Prettybird’s UK head of new business Mia Powell considers the cultural pressures in adland that contribute to widespread burnout, and how she’s personally working to curb her workaholism
Recently I’ve had more and more calls with producers nervously laughing about how crazy busy it is and how we’re all so under the cosh. That laugh is now morphing more into a hysterical chortle. Of course, we’re all going a bit mad in general, but the added pressure of crazy working hours is really starting to take its toll and the cracks are definitely beginning to appear!
Earlier this month Bloomberg released an article
illustrating how the pandemic has affected and lengthened work hours since the pandemic began. Working from home is quickly being renamed ‘living in the office’ as the UK skyrockets ahead of other countries with more than two and a half extra hours per day on top of our already extended work week. Once upon a time when we could have extremely indulgent three-hour lunch meetings, followed by a wobbly but merry trip back to the office, we understood that part of the adland culture was “work hard and play hard” but that mantra feels like an overhang in the current climate. Now that the play has been taken away, why are we still working into the depths of the night or from the crack of dawn?
I have several theories.
A) We’re high achievers striving to make great work. It’s meritocratic, we see the results of spending that extra evening working on a project or deadline.
B) We’ve normalised the additional workload because we know everyone else is in the same position.
C) Needing to prove your worth now more than ever with the potential threat of being made redundant or not knowing when your next freelance gig is coming in.
D) We literally have nothing better to do.
To be honest, for me, it’s all of the above. I wholeheartedly know I am accountable for my work burnouts and when I decide to switch off, begrudge my own need to open an email at 9pm (which probably should have waited to be read the following morning). No one is holding a gun to my head saying, “reply to that email NOW”, but the problem is I’m addicted to work. There, I said it. I am a workaholic. What is not helped by this natural passion and drive to deliver or overachieve, is the principal structures put in place by the industry.
Crucially, what needs to change is the systemic need to react and respond within a certain time period. New business is intrinsically fast paced and so the fear/guilt of missing an opportunity usually overshadows the need for real downtime in the evening. I weigh up the anxiety of the next day’s tasks versus the sweet sound of my tapping in the evening when the world begins to fall silent and always veer to the latter. Damn it. So how can we change this?
I know what you’re thinking, just give yourself a break hun! And that is exactly what I have been doing. Since reading the Bloomberg study I’ve begun to analyse how I manage my day, sifting through my Strava I noticed on average the first time I come up for air is around 3pm, which is both shocking and worrying. That’s like six hours of continuous work (minus the odd cig break… I am still human), but actually seeing the habit in black and white shifted something in me.
Recognising the behaviour is step one, but it’s then how you respond and break that practice to install new, healthier ways of operating. My actions over the past few weeks have been to ensure I’m not putting meetings into my diary between 1-2pm, seems like an easy thing to do right? Yes, it really is that easy, I’ve finally managed to turn the myth of a lunch break into something tangible. Of course, sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day and crucial client meetings may slip into that window, but on the whole I’m really feeling the benefits of that hour away from the screen. Who would have thought it hey?
So whether you take an hour to go for a run (and potentially bump into that hot future husband who you once saw running on the same track as you at lunchtime), or spend time with your family, eat some food or dress up like Freddie Mercury and flap about your flat with a hoover to 'I Want To Break Free' (speaking from experience). I urge you to take some time for yourself! No matter how busy, nothing good gets done when you’re totally frazzled. We as individuals can drive the change to ensure the industry takes a step back and humanises the work/life experience.
BUT this is not to say it’s all on your shoulders as an individual; I implore senior management to make adjustments too. A few companies, including PRETTYBIRD, have customs in place: we do Friday lunch and the odd team building workshop to help bring back the community aspect of the job back into the workplace. Havas has implemented Spring Friday finishes at 2pm in Q1 and ‘Ease You in Mondays’, plus an extra two mental wealth days a year, and more recently Spotify has announced a work from anywhere initiative. It’s encouraging to see things are being done, but let’s ensure we take the action to care for ourselves.