Who's responsible for your work stress?
Last year saw the release of Mentally Healthy 18 - a research report investigating the mental health of employees in creative industries. The report was a collaboration between the not for profit creative community, Never Not Creative, with Everymind and Unltd. The results weren’t great, with over half of respondents showing mild to serious levels of depression. But were they a surprise? To anyone working in these industries, not at all.
Never Not Creative founder, Andy Wright, talks us through why we are so vulnerable to mental illness, who’s responsible and what we can do to improve it.
Gif by Jason Clarke
It was 3am
I was in my kitchen. Another ‘dedicated’, ‘awesome’ member of the agency was with me. We were busting our guts to get a presentation done for a meeting with a Minister in Canberra. We had to get on a flight at 8am. We finished just before 4am. We got to Canberra around 10am. The Minister couldn’t make the meeting. In all honesty, the work wasn’t our best.
It was a Sunday
3 of us were in the office. Our friends and families were at the beach, at the movies, having BBQ’s. But we had a great opportunity, working with an iconic art gallery, it was going to be career defining work. It was great work. The agency got paid a pittance. We did more work like that. The agency got paid more pittance.
It was 6pm
We got a call. “I need a favour.” (Another one). It was one of our biggest clients. “I’ve got a meeting with our CEO tomorrow and I need you to mock up that idea we were talking about. I’ll only get one shot at it. I’m in at midday tomorrow. Can you turn something around?” Anna, Beth, Mike, Rav get a message. “Gang, that idea we were talking about it. We’ve got a chance to get it up. Only thing is, we’ve got to present it tomorrow morning. Can you guys stay back?”
We presented the next day. The CEO was surprised, had no idea why we were doing this. He questioned why we hadn’t spent time on the actual priority that he’d briefed his Marketing Director on.
And so it goes.
Stories like this are representative of just some of the causes of more than half of people in the creative, media and marketing industries exhibiting symptoms of mild to severe anxiety and depression.
What are the issues in the above scenarios?
Not enough time for personal life and time with loved ones.
Anxiety of ridiculously tight deadlines.
Last minute cancellation of plans because of ‘work demands’
Poorly thought out execution of opportunities
Poor understanding of priorities and expectations
Lack of respect for time
The ongoing, repetitive cycle of all of the above.
I am. I shouldn’t have stayed up until 4am. I should have planned my time better. I shouldn’t have roped other people into those situations. I shouldn’t have pressured them into working so many additional hours with the false bribe of “career-defining opportunity.” I shouldn’t have presented work that wasn’t good enough. I shouldn’t have put work before my friends, my family, my health.
My colleagues are. They should have said no. They should have said, “I can’t, I’ve already got plans tonight.”
My clients are. They shouldn’t ask for ‘a favour’. Favours are for friends and family, not commercial relationships. They shouldn’t put others in a situation that they haven’t thought through. They shouldn’t pass the risk and pressure involved in their jobs onto other people.
Seriously. Look at the above. It’s fucked. Yet we do it again and again.
We say yes over and over. We put it all in. We do it because of ambition, guilt, camaraderie. We do it because we might get promoted, we might get a pay rise, we might get rewarded. We do it because we love it. We love it so much that we leave a little bit of ourselves in everything we create. We believe that working extra (not just working hard) will in some karmic way reward us with fame and riches, whether that be intrinsic or extrinsic. We wear the ‘creative badge of pride’.
The thing is this. While we deposit all that in the bank of creative good for ourselves and others, it amounts to nothing more than an IOU. An IOU that very rarely gets paid out. Some of us will see a higher proportion than others. But in reality this is a trickle down IOU that rarely has much left by the time it hits the bottom.
We need to stop writing these IOUs. Either until the time that we’re prepared to cash them out properly, or until the time that… actually, there is no alternative. Just stop.
Who’s going to fix this?
There is no question that a top-down approach to addressing this problem will go a long way to the solution.
No matter what you had to do to get to where you are, it doesn’t mean that you have to make the people who work for you go through the same.
You can (respectfully) say no to clients and reasonably request more time. You’re in a position of power and experience to say stop there, go home, come back refreshed tomorrow.
You can see ideas that are going nowhere and stop them (explaining why).
You don’t have to see 3 more options.
You can say no to the free pitch.
You can give like for like days in lieu, instead of the day off for working the last 3 weekends.
You can stop treating the question, “What’s the work/life balance like?” as an alarm bell and sign that someone isn’t going to work hard for you—they’re actually just well-balanced and have their life sorted.
Your people need their brains to do their work. If you fuck with their brains, the quality of work coming out of your business will seriously suffer, along with profit and productivity.
It’s a fairly simple equation. You may think that you can just recruit some fresh new brains. But, that might get harder when they realise that more than half of the industry has symptoms of poor mental health. They may be smart and go “nah, I’ll choose a different direction.”
The rest of you
It’s ok to say no.
It’s ok to prioritise your life over your work.
You DO have to work hard. It’s tough coming up with new ideas, new ways of doing things everyday. But you need to look after yourselves in order to do that well. There’s no point treating your career like a professional footballer who can play for 8-10 years until their knees give way. If your brain gives way, you’re screwed. And by the way, you’re not earning 10’s of $1,000’s a week for that ‘when it all goes to shit’ nest egg.
Look out for each other. It’s going to take time to change. It’s going to take time for others to be enlightened. If you’re getting good at looking after yourself, saying no, speaking up – help someone who isn’t. Become an active part of the solution, not another passive part of the problem.
Join a community that’s getting together to do something about this. (Shameless plug for the Never Not Creative group on Facebook).
Change is coming
Sound too good to be true? It isn’t. Start one, find one, change one. It’s up to you.