B&T Exclusive: The Real Cost Of Burnout In Australia’s Ad & Marketing Industries

As the industry moves to cut costs in response to shrinking ad spend, one area that is often overlooked in the cost-cutting drive is that of the cost of unhealthy work practices and subsequent poor mental health. In this exclusive, B&T looks at the real cost of stress and burnout. 

When it comes to mental health and well-being, the advertising, media, and marketing industry isn’t exactly famed for its kale smoothies, early nights, and work-life balance. For many, enthralled by shows such as Mad Men, the industry can offer a work-hard, play-hard environment, with glitzy parties, work trips to die for, and pictures that will make your Instagram pals emerald with envy. 

Set in the “golden age” of advertising, Mad Men doesn’t show the healthiest lifestyle

However, the hangover of the work hard, play hard lifestyle is starting to add up.  The latest 2022 Mentally Healthy by Unltd showed that nearly half of the media, advertising, and marketing industry (46 percent) displayed mild to severe symptoms of depression and anxiety, and only 47 per cent of people said they had enough time to do their work. 

Whilst the same report did, thankfully, show a dramatic increase in employers taking mental health seriously – nearly 50 per cent of employees struggling with mild to severe depression and anxiety is still very high and can be reflected in the industry’s high turnover which remains significantly above the national average.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), reported that the average turnover rate was 9.5 per cent for the year ending February 2022. 

In the media industry, the turnover rate for 2022 was 36.1 per cent (according to data from the MFA’S latest census), with the vast bulk of these (32.6 per cent) put as “regrettable losses”.

Given that it costs, on average, 50 per cent of a junior member of staff’s salary on average to replace them ( Linkedin) and 250 per cent of a senior member of staff’s salary to replace them, the cost to the industry of high turnover easily stretches into the 100s of millions of dollars. 

And that’s assuming they leave. The same study found that disengaged employees cost an organization $3,400 for every $10,000 of salary. 

Heart On My Sleeve founder Mitch Wallis, (a leader in the wellbeing space with a lifelong mission to ‘change the way the world feels’),was unsurprised that many may now be shunning the industry. 

“When an industry has a legacy of normalizing or celebrating psychologically unsafe work practices like 2am finishes, mixed with a commercial model that’s priced on “hours” not “outcomes” – meaning the busier/more stressed you are the more profit we make… then it’s no surprise that the stats are now showing that more people aren’t hanging around for dinner in the creative industry”.

Mitch Wallis

What Are The Early Signs Of Burnout?

Someone who understands the advertising, media, and marketing industry, and also the cost of poor mental health is Sean Hall. Hall started his career as a creative and has worked both agency and client-side at companies including Saatchi & Saatchi and Telstra.

Back in 2011, while he was head of brand strategy and marketing at Telstra, Hall says he suffered a near mental breakdown. 

“I found myself wandering around David Jones one day, not knowing how I got there”, he says. 

“That was sort of the catalyst for me in terms of working out what decisions I had made which led me to be vulnerable to that,” he said. 

When it came to stress, Hall said he  “learned about this the hard way” which is why he is now committed to improving employee mental health through his company Energx which improves company performance and cuts costs by improving employee health and wellbeing. 

Sean Hall

Hall says “ I find it very interesting, the dynamic between sort of mental health conversations and burnout conversations”. 

Worryingly the two are not unrelated, and burnout can actually lead to other, more serious, mental health problems. 

 “If you’ve got a high incidence of burnout, then you will have a higher incidence of more clinically described mental health issues as well if you don’t sort that out”. Hall adds that very little is being done to prevent burnout when very early symptoms start. 

Some of the very early symptoms of burnout are “low energy ( a symptom that they are disengaged), “feeling cynical” or being “dissociated” from their work.

At Energx, they go in, speak to staff, understand the problem, and then make recommendations that include talking through common issues as a group and coming up with tailored plans for each member of staff. 

“We were able to reduce the number of people that showed warning signs of burnout by more than 50 per cent” Hall says.

They have also been able to triple the number of staff in “very good or excellent health”, which is good because they are “four times less likely to have any of the warning signs that are red flags for staff turnover”.

How Has Covid Impacted The Rates Of Burnout?

Whilst many people have praised flexible working conditions in a post-Covid world, Hannah Kissel, a coach, and advisor to high-performing people in tech who previously worked as a sales leader at LinkedIn, says working from home can often lead to higher cases of burnout. 

“I think, post-COVID It’s (burnout) more widespread than it used to be. And I think that’s for a few reasons”. 

The first, she said, is because of the time difference between Australia and the rest of the world.

“You’re working across three separate times, including APAC. And that’s like extremely early mornings, really late night calls and you’re on a screen all day long”.

The second is due to people moving out of the office and working from home. 

“I’ve seen people actually leaving Melbourne, or Sydney, or Brisbane, where the majority of the workforce used to be located, moving into rural areas to work completely remotely. And then what I’ve seen from that is lower engagement”. 

“When you don’t have all the social events, the work parties, and the global conferences, you actually see what your day-to-day role is”. 

Worryingly, Kissel says that mental stress can often lead to physical issues, adding that she is seeing an increase in women in their 20s and 30s with autoimmune conditions. 

Hannah Kissel

But What Does Good Look Like?

Whilst most people will agree that stress probably isn’t good for you, this doesn’t necessarily provide a solution for how to deal with the problem. After all, with ad spending being cut, companies are under more pressure than ever to deliver and always be available to clients. 

So what does good actually look like?

Someone who is likely to know the answer is Equality Media managing director, Marilla Akkermans. Not only is Equality Media one of the only agencies to have a four-day week, but they also recently won the AFR Best Place to Work in the Media and Marketing category.

Akkermans said that the survey conducted by the AFR found that “people were engaged across the workplace, and felt they were able to do their own work”. 

“Where we scored particularly high was around wellbeing. Out of 10, we scored a 9.2, which I think in terms of industry average was a lot higher than generally what media agencies are seeing”. 

Making sure employees didn’t feel pressure to always be “on” was something very important to Akkermans.

Marilla Akkermans

“Another key metric for us was that nobody on staff felt that they were required to work outside of their hours or answer emails outside of work, which, again, is something that I’m really proud of, because it shows that even if people choose to which I think we’re all guilty of, it’s not like there’s an agency expectation of this always be contactable kind of mentality that you can see across some other workplaces”.

One thing that really sets Equality Media apart from other agencies is the introduction of the four-day working week. I asked Akkermans if this was something she was nervous to introduce. 

“I’d been following the four-day week across the globe for about a year before we decided to take the plunge and kind of start to put some structure and rigor around it”.

She said she asked herself “What’s the best foundation that we can put in place to make sure that this can be the four-day week or a quality time can be as successful as possible?”

One of the strategies that has worked really well, she says, is making sure everyone is always working two days in advance. 

“If we can, as much as possible, mitigate from our side of things, that really helps remove the sense of urgency around always being available”. 

“You’re helping yourself,” she says. 

Despite the enviably high well-being numbers, Akkermans says this is just the start. 

“It’s hopefully only the beginning of how we can kind of transform the modern-day workplace,” she says. 


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