Gabberissue #8: Work-life balance

Gabberissue #8: Work-life balance

Story by Jess Lilley
Gif by Scott Butler

 In 2012, long-time Art Director, Linds Redding, wrote a blog post titled ‘A Short Lesson In Perspective’. In it, Redding reflected on his career with brutal clarity following a terminal diagnosis of esophageal cancer.  

“Countless late nights and weekends, holidays, birthdays, school recitals and anniversary dinners were willingly sacrificed at the altar of some intangible but infinitely worthy higher cause. It would all be worth it in the long run…

“So was it worth it?

“Well of course not. It turns out it was just advertising. There was no higher calling. No ultimate prize.”

He went on to lay bare the trap for creative thinkers in commercial industries – a combination of the hopelessly high standards we set for ourselves, the desperate need for our work to be recognised and awarded by our peers, the uneasy relationship between a creative sensitivity and a commercial machine; all combining to create a perfect storm that somehow convinces us our work is noble and worth sacrificing other areas of our lives for.

That Linds concluded it was all a great scam on his deathbed should send a chill through us all. What, exactly, are we doing here? Why have we all somehow begrudgingly accepted the sacrificial nature of this line of business?

A couple of weeks ago, Never Not Creative, UnLtd and Everymind, released results of Mentally Healthy 18 –  the first major study into the mental health and wellbeing of the media, marketing and creative industries in Australia.

Of the 1800 people surveyed in August and September this year, they found that 56% demonstrated mild to severe symptoms of depression, compared to the national average of 36%.

Stress was the biggest culprit, owing primarily to: the pressure of our own expectations and others; taking on too many responsibilities; having to work when sick; and long hours. A third of us are working weekends at least once a month. And “our eagerness to please and not let others down has also resulted in 75% of us working whilst not physically or mentally well within the preceding 4 weeks.”

How does that square with many agencies’ declarations that they are actively pursuing programs to ensure a healthy work-life balance in their employees?

It’s easy to be cynical when ‘leaving to spend more time with the family’ is standard industry code for ‘got fired’.

But then, if we are putting all of the pressure on ourselves, whose responsibility is it to regulate our stress levels?

After beginning her career in Brazil, where agency face time at all hours of the day and night was par for the course, this month’s Gift of the Gabberer, Clemenger Melbourne ECD Carmela Soares, maintains that there is a burden of responsibility on agencies to set the tone. But she also stresses the importance of needing to listen to our own bodies and minds and create routines that work to our strengths.  

In Team Talk, Leo Burnett Sydney duo, Lisa O’Neill and Letizia Bozzolini, discuss the benefits of being able to support each other at times of stress.

Personally, it has taken a long time for me to be develop the ability to regulate how much of my productive self I’m able to give to work before I need to draw the line.

As a junior, being handed a brief at 5pm to solve by 9am the next morning was terrifying.

I barely knew what I was doing, let alone how to do it on an empty tank. Instinctively it seemed completely wrong, but it happened so often that I figured this must just be how it is.

In my midweight years, most of them spent in London, I fell into the trap of ‘pushing through’, regularly working until 2 or 3 in the morning fed by the sense that I was part of something bigger.

At the same time, I satisfied my need for ‘life’ in the work-life equation by mostly socialising at or around work with work people. I mean, I was surrounded by funny, smart people and the agency supplied endless streams of wine and toast. What more could I need? Some might call it Stockholm Syndrome.

The wake-up call for me came when I experienced a traumatic life-health scare. The agency for which I had sacrificed my time, health, friendships, and trips to Europe (woe is me), not only showed no support — they never uttered a word of it when I returned, despite the fact I’d dropped everything and rushed to hospital in the middle of a pitch. I was back working until 2am just days later, as though nothing had ever happened.

(It was possibly during the same pitch that a Group Account Director was so overwrought by stress she had a massive panic attack. The last I saw her, she was shuffled sobbing into a meeting room, never to be heard from – or spoken of – again.)

Understandably, I quit, and chose to freelance. Working for myself became an important period for learning limitations and eradicating guilt. Now that I was being paid a day rate for eight hours, I had no problem walking out the door at 5.30. My time was transactional, I owned it and it was valued. I was being brought in to solve problems — I couldn’t do that effectively unless I was healthy, rested, inspired and happy.

It’s a similar story for Shannon Crowe who found a more organic and settled balance as a freelancer after having a child, and has never looked back.

Parenthood is a repeat theme in this month’s Gabberish. And no wonder. In an industry where it’s hard enough to keep up when you’ve only got yourself to worry about, having a kid can present seismic shifts in how you re-approach work and life. In their gorgeous illustrated guide, What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Return to Work, The Hallway’s Head of Copy, Siobhan Coleman, and Senior Art Director, Tisha Lazaro, have every possible awkward scenario covered.

As for dad-life, Monkeys Sydney Creative, Jake Rusznyak, muses on the incredible balancing act that is work and parenthood in his fantastic essay.

“It's an emotional topic,” he says. “If there was an easy solve, it wouldn’t be an issue we’d all still be grappling with.”

It’s certainly true that starting a family forces us to confront all the excuses we once made for prioritising work over nearly every other life event. You simply can’t cancel on a human who is dependent on you for its life.

At the same time, the work pressures don’t lessen. If anything, with increased seniority comes increased responsibility. The screws tighten and it’s easy to feel like you’re not managing any of it well. And for some it’s just too much (if that feels like you, you might find comfort in Ennis Cehic’s story — the latest in our series highlighting escape routes from advertising, this time via brewing and storytelling.)

It’s at this point that responsibility sits squarely with agencies to ensure they have policies that are family-friendly.

It doesn’t matter how good your own coping mechanisms are, if you are being challenged to prioritise work over your family, you are on a fast track to misery.

My own entry into parenthood saw me kiss five years of freelance goodbye for the regularity of a paycheck. While it has been challenging at times, I am currently on a 4-day work week at an agency where the big creative cheese is routinely the first out the door after five to spend time with his family. It sets a good tone. The hours we work are still intense, naturally, but they are absent of any pressure to sacrifice all to demonstrate some otherworldly level of commitment.

Having experienced the opposite – including the inference that parenthood can somehow diminish our creative usefulness – I can categorically say that, no matter how strong or well-rounded you are as a human, the attitude of your workplace can and does have the ability to be the difference in how positively you view your work-life balance and, more importantly, your mental health.

Oddly enough, I’ve also found that one of the best ways for me to keep things in perspective is to add more side projects to my plate. It may sound ridiculous, and life does end up looking something like Thomas White’s Reality Check graphs. But in fact it helps remove some of the unhelpful pressure we place on ourselves to ensure that every single work project reaches some hitherto unreached level of creative perfection.

A creative outlet on the side can ascribe even more value to your time, give you more perspective (we ain’t saving lives, hey), and help you make better decisions. And, for me, it re-affirms the ongoing presence of joy in the mere act of creating.

M&C Saatchi Melbourne Creative Director, Russel Fox, shows us how it’s done with his bit on the side, Fresh Sock Co.

So, where does this all leave us? I’d love to be able to conclude with a pithy insight about how to achieve an ideal work-life balance. But it’s difficult with the twin sounds of Giggle & Hoot on the tele and a 4-year old’s voice trilling, ‘Mum I’m huuuungry’. Truth is, despite being a Libran, I have absolutely no idea how we achieve any kind of balanced state between work and life. In fact, I reckon it may well be a fallacy, a fantasy, another corporate missive that we all feel better aiming for, even if none of us know how to get there.

What I do know is that our health and happiness are precious and paramount. And no job is worth sacrificing either for.


From optimism to despair: it's an emo rollercoaster

From optimism to despair: it's an emo rollercoaster

Gift of the Gabberer: Carmela Soares

Gift of the Gabberer: Carmela Soares