sentiment, it’s time to delve into the numbers, where the picture appears troubling.

Asked about the number of hours worked in a typical week, 37% said 41-51 hours. Given that the regular full-time work week is now viewed as being in the region of 45 hours, the finding suggests that just over a third of APAC industry employees work what could be considered reasonable hours, or just a little over the odds.

However, 59% of respondents say they work 51 hours or more a week, which is a significant number of people, more than half. Of those, 35% work between 51-61 hours, 24% more than 60 hours a week, and 9% more than 70 hours. It’s fair to say that this final statistic is smaller than we initially anticipated, but almost a quarter working longer than 60 hours, and over a third more than 51, is a clear signal of overworking in the marketing and communications world.

There are those who may try and use these numbers to suggest things aren’t quite that bad, but it would be foolish. Other factors must be taken into account alongside the numbers on a timesheet. More than 53% of respondents said they occasionally work on the weekend, with 16% saying they regularly do. This could obviously affect people’s stress levels, if their work follows them home or into their leisure time. Moreover, with the world getting smaller, many people are working across different timezones, meaning unsociable hours are ever more common.

"I believe in getting my work completed within office time and I work with full dedication, which I think helps me get my work done with good outcomes. But the scenario has changed. People are in the habit of gossiping, taking regular breaks and many other things that make their work more tedious and take longer. I believe in work first, enjoy later. My statement is personal, so it might sound wrong or illogical, but this is what I feel."
Female manager, local PR agency, India

For Olivier, these and other issues are signals of how “vastly different” adland is now from just a few years ago. “Our clients and our industry are all operating in a much more competitive, procurement-driven, always-on world,” she explains. “Our output is very different and much more diverse and no longer at a timing of our own choosing, the market doesn’t wait! So we have to evolve to help our clients meet these new business demands.”

The work

With so many people spending additional hours working, we have to ask ourselves, simply, why? What is it that is keeping people plugged in, rather than being on the couch, in the bar or on the beach? From evaluating our findings, the crux of the issue, and one that gets to the very heart of overwork and our survey, is one word: expectation.

The demand for doing more and more, with less and less, is arguably greater than ever before, and workers are feeling the weight of that expectation, coming from their employers and the clients they work for. Asked to explain exactly why adland people stay at work late, the answer could not be clearer—72% said there’s simply too much work to do in regular office hours, with pending deadlines second at 61%.

For years in Asia, there has been something of a cultural argument made around hierarchy, implying that lower-level employees don’t feel they can leave the office until the boss does. The fallacy of that antiquated suggestion is sharply borne out by the survey, as it is the least cited reason for staying late.

“If we can be stricter about scoping, agencies would be paid for work done and would be able to staff according to the need. Currently, poor scope, short contracts and competition mean that we are often unable to. We need our client partners to understand the implications of unrealistic scopes without a proper remuneration model.”
—Sue Olivier, Ogilvy

Olivier at Ogilvy admits that because the marketplace is so competitive, agencies are inclined to allow ‘scope creep’ to keep clients satisfied.

“If we can be stricter about scoping, agencies would be paid for work done and would be able to staff according to the need,” she explains. “Currently, poor scope, short contracts and competition mean that we are often unable to. We need our client partners to understand the implications of unrealistic scopes without a proper remuneration model.”

The ripples of these unrealistic client expectations cross directly into the talent hiring issue plaguing the industry in Asia for years now. It’s “a chicken and egg thing”, according to one male manager at a global media agency in Singapore.

“You lose talent but cannot find replacements because good talent is hard to find and expensive to hire,” he says. “The workload is then shared by the people left, who become overworked because agencies cannot hire. Clients should begin understanding that. The industry should wake up.”

Khan-Iltaf at IPG Mediabrands says this cycle is something businesses are all too familiar with. More puzzling is why they wouldn’t try to solve it, given the consequences.

“If overworking is left unchecked it will inevitably lead to employee turnover,” she explains. “There is no sense in rehiring into the same role if you don’t address the root cause of departure. In an industry where talent is in high demand this would be a very short-sighted approach; you are literally handing over talent to your competition.”

Moreover, the combination of overworked execs and unrealistic deadlines means the work suffers, which is hardly surprising when work that was once expected to take two or three weeks now needs to be ready in two or three days. “This is why ideas and output are becoming homogenised,” says a female VP of a global PR agency in Hong Kong.

The culture

Another critical factor is the environment in which employees' working hours are spent. Most people accept as a matter of course that having a successful career involves hard work, and putting in the hours. But if the culture of the place that you’re spending all those hours is oppressive, aggressive or just plain nasty, that can have untold effects on even those staffers working an ostensibly straightforward nine to five.

Work culture was a central theme returned to again and again by our respondents, with many feeling they were cogs in a machine rather than trusted members of a progressive organisation—both on the agency and brand side.

To that end, question 20 about being compensated for one’s extra hours is extremely telling. When 89% of respondents say they are not compensated, it doesn’t take Freud to suggest a link between feeling undervalued and hence overworked.

Similarly, we at Campaign were gobsmacked to learn that almost 40% of respondents said their companies don’t offer any flexible working. In an industry that thrives on creativity and disruption, that supposedly champions progress and breaking the mould, and frankly with the countless times we’ve been told by both brands and agencies that it’s the age of the worker and companies have to get on board with their expectations, this is an egregious finding.

Olivier at Ogilvy explains that the agency offers benefits such as meals and transport for after-hours working, time off in lieu, and generous annual leave. Ogilvy also offers sabbaticals, which she says are popular. Flexible work is also very much part of the offering.

“This is an industry that runs on passion as much as it does on talent, and our culture is based on people being engaged enough to want to give their time during pitches and busy projects,” she said.

But perhaps the distinction to make here is that while agencies and brands may have existing policies that seek to promote employee welfare—as many say they do—it often comes down to the specific culture within a team or department, and its leadership, as to whether staff feel they can comfortably take advantage of these policies.

Khan-Iltaf at IPG Mediabrands suggests a potential “failing in communication within some organisations to making their people aware that these options are available to them and reinforcing that message”.

“It is often a mind-set change that needs to be addressed as opposed to an organisational change, and this may require sitting with groups and talking about what flexible working means to them as individuals,” she adds. “The tone is set from the top down. Management should both model flexible working, and have an open conversation with their teams about how it could work for them.”

But as one female PR agency manager in Singapore says, echoing many other respondents, the culture of long working hours is set by the agency leadership team.

“Often, they bemoan clients and their high demands, but wear it like a badge of honour. Teams are expected to log back online, whether in the office or at home, and work past midnight regularly. They do get some leeway coming into the office later—10am—but for parents with young kids, that just doesn't work as kids’ schedules start early, end early.”

So what are people putting the extra hours in for? The intangible, it seems. For while the significant majority say they aren’t tangibly compensated for the hours, 49% of respondents said they do feel their extra work is recognised and appreciated by their employer. On the flip side, 51% don’t, and so the industry must ask itself: How long does it believe workers that feel overworked, undervalued and underappreciated, will stick around?

The technology

But hang on, surely the connectivity revolution means many of these overworking issues can be readily solved and greater flexibility achieved? We don’t need to tell you that it’s a double-edged sword, which is what our respondents told us.

Rather than spend another several pages on the boons and pitfalls technology has brought to the workplace, let’s take a look at the data. More than three-quarters of respondents said they set their out of office when on vacation, which is encouraging, although we’re troubled by the 23% that don’t, given the numerous studies on the importance of downtime for productivity.

Yet more troubling still is the fact that 85% of respondents said they check their emails while on vacation, showing overwhelmingly that many people simply cannot escape the pressure of work. Findings like these put the data around working hours into even sharper context.

Hand in hand with the convenience of technology comes the ability to be contacted in myriad ways. It says a lot that we were wholly unsurprised to learn that 84% of respondents said they are contacted through social media or private messaging apps for work purposes. The fusing of work and private lives is complete, and obviously not in the marketing and communications industry alone. The top four platforms for being interrupted all belong to Facebook: WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Facebook itself and even Instagram.

One female director of an advertising agency in Taiwan summed up what a lot of respondents told us: “I think social media has made my work more stressful and less relaxed. I can't ignore either the messages or requests from clients, and it is seriously disturbing my life.”  

Yet there was also a reasonable contingent of those surveyed who lauded how technology has improved their work life, and that personal responsibility is often hastily overlooked in the rush to put all the blame on technology.

“Technology has absolutely made it easier - it's up to you to draw a line and stick to it. If I'm on leave, I'm on leave,” says a male manager at a media owner in New Zealand.

Similarly, a female manager at a global digital agency in Singapore states: “Technology has surely made work and life easier. Social media is a time killer for sure. It's our addiction to being tuned in and FOMO that makes life stressful.”

Going beyond social media and the capability of smartphones, Khan-Iltaf makes another salient point that better technology within an organisation generally means greater efficiency. “Archaic systems and processes can also be a contributory factor. We constantly review our processes to seek efficiencies, automating any manual administrative processes which can free up time for our people to focus elsewhere,” she explains.

The solution?

If only it was that simple. Overwork is a socio-economic blight that will take far more than a few decent policies and good intentions to fix. Our survey is a clear sign of this. It would be churlish to suggest that no progress has been made, particularly in Asia. But there are plenty of anecdotal and tragically concrete examples that overwork is still a huge concern across the region, throughout the industry.

Clearly something has to change in the level of expectation brands, agencies and others have of themselves, their partners and their workforce. But more than that, workplace culture needs to catch up with people’s lives in 2018. We are all (sadly) going to be working longer than most of our predecessors. So why not advocate a culture of flexibility, empathy and most importantly, trust, that allows workers to be productive and creative.

As one female manager of a global digital agency in Singapore aptly puts it: “We need happy, creative and disruptive talent to carve marketing and advertising’s future, not burnt out, poorly treated, perpetually bullied souls.”

We hope our survey helps all in the industry take a few big strides towards this outcome.


Want to comment on this article? We welcome all thoughts, opinions and feedback, anonymous or not. Drop us a line at [email protected].


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