Mental health. Heavy subject, isn’t it? I’ve suffered from depression on and off since I was a teenager and it’s not that fun to talk about. But I feel compelled to speak out to defend my friends and colleagues from an industry that can be incredibly cruel.
It has been a few weeks since World Mental Health Day and there has been a lot of chat about what agencies are doing to improve the mental well-being of staff: yoga classes, meditation, support hotlines, nutrition workshops, blah blah blah…
But there’s a big fucking elephant in the room: hours.
It’s a known fact that ad agencies can rival finance companies in the crippling culture of late nights and long hours. And this doesn’t just affect one department; this culture is rife throughout, with everyone from account executives to senior producers, who are regularly asked to give up their lives in pursuit of "creativity".
Don’t get me wrong, as a creative, if every weekend in the office ended in picking up a D&AD Pencil, I’d be up for it—for a while, at least. But the truth is that this industry can be desperately disappointing.
You put your heart and soul into it.
The brief changes.
You put your heart and soul into it again.
The creative director prefers their own idea.
The client doesn’t buy anything.
The creative role is relentlessly turbulent and that’s OK, because the best ideas are never the first ones you have. The creative process itself involves a lot of people working together, usually under a lot of pressure, clients included, to make sure you nail it. And I’ve got a lot of time for this. That’s the job.
But it can be the physical and mental strain of constant late nights that makes it difficult to cope. After working until 4am, I once asked a senior manager if I could come in later the next day. "Sure, come in at 10am, give yourself an extra hour in bed." "Fuck you," I replied (sadly, only in my head). I had worked 18 hours that day and I would sleep barely four before it began again. I wish I’d had the courage to say it was wrong, during any one of the multiple late-night stints without a break. But I just kept my head down.
In the beginning, I wore my bloodshot eyes like badges of honour. I remember my pride after working my first 80-hour week on placement, as if it was proof of my commitment and ambition, because that’s what I’d been told. I wouldn’t be hired if I simply went home at 6pm—"first one in, last one out" and all that clichéd bollocks. Those same 80 hours now remind me that some of us are doomed from the start unless we ditch the institutionalised beliefs that long hours equal hard work. You don’t have to work 15-hour days, seven days a week to work hard. And you shouldn’t fear you’ll lose your job if you say no. Say no.
The power of saying no
Of course there will be times when late nights and the odd weekend is needed; the deadline is always yesterday. But people need that time back from their employer. They must demand it for their health, both physical and mental. Stress alone is a known cause of multiple long-term illnesses such as depression and anxiety, but also heart attacks and strokes. Not sure about you, but I don’t want any of those.
And being tired. That’s where the cycle of sickness, sadness and anger can start. Because being tired makes you mentally vulnerable. When you struggle to think and focus, suddenly that wretched black dog is staring you down from the foggy corners of the office.
Well, I’m raising my hand and saying I’m properly sick now.
I’m sick of seeing the broken faces of colleagues, day after day. Sick of cancelled plans, disappointed friends and hurt families. Sick of working in rose-tinted slave ships. At one point, I gave up making plans because I knew I’d be working. And that made me feel like I was owned by the company I worked for, not valued and respected. I felt physically and mentally abused. And for what?
We don’t work in sweatshops. We work in advertising agencies, in an industry worth billions. The latest statistics from the government reveal that the UK creative industries contribute £91.8bn a year to the economy and we’re not too badly paid for it (unless some of us break it down by the hour). Working in an agency is brilliant most of the time—we get to bring creative ideas to life while working with incredibly talented people and have a lot of fun along the way. But sometimes the sacrifices you are asked to make are just too great.
Calling time on a cruel working culture
There are already many agencies that are taking steps to quash the cruel working culture that has existed for so long, but there are others that want you to still accept "it’s part of the job" and believe we should be grateful for getting a "coveted" job in adland. But we’re not lucky to work in advertising; advertising is lucky to have us, and we must remember that.
Making agencies more accountable for their employees' hours will force them to operate more effectively and resource sufficiently with freelancers when necessary. A recent study by the University of Oxford found that having a four-day working week would boost employee happiness and productivity. If you work 9am to 10pm for five days, you’re working the equivalent of eight. Can we agree that’s a lot less productive?
To me, there’s one crucial thing agencies can do right now—if they haven’t already—to help improve their employees' mental health that’s not organising half an hour of yoga. Let people go home at a normal hour to their friends and families or give them days off in lieu.
It has been proven again and again that we are more productive when we’re happy, valued and respected, not overworked, tired and stressed.
Are you sick yet?
The writer of this article, first published in Campaign UK, has asked to remain anonymous