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In-depth: Here’s what ad agencies are doing for employees’ mental well-being as offices reopen

Social media platforms including LinkedIn are full of agency employees talking about their stressful work routine, high-performance pressure and not so cooperative agency culture. finds out what ails India’s advertising industry

The advertising industry is among the most demanding and fast-paced fields, where trends, client briefs, and deadlines change at the drop of a hat. Very often it also becomes painful for employees to deal with the performance pressure. As it is said, creativity can’t thrive in a pressure cooker environment.

Every day we come across numerous posts on LinkedIn talking about mental health, toxic work culture, disorganised agency life and many more similar topics, making the people feel empathetic to the custodians of the industry and their lifestyle.

A few posts that we came across while researching the issue are:

As employees get back to the office after almost two years of Work From Home (WFH), why is there a noise around the agency's work culture? 

Roopa Badrinath

Roopa Badrinath, Chief Talent Officer, Wunderman Thompson, South Asia, said, “Work-life balance has been the bane of our industry for times immemorial and unfortunately it was always worn as a badge of honour. We were seeing some serious attempts to reverse the trend even before the pandemic. But the pandemic gave an opportunity to people to re-assess their priorities in life and how having an optimal work-life balance could add more meaning to their lives. They started pursuing hobbies which were long forgotten, started spending more time with their loved ones and actually got involved in their everyday lives which was absent earlier.”

“When the physical offices reopened and people began commuting some of these meaningful pleasures had to be sacrificed and the balance that people had achieved between work and life for almost two years was getting disrupted. And two years is a long time,” she added.

Rita Verma

Rita Verma, EVP and Head – HR, DDB Mudra Group, said, “A toxic work culture is generally an outcome of many things. People not finding genuine connections – emotional, intellectual, creative – is at the heart of solving it or avoiding it. Being a creative business, we think our people are doing better, feeling more connected and enjoying work more since we have returned to work. We thrive on people’s creative energy and nothing can replace the experience of coming together in person and taking on challenges – be it with colleagues or clients.”

“After two years of working from home, we are very conscious that the world has fundamentally changed. We have been exposed to a whole new way of working. There is tremendous flexibility which we are offering our employees and this has meant changes in systems like timesheets, where the hours' input now is based on the flexible system we offer them,” Verma added.

During the pandemic, people openly spoke about burnout, many suggested that people are quitting jobs and starting their own ventures which would allow them to do things according to their own pace. People started valuing their me-time over working over weekends. It is also said that the Gen-Zs are likely to retire early from their full-time jobs and are likely to find alternative career options or may follow their passion by driving the passion economy of the country. 

While in every scenario, there are cases where people might just make noise about things that may have not been true, is there an unnecessary noise on mental health despite all the efforts made by the agency to maintain a healthy work environment?

Savita Mathai

Savita Mathai, Group Chief Talent Officer, FCB Group India, said, “I cannot comment on whether it is unnecessary noise, but there is a new reality that we need to recognise. People seek flexibility, and the hybrid work model is here to stay in some form. Companies will do whatever is necessary to retain their best people. People who don’t want to work will obviously not fall in that category.”

As one can see, the younger generation is very vocal about calling out malpractices and wrongdoings. Many of the conversations are initiated by the younger lot of the industry.

Badrinath of Wunderman Thompson said that the generation that is entering the industry now comes with a strong sense of purpose. They try to seek meaning in almost everything they do. They are digital natives who have access to the world’s burning issues at their fingertips and if we pay enough attention to what they have to say they have a unique POV on issues.  

“They are unafraid to be the change that they seek to see in the society which is possibly the most endearing quality about them. And it is important for us as an industry to harness this sense of purpose of doing something bigger than themselves,” she stated.

Sanjeev Jasani

On the other hand, Sanjeev Jasani, COO of Cheil India, said, “When I started out in advertising, we were inspired by so many stories. There were so many heroes to look up to. To idolise. To learn from. And you had to work very hard to be spotted by them. To be appreciated by them. To learn from them.”

“I feel these days we don’t have too many heroes in advertising. We don’t really have people to look up to and learn from. The stories have stopped flowing and people have stopped getting inspired. As a result, they question the madness. Fall out of love with the profession and get impatient,” he added.

Agencies have been making conscious efforts to make the industry a less stressful workplace. Most of the agencies are adapting a hybrid work model where some days of the week, people can come to the office, and some days of the week, they can work from home, thereby balancing their mental health.

Monty Bharali

Monty Bharali, Chief Talent Officer, Ogilvy India, said, “It’s important that wellness is not just a conversation, it needs to be an investment – Ogilvy has invested in partnering with extraordinary organisations that have been facilitators in guiding our employees through a wellness journey spread over months. In 2021, we also realised that the challenges around work-life balance had become real; we announced a whole series of “Do Nothing Days” which were days during working weeks where we announced holidays to give people a break, even with partial success – an initiative such as this helped.”

On a similar note, Jasani of Chiel India, said, “We have done a lot in this area to help our people feel welcome and settled after such a long break. Moreover, there are a lot of new employees who joined during the lockdown. it’s important for them to get to personally mingle with the larger teams and build strong bonds. To overcome this, we have planned a lot of fun activities throughout the year. For example, we started with a Table Tennis competition which is currently ongoing. This will be followed up by the Cheil Premier League – intra office cricket tournament. This brought forth many ideas by the employees themselves to start a movie club, a book club and a do-good club.”

“The employees have been empowered to run and manage these clubs and activities without too much management intervention. It’s for the people, by the people. We are also conscious of people's health and so we have created a “Snooze Room” for women who feel tired and want to rest for a while. Or pregnant employees who just want to take some time out. Employee health will always be a top priority for us,” he added.

The truth is that despite all the fun activities and attending those workshops, employees of the ad agencies still have to work late at night to meet tight deadlines. One of the instances came across was of a client servicing executive at a creative agency. She had to stay late at the office because the writers were not in the mood to write and they would write only at night after work hours, citing the lack of creative inspiration during the day. Due to this, she was forced to stay late every day, which in her own words was, “It was like I was going to my home like a hotel for a couple of hours just to sleep, get dressed and come back to the office.”

So do these extra efforts even help the employees? What about real actions? Badrinath said, “The bottom line is empathy-driven leadership across all levels. This leadership trait is going to be a critical currency for success as we move forward as a society. It is not a switch that can be turned off when you are at the physical workplace and turned on when you are working from home. Empathy will address all the challenges of toxic work culture.  It will give clarity and courage to have a POV and take a stand for your people.”    

On the other hand, Cheil’s Jasani said, “We did have programmes with mental health experts during the lockdown. But the feedback that we received from our employees was not very encouraging. This made us realise that people want real solutions and not medical help.”

“This brings me to the second part of your statement – Real Action. I personally believe that this is more important and effective. We have become flexible in our approach. We encourage employees who are working very hard to take some time off and come back fresh. The leadership of the organisation has been counselled and encouraged to stand for their employees, help them and protect them in front of demanding clients,” he concluded.

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