The stress report: why employee well-being is the new bottom line

A new generation of talent who are unprepared to sacrifice their souls at the altar of work are forcing a fundamental reappraisal of the role of business in supporting the mental well-being of staff.

The heady combination of long hours, alcohol and hypermasculinity just isn’t the draw it once, if ever, was to potential employees in the creative industries. Trend forecasters believe that Generation Z will effectively call a temporary ceasefire on the so-called "war for talent" not just because they are not prepared to make the sacrifices of previous generations, but because they view their own well-being and mental health as the ultimate bottom line. When the once-coveted corner office and killer job title is no longer the ultimate status symbol, businesses are having to fundamentally rethink the structure of work.

Jonathan Openshaw, editorial director at The Future Laboratory, says there is a powershift afoot in business. "Generation Z have new expectations in the workplace and millennials are already well-known as being professionally promiscuous. Talent is more about change management than ever before," he explains. According to The Future Laboratory, Generation Z, who will make up 20% of the industry’s talent pool by 2020, do not have faith in existing institutions to provide them with a road map for life. "The sense that burning yourself out is good and necessary to success is being fundamentally challenged," Openshaw explains.

While much of the debate on how to better manage the impact of work on life has focused on the futile pursuit of balance, the future is about giving employees freedom to better blend their responsibilities. Fern Nott, head of talent at CHI & Partners, says that the conversation surrounding work/life balance is finally falling out of favour and the industry is increasingly recognising that employees are taking a different approach to work. She explains: "The industry is still competitive and attractive to graduates but people are voting with their feet – they want freedom and fluidity in their work."

A perfect storm

However, many employees are not currently experiencing this sense of freedom but instead feel increasingly stressed and out of control. Calls to Nabs for emotional support were up by 67% last year and have increased by a further 37% in the first half of 2016. Diana Tickell, chief executive of the industry charity, said it identified a need post-recession to provide support to people experiencing burnout. "If the talent of our people really is our unique selling point, we need to think realistically about what kind of environment we are creating," she explains. "What we haven’t got to in the UK is embracing our mental health in the same way we talk about exercise. We need to talk more about how we feel." According to Tickell, this isn’t simply about eradicating stress but working more on managing it and taking responsibility for our own well-being as individuals.

As Nabs data shows, a growing number of creative professionals are seeking help and support for dealing with workplace stress. Helen Calcraft, founding partner at Lucky Generals, says the industry is in the midst of a perfect storm created by the pressure of multichannel marketing and the drive to deliver more for less: "There is an immense pressure in the industry, but the younger generation is saying the current model doesn’t work; they aren’t prepared to sacrifice everything." According to Calcraft, creating the right culture, with openness and happiness at its core, is vital to challenging this pressure.

"We have had people leave to go travelling and then come back to us. With this generation, they have to enjoy the journey"
-Helen Calcraft, founding partner, Lucky Generals

Great expectations

However, creating a culture of openness and empowering employees to bring their "whole self" to work can be a significant challenge in the creative industries. Chris Hirst, Europe chief executive of Havas Creative Group, says that the precarious nature of the business poses a challenge for the advertising industry. "It is a hugely oversubscribed industry where everyone is trying to eat each other’s lunch. A situation which means that stress has been a big issue and a real challenge for the industry," he says. 

It is a challenge that has the potential to be a significant issue when it comes to attracting the next generation of talent to the industry. Company review and recruitment site Glassdoor threatens to do to human resources what TripAdvisor did to the hotel industry. By shining the uncomfortable realism of social media reviews on toxic corporate cultures and dirty bathrooms respectively, the transparency of social media places the treatment of current and potential employees in the spotlight. The days when a "company culture" was defined by the pages of positioning documents rather than the experiences of employees are numbered. In fact, the advertising industry is trailing innovation at traditional companies such as KPMG. "You need to get it right, regardless of Glassdoor," Martin Blackburn, UK people director at KPMG, explains. "Our people are all we have and, without them, we lose competitive advantage. The best people talk to prospective employees and can have a significant impact."

According to Blackburn, the key difference among millennial employees is that they simply don’t believe in the traditional hierarchies of work. He explains: "They come into an organisation believing that they have a voice to be heard, whereas 20 years ago we had to persuade them that they had a right to be heard." This in turn is creating a challenge of fostering an environment where people feel not only that they are heard but that they can speak openly across generations. 

For KPMG, driving a culture of openness has included the creation of a Be Mindful network across the business to create a safe space in which employees can share information and support about mental well-being. The network, which was launched in May 2015 to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week, is part of the company’s holistic approach to well-being in the workplace. "It has required us to have senior people talking about mental health," Blackburn explains. "You get the most out of people when they can be themselves in the workplace." 

"Wellness is about organisations creating an open culture where staff can seek help when they need it"
Patrick Watt, corporate director, Bupa 

The wellness race

A growing number of companies are increasing their focus on employee well-being and supporting their staff in both their work and life. Indeed, even Facebook, the company famed for its "move fast and break things" mantra, is investing more time and resources in supporting their employees’ well-being at key life stages. In the London office, for example, Facebook runs monthly lunch meetings for new mothers to help support them make the sometimes difficult transition back to work. 

Patrick Watt, corporate director at Bupa, says companies are recognising that employees are consumers and their needs and requirements don’t suddenly change or disappear when they come into the workplace. According to Bupa’s research, while Generation X and baby boomers view health as the "absence of illness", millennials take a more holistic approach spanning sleep, well-being and mental health. The health giant, which recently launched Boost Well, a suite of well-being products and tools for companies, said the number-one goal of the 10,000-plus employees currently signed up to the platform is remarkably simple – they want to get more sleep. According to Watt, focusing on these basic goals is important as there is a danger that business leaders over-intellectualise something that is in fact very straightforward: "Wellness is about organisations creating an open culture where staff can seek help when they need it. On a practical level, it is about asking colleagues ‘How are you?’ and being prepared when the answer is bad."

The ‘whole self’

Just as social media has broken down the boundaries between what constitutes public and private, many in the industry believe the traditional segmentation of work, rest and play no longer holds true. Harriet Shurville, head of people at McCann Worldgroup, points to the growth of "bleisure" – the merging of business and leisure – as evidence that a lot more is expected of employers. In line with this shift, McCann has invested in undertaking company-wide mood surveys, as well as introducing The Workout – a health and wellness programme. "People want more than to go out and get pissed. They want to do something that isn’t drinking. The Workout breaks down barriers and helps create an open culture," Shurville explains.

In the tech sphere, a growing band of companies are pushing the notion of an "open culture" further. Brandon Atkinson, chief people officer at AppNexus, says that while work has historically been viewed simply as a means to an end, increasingly both employees and employers are focused on more than just a monthly pay cheque. He explains: "Increasingly, work is seen as a means for self-discovery and self-development, and there is a much greater expectation that employers should invest in their whole selves."

It is a shift that demands brands step out of their comfort zones. At AppNexus, this has included holding an open forum with traumatised employees in the wake of the nightclub shooting in Orlando earlier this year. Atkinson says: "There isn’t a playbook for developing an inclusive culture like there is for bringing yoga and fitness into an organisation. But you cannot be a true advocate of bringing your whole self to work if you don’t address these issues." For AppNexus, this means constantly asking what challenges inclusivity and what as a company they can do to overcome it.

At VaynerMedia, a focus on openness and wellness has led to the appointment of Claude Silver as the full-service agency’s first chief heart officer. "We care about the well-being of our staff more than the bottom line and I am focused on how we become more mindful of others and how we bring more empathy into the workplace," she explains. In practice, this means that Silver is focused on facilitating people, growth and change, as well as "being a therapist" when staff need coaching and support. For staff at VaynerMedia, "bringing your whole self to work is as natural as putting on a shirt", according to Silver. 

Source: Bupa

Generation Burnout

Although both the conversation and investment surrounding corporate well-being has continued apace, there is no denying that the British stiff upper lip remains resolutely in place in many circles. 

Burnout coach Lindsay Orridge says that when she publicly shared the details of her own burnout, she was overwhelmed by the number of former colleagues, acquaintances and strangers who reached out to say that they too were suffering with mental-health problems. 

"The true impact of technology and our "always on" culture remains a thorny issue for the industry"

"A lot of people don’t want to say that they are struggling but it is an epidemic and so many people are too ashamed to say that they cannot cope," Orridge says. According to her, this sense of shame is particularly acute in the creative sector: "When you work within the creative industries, there is this risk that everything is seen as fun. You should be grateful to be out all night and it is a trade-off for having an exciting job."

The true impact of technology and our "always on" culture remains a thorny issue for the industry. Tickell says: "It is harder to get that mental space to switch off and stay focused; prioritising and focusing is important. People have a lot of unrealistic expectations about what they are trying to achieve. It is a driven industry but it is not always possible to do everything on your to-do list." 

While it is all too easy for multimillionaire businesswoman Arianna Huffington to advocate the healing power of sleep, those at pinch points in their careers are increasingly anxious and unable to switch off. In fact, according to Orridge, the problem is that "nobody ever switches off". She believes that the difference of taking just a few minutes for yourself is huge: "It is a self-preservation tool that starts with little, and often and ends with sanity." 

The truth is that while the world of work is changing, uncomfortable truths, outdated practices and – at times – unmanageable levels of stress remain. 

The good news is that business, too, has a vested interest in this self-preservation – not only to attract and retain the best talent, but to produce the best work. As Calcraft explains: "I don’t think the most creative agencies will be the most miserable; it is the ones with the most joy that will thrive. There is joy in making great creative work." 

The challenge for the next generation of talent surrounds not only the openness and vulnerability required to successfully bring your "whole self" to work, but the steely determination needed to unlock the glorious, yet unexploited, joy of truly switching off. 

The Rise of the ‘Fuck off Fund’

Economic insecurity combined with the opportunity afforded by technology to connect, create and share are giving creative individuals the freedom and the financial impetus to seek out alternative sources of both creative expression and income. 

The balance of power between employers and employees is fundamentally shifting, with significant implications for brands. As one freelance marketing director explains: "When I began my career, the rule of thumb was that you need to have three months’ salary stacked up in the bank and at least a year’s tenure at any job – however horrific it was – and even then you had to think carefully about whether or not to leave." 

Griffin, an executive assistant at Sylvain Labs, appeared on The Voice and is recording an album

In contrast, she believes that today’s creative entrepreneurs have an in-built "fuck off fund" afforded by a combination of side projects, personal networks and the promise of new opportunities. 

The twin challenges of the economic downturn and the digital transformation of business have created a vibrant pool of freelance opportunities. While horror stories of never-to-see-the-light-of-day brands and unpaid invoices abound, the instant op-portunity given to those with the right skills should not be underestimated.

Alain Sylvain, founder and chief execuitve of innovation company Sylvain Labs, says that, despite this, creating anything outside the confines of your day job is a "punishable offence" in many companies, while advertising agencies are also guilty of signing over the rights to their own ideas and innovations. He explains: "We recognise the same trend across the globe; we need to create an environment in which individuals can create on their own terms or they won’t invest their time in your business." According to Sylvain, people don’t hate working – they just hate jobs.

So how can employees adapt? Sylvain Labs actively recruits staff with what it terms a "side hustle" – such as one employee, Daniel Griffin, who recently appeared on The Voice and is now recording an album. Investing in these projects is actively encouraged. In addition, the company taps into an extensive network of free-lancers. Sylvain explains: "The best creatives are not working full-time. I interview creative directors who have two or three different projects going on. They spend months travelling."

Creative employers are not kicking back against this entrepreneurial spirit but instead embracing it; from internal Kickstarters and co-funding models to offering creative sabbaticals, a growing number of businesses are following the likes of Google in attempting to create more space for staff to invest in work outside their core responsibilities.

Calcraft believes embracing this shift starts with taking a longer-term view of employees and enlightened creative companies are increasingly embracing them as a "whole person". She says: "We have had people leave to go travelling and then come back to us. With this generation, they have to enjoy the journey."

Making work part of that journey, rather than an obstacle to overcome – or, worse still, a horror to escape from – is key to that success. 

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