The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored that healthcare extends beyond treating physical illnesses alone. The pandemic has created a parallel mental health crisis with millions suffering from depression, anxiety, social isolation and other conditions. People of all ages and identities who might otherwise thrive in their lives and careers need help.
This collective experience has lifted veils of misunderstandings, stigmas and shame surrounding mental illness. During Mental Health Awareness Month last May, Omnicom sent a mailer to all U.S. employees encouraging them to “put emotional health first.” The mailer also included survey results reporting that 84% of adults reported anxiety, sadness and anger in response to prolonged stress. Notably, more than 50% of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental health condition during their lifetimes.
If the marketing industry hopes to achieve progress, the workplace must support employees’ mental well-being. Networks and agencies have a role to play in preventive action. Specifically, marketing leaders have an opportunity to mitigate unhealthy work behaviors: extremely long hours, weekend meetings, canceled vacations, work fueled by substance use, and discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality and disability. The big question is, how do we truly realize a meaningful, health-supportive work-life balance?
Honoring Mental Health, Inclusivity and Individuality
One root cause of mental health issues in the marketing industry is the failure to recognize individual experiences. In my own experience, my past managers and employers routinely overlooked any issues I was having because I performed well. The clients were pleased and renewed our contracts. I was swiftly promoted, even if my early career was also characterized by chronic anxiety and stress.
During that time, “Mad Men” was the No. 1 show on television. Set in the 1960s, it focused on a cutthroat ad agency in New York. Think all-star creative, three-hour work lunches, plus drinking on the job and exceedingly long hours. At its height, I was at an agency where creating some version of this agency culture marked success, not struggle. The problem was all of these behaviors were perpetuated not by junior or mid-level professionals; they were idealized by our role models. Doing enough to get to the next level wasn’t enough. It was always more, more, more.
At RAPP, our brand ethos and core value is “fiercely individual.” But how does that translate to our people and culture? In light of protests related to George Floyd’s murder, attacks on Asians, and other events, it meant requiring that our agency and leadership see, hear and value individual employees from a multicultural, multidimensional identity perspective. The agency has regularly held panels for employees to bravely share their own experiences. The stories shared touched all of us deeply and also helped me understand my own experiences with racism as a Korean American female in the marketing industry.
How to Address Individual Experiences and Needs
Recognizing our individuality moves companies forward in many ways. In my experience, understanding the diversity of our colleagues’ experiences makes us stronger and opens our hearts and minds to our customers’ individual needs. Also, this puts companies at a competitive advantage in the job market. People want to work in spaces where they feel seen and heard. Valuing individuality boosts performance and empowers people through shared understanding.
Currently, the ad industry is grappling with what the future of work looks like: Do we stay at home, go back to the office, or create a hybrid model that suits employees’ individual needs? As the delta variant delayed many return-to-office plans, executives continued to weigh more employee input and data. This shared decision-making indicates a remarkable shift in an industry where everyone reports through layers of executives and network chiefs around the world. Put simply, rules of engagement were formerly dictated from the top down. Now, decisions about when, how, and where to work are made from the bottom up.
This democratic approach should flow into other ways of working so our voices, individual experiences, and personal needs matter. If the pandemic taught us anything, it is the importance of our personal mind-body health. To be frank, this isn’t the 1960s. Today, professional success means protecting our well-being so we can all show up as the fierce individuals we are.