The advertising world may be one that never sleeps, but after a year when the boundaries between work and home were shattered, the upkeep of mental health is paramount, among internal teams and when working with clients. Everything from pets disrupting Zoom meetings to juggling homeschooling and business, along with exponentially increased time indoors, isolation, fear, social unrest, and a presidential election can take its toll. And just when it feels safe to turn off the lights and rest, the chime of incoming email sounds more like a shriek.
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At Ad Age’s annual Small Agency Conference, industry leaders discussed assessing and preventing burnout. Here are some of the top tips from panelists Elizabeth Rosenberg (The Good Advice Company), Paulo Carvajal (Noble People), Lizzy Sonenfeld (Two Things), and Dawn Wade (Nimbus):
Put yourself before your business
Recognizing burnout within oneself and setting aside time to invest in personal wellness is the first step in the journey to a healthy work environment. While that’s easier written than practiced, a good place to start is setting boundaries around me-time.
Perhaps consistent exercise or spiritual practice provides needed calm. Maybe it’s a weekly therapy session. Consistently practicing self-care is critical to avoiding burnout, and the time set aside for it is critical too. In her presentation, which detailed her own harrowing breakdown due to "self-inflicted" stress from overwork, Rosenberg proposed providing mental health stipends for workers to invest in methods of coaching or outlets for relaxation. Mark those hours each week as a top priority—no jumping ship for another Zoom.
Investing in oneself also means extending the same respect for boundaries to others. Leading by example and having empathy for your team’s ups and downs will cultivate not only a healthy workspace but a successful one, too.
“You really have to be in tune with yourself, but also with the people that work for you and work around you,” Sonenfeld said. It’s important “that you know [your team] and you can see when things come to the surface that don't feel familiar, you know that you can have a dialogue about that,” she said.
Choose people over profit
To cultivate a strong work ethic and team morale, agencies must be open to change and innovation. Simple adjustments to weekly schedules or meeting protocol can make a huge difference in ensuring staff have time and energy to develop top-quality work.
“The last two years, we've been building the plane as we've been flying it,” said Rosenberg. “So the reality is that how we work and how people react to work, and the pushback that people are giving to this daily grind is going to force change. So being on the forefront of it is only going to put you in a better place.”
Rosenberg suggests not planning company meetings for Fridays. Allowing one day for team members to work without interruption, finishing the week with focus is one solution for minimizing over-work. Another idea is to restrict same-day meetings. Scrambling to readjust schedules and finding time that is hard to carve out in a single day can cause chaos and anxiety.
Rosenberg and Carvajal both expressed the importance of community and feedback. Rosenberg implements a rating system for her team: at the beginning of meetings each person shares a number from one to five to let other participants know their emotional state at the moment. Carvajal employs frequent one-on-ones and agenda-less check-ins with his team. Whether they complain about the news or discuss someone’s upcoming vacation, creating community among an agency, whether virtual or in-person, builds the comfort necessary to be transparent with peers about burnout.
“The first way to me of identifying [burnout] is being vulnerable," said Wade. "By me being vulnerable, it gives them that openness to say, ‘Well, she can be this way, then I can be that way too.’”
'If our values are not aligned, we’re not the brand to properly represent you'
Treating burnout must be applied to who an agency works with as well. Breaking news and trending topics can send clients into a flurry of expectations and around-the-clock requests. Boundaries are just as important to set outside the agency.
“I get to say yes to projects I want to work on and no to projects I don't want to work on,” said Rosenberg. “And everybody that I work with, guidelines and boundaries are set up upfront and they have been unbelievably respectful of it.”
Wade expanded on this idea in her panel by expressing the value of selecting clients that align with her agency’s ideals. As the movement for racial justice exploded last summer, Wade’s multicultural agency was called on to handle an enormous volume of trainings, statements and campaigns in response, but she says not all clients were willing to put in the work.
“It led to more honest conversations,” said Wade. “It's a two-way street. We recognize who we want it to be when we work with clients, but we also recognize what we want to attract from a client. And that's a client that's serious about doing work in that multicultural space that goes beyond just external marketing, but really affecting change in a very positive way for everyone, not just a particular consumer.”
The most important way of preventing burnout, these experts assert, is to treat oneself and one’s team as humans. Community and empathy are key for fostering open communication within agencies and ensuring every team member is supported and ready to do their best work.
“We live in an industry and we work in an industry that praises working harder [as] working better,” said Rosenberg. “And that's definitely not the case.”
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