COVID strain and its impact on mental health: How ad agencies are helping employees cope with anxiety and burnout
Covid-xiety: How ad agencies are helping their employees cope with the pandemic-related anxiety and burnoutUnsplash
A lot of agencies have upgraded their policies to help their employees

COVID strain and its impact on mental health: How ad agencies are helping employees cope with anxiety and burnout

A lot of agencies have upgraded their policies to help their employees
  • A recent study by Deloitte found that India ranks highest among 18 countries in terms of anxiety during the second wave of the pandemic.
  • We are constantly living with the fear that someone close to us or someone we know might succumb to the virus.
  • A lot of agencies have upgraded their policies to help their employees navigate through this tough period and to push them to take care of their mental health.
  • From switching to 4 work days a week to hiring full-time, in-house counselors, here’s how they are helping their employees tackle burnout and take care of their mental health.
Do you also feel your heart racing when you receive a call from a relative you haven’t spoken to in a while? Or when a friend, who usually texts, suddenly calls you now? You are not alone. We are all either grieving someone’s loss or feeling anxious that we might have to, soon.

It is no secret that the second wave of COVID-19 has had a severe impact on our collective mental health. We are feeling dejected or overwhelmed with the huge spike in cases everyday. As of today, there are 2.33 crore active cases in India. And people who are clinically diagnosed with mental illness such as Obsessive-compulsive Disorder, depression, autism, Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), have found their struggles quadrupled. Many COVID survivors, who do have the privilege to find an ICU bed and pay for oxygen cylinders, are facing survivors' guilt.

A recent survey by Deloitte titled Global Consumer Tracker’ found that India ranks highest among 18 countries in terms of anxiety during the second wave of the pandemic with 21% of consumers in India anxious, followed by Chile at 16%.

The ad industry has also been impacted severely. This week, we lost a young star from the advertising world, Syed Mohammed Talha Nazim, to COVID. Social media is still flooded with pleas for oxygen and ICU beds. At such a time, it is becoming increasingly challenging to focus on work and continue leading normal lives inside our houses.

Ergo, there is an urgent need for improved, empathetic and caring HR policies and counselling sessions at the workplace. It is critical to prioritise employees’ mental well-being rather than seeking updates on their daily tasks.

Advertising agencies bear the additional responsibility of coming up with optimistic campaigns that drive change and raise awareness. Despite facing the blues of working in isolation and pressure to overperform in a dismal atmosphere, ad agencies are increasingly pushing their boundaries to come up with empathetic campaigns to help our country.

Lately, thanks to #Detoxwork, many agencies have been called out on LinkedIn for forcing their employees to be available 24*7 and meet deadlines. While it is extremely saddening to read those stories, it is no surprise that we continue to sustain our toxic culture. Over the years, the advertising industry has normalised inhuman working hours. In 2017, Tadashi Ishii, CEO, DAN Japan, had to resign after the suicide of an overworked junior employee. It did raise some questions back then but the topic was brushed under the carpet as always. This time, in India, we have lost two lives to advertising's work stress. They were forced to come to office as India observed a national lockdown. Even those who are working from home -- are overworked, constantly in-between calls, they do not have the time for their families even if they sit right next to each other.

However, there are a few agencies that are prioritising their employees’ wellbeing.

We reached out to a few digital and creative agencies to find out what measures they have taken to help their employees look after their mental health and asked to share a few tips on what we need to do as an industry to make sure we don't forget our teams' mental health amidst a crisis, and here is what they said:

Virat Tandon – Group CEO, MullenLowe Lintas Group:
COVID strain and its impact on mental health: How ad agencies are helping employees cope with anxiety and burnout

Health and wellbeing of our people is the need of the hour and our priority. A COVID war-room with all the leadership across the agency and different offices, HR and Admin teams, has been created to keep a lookout for providing help – with a hospital bed or oxygen or any other assistance. Employees well-being and recovery is tracked by the HR team. Our Panel doctor is available for any assistance and has conducted sessions for employees giving guidelines on prevention and the first response to be taken. The Lintas Employees Welfare Trust released a Covid Care package in September 2020 that included financial assistance and counsellor support for employees who need to cope with stress or have mental illness issues. Our focus has been to let people take care of their health, their loved ones, without feeling the pressure of work deliveries.

People spend a very large part of their lives with the organisation they work for. It Is their second home and it’s natural to have that level of compassion for them and do the most you can do. Their health and wellbeing directly impact not only the quality of their lives but also impacts the quality of their work and output. Everyone knows that in theory and should attempt to put it into practice. Leaders need to take the necessary steps and put this belief into action.

Aditya Kanthy, CEO and MD, DDB Mudra Group:
COVID strain and its impact on mental health: How ad agencies are helping employees cope with anxiety and burnout

The first thing we have to do is normalise the conversation around mental health. And the pandemic may well be a tipping point, where people have realised the importance and seriousness of this challenge. Mental and emotional support is crucial in these times.

We started on our journey before the pandemic in early 2019 by bringing on board India’s leading Employee Assistance Provider. In this program, licensed counsellors champion mental health recovery through awareness, education, and empowerment of our people. This was perhaps one of the industry’s first such initiatives.

Not only us but DDB as a network globally has also done meaningful work on this subject. So, we have learnt a lot from their experiences as well. It guides our approach – which is to take as full a view as possible.

We understand that while counselling helps, we have to do more to make a serious dent. In a situation where many of us have friends and family who are going through the worst phase of the pandemic, on-ground support resources for those who have contracted COVID-19 can alleviate a great deal of anxiety. This includes quick and verified access to medical help, comprehensive insurance, flexible leave policies, and better balance of work and life.

On an industry level, at the cost of sounding repetitive, our first step is to acknowledge the problem and talk openly about it. When C-suite leaders champion the cause, it makes the conversation accessible, real, and addresses the stigma attached to mental health issues to a large degree. Peer support plays a huge support too. At the DDB Mudra Group, we make a visible effort to do so with our #justask meets, where anyone in the company can talk to me candidly and anonymously if they feel so, about any issue that’s affecting their work life.

Secondly, we also have to be cognizant that a person’s quality of life beyond work, is directly linked to their mental health. So, let’s respect boundaries between work and home and acknowledge people’s lives outside the workplace. One way we do that at the Group is by valuing empathetic leadership and using that as a performance indicator. Each business leader is responsible for ‘people’ metrics just as much as Human Resources is. Everyone with a responsibility for other people is involved in this process.

Finally, it also helps to bring clients into the conversation. They too are looking to work with partners who are dealing with this issue as progressively as possible and there is much to learn from them too. And that partnership is crucial to making progress on this subject.

Gautam Reghunath, Chief Executive Officer, Dentsu Webchutney:
COVID strain and its impact on mental health: How ad agencies are helping employees cope with anxiety and burnout

As agencies, we attempt to maintain reputations as fun, dynamic places to work, but beneath the surface, it’s obvious that many of us are often grappling with various cultural and personnel issues including burnout, overwork and more. People need to know it is ok to be vulnerable and that having trouble with your mental wellbeing does not mean someone cannot do their job capably. It is in the interest of the workplace for every office to provide policies or through their actions show that it is okay for people to speak their truth.

Our key aim over the last few years has been to normalise conversations around mental health and one of the first steps was to include it as a permanent official part of the agenda at all our executive committee and quarterly leadership meetings. It starts from the top and sets the tone for all decisions through the year.

As our primary actionable measure, we’ve engaged with the Hank Nunn Institute (HNI) as our partner for mental health support services for around two years now. HNI’s trained professionals are available to all employees who can schedule their time anonymously, for free and without the office’s intervention, to discuss either personal or professional aspects of their life. Some weeks are packed, some are not, but what’s important for us is for everyone here to know that it’s okay to seek out someone to talk to if you feel the need to.

The teams at Webchutney have also been experimenting with a few employee-sourced ideas on how we can be better to ourselves around areas of mental health & work pressure. Along with planned down-times, we recently piloted our first ever winter break last December where the entire agency with the support of our clients shut shop for two whole weeks. It’s obvious that work-load management has a direct impact on how happy and satisfied we are at work. We’ve tried to turn timesheets, often loathed at agencies, into a tool to have open honest conversations around work timings and over-work. All team leaders who have colleagues clocking over 50+ hours a week have to mandatorily schedule discussions around reasons for this overtime with the CEO every fortnight. Outlier weeks are normal, but we’ve seen a drastic improvement in workload management purely because we’re all discussing this honestly & frequently.

Our industry is built around deadlines & deliverables. It’s full of talented people who know what it’s like to find themselves at the intersection where moments of magic meet the point of serious stress. Our learnings with all these measures have been many and the focus on mental health resources aside, for creativity to really thrive, our need to adapt and change has never been more obvious.

Akshay Gurnani, Co-Founder & CEO, Schbang:
COVID strain and its impact on mental health: How ad agencies are helping employees cope with anxiety and burnout

It's empathy that is the need of the hour - from our employers to our clients. It's important for us to listen, acknowledge & act upon what an individual may be going through in these trying times. It's important to also understand how we as an organization can help our team members better. We have an in-house therapist who is accessible to aid our employees, free of cost for as many sessions as they would want. Whether it be automating processes that help in increasing the efficiency of work for all our teams to sending out automated monthly reports, we have been pushing our teams to not take up any work on weekends. Mental health is a priority thus 2 mental health leaves have been assigned to teams to avail anytime in the year. We have ramped up hiring to reduce workload and ease out hiring gaps across teams. We have aligned our clients with the situation at hand and aligned them on how we can create better synergies in these difficult times. Our leaders need to be able to ask the right questions to the clients to comprehend briefs better & reduce the number of reworks. It's imperative to have honest conversations with clients and push back on timelines, owing to the fact that currently our teams are facing resource crunches due to either them or their families being affected by COVID19. We have sent out emails to our clients informing them to expect delays and this has been received quite positively.

Digital Marketing is not a "life or death" industry. One less or a delayed post will not affect anything, this is something that clients need to realise and accept. Using the reach of the brand pages, we would like to talk about a message that's more important than selling a product under these times. It's important to come together as a community to urge people to register for vaccination, adopt double-masking, staying indoors, etc. This is the time to show more empathy towards agency partners as well.

Roopa Badrinath, Chief Talent Officer, Wunderman Thompson, South Asia:
COVID strain and its impact on mental health: How ad agencies are helping employees cope with anxiety and burnout

At Wunderman Thompson, we recognized the importance of mental health from the time WHO declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic. As a company we have been communicating openly about the importance of mental health to ensure that the stigma attached with it is addressed with honesty. Mental Health has a deep impact on how we think, feel and act and impacts our relationships with our family members, friends and colleagues. It impacts our mood and our general behaviour. Behavioural changes is a natural reaction to the stress, fear and anxiety that people are feeling as a reaction to the threat posed by COVID-19. It is important to acknowledge that it is normal to feel that way and focus on ways to reduce the stress inducers.

The pandemic has created a lot of anxiety around personal health, family health, children’s education and relevance of skills in a changed world to name a few. One of the critical things that we realized early on is the need for empathy and trust driven leadership style. Leaders were constantly reminded about empathy and kindness and were encouraged to have regular check-ins with their team members. Once the initial euphoria of WFH evaporated and the lines between home and work started getting blurred, we constantly and consistently reminded our people to set up a routine and stick to it; draw boundaries for themselves; take breaks in a normal work day just the way they would while in a physical space. We encouraged all our team leads to ensure that their team members took time off from work even if they were going nowhere.

As is evident from all the global reports, women have borne the maximum brunt due to the pandemic. Their care giving, household and online schooling responsibilities multiplied manifold. Teams were sensitized to be mindful of this and have flexible options for setting up meetings. We launched an all-women Employee Resource Group (ERG) which will be run for the women and by the women of Wunderman Thompson. This group has taken upon itself to launch several initiatives in the next couple weeks to help women navigate the additional challenges thrown at them. As a company we recognized that sexual harassment can be a reality even in a virtual workplace and ran workshops on sensitizing employees about virtual sexual harassment; how to recognize and report the same.

To ensure that employees seek help we are constantly reminding them about the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) where they can reach out to trained counsellors in the strictest of confidence to address their mental well-being issues. This service is available even to the family members of employees. We are confident that all the curated health and wellness programs like compassion meditation, mindfulness hacks – dealing with anxiety, building meaningful connections, staying positive, harnessing the power of sleep that were offered to employees last year will hold them in good stead to deal with the current situation. Currently all employees have access to a COVID stress management program which offers Meditation, Yoga, Breathing Exercises, self-care, Gratitude Session to name a few.