Working hard, or hardly working?

(As part of our commitment to leading discussions around important industry issues, The Message is working with nabs Canada on a series of reports examining key determinants in workplace health—from diversity, to ageism, to bullying and sexism. In Part 1, CHRIS POWELL got an exclusive look at a new study from Morneau Shepell that highlights the physical, mental and financial costs of the industry’s always-on approach.)

When Jay Bertram was a young account director at the former Chiat\Day in the late 1980s, staffers signalled their never-quit work ethos by making up T-shirts reading “Chiat\Day and Night.”

“We wore it as a badge of honour, that we worked harder than anybody else,” said Bertram. Nearly 30 years later, and now executive director of nabs Canada, Bertram sees the human and financial costs associated with the industry’s hard-charging lifestyle in an entirely different light.

The hard-driving, high-expectation culture that has long characterized the industry is not only outdated, but is hurting businesses and possibly preventing them from producing their best work.


Recent research from nabs, based on a survey by Toronto-based human resources company Morneau Shepell, suggests that many of Canada’s agency employees—particularly those in the junior and intermediate ranks—are walking a tightrope when it comes to their physical and mental health.

Compared with the Canadian workforce as a whole, the numbers are troubling. People working in advertising are less healthy, both physically and mentally, than the average Canadian employee, said Ross Taylor, senior customer success manager with LifeWorks by Morneau Shepell, which combines employee assistance, wellness, recognition incentive programs.

“Overall, physical and mental health were below national benchmarks, due to higher rates of sedentary workplaces and concerns about the industry’s ability to handle workload respectively, including a higher risk of burnout,” he said.
But while it’s hurting the people working in agencies, it’s also hurting the bottom line. The study suggests that the financial implications are enormous. The agencies that participated in the study, for example, stand to lose an estimated $15,909 per full-time employee, per year through a combination lost time and lost productivity. Although the entire cost of illness can’t be directly attributed to unhealthy workplaces, they are powerful contributors to stress and anxiety, which in turn can complicate and compound other health issues.

The causes are wide-ranging, from an expectation of 24/7, 365 service to systemic “ageism” throughout the industry—with older employees increasingly being replaced by younger, inexperienced workers. Bertram suggests that as few as 5% of today’s agency employees are over the age of 50. Junior employees, he said, might be fearful of speaking out about being asked to work after-hours or on the weekend, holidays, etc. The costs of their silence could be significant.

The study findings suggest that in addition to burnout and anxiety, agency employees are also at elevated risk for depression, substance abuse and eating disorders. They are often leaving work feeling mentally and/or physical exhausted, failing to achieve optimal work-life balance, and putting off important health tests such as cancer screenings.

Morneau Shepell surveyed 332 employees from 12 agencies ranging in size from 12 to more than 300 employees. The self-reported surveys were completed between November 2017 and March 2018. Using a base of a $55,000 average annual salary and 240 work days per year, then balancing those numbers against absenteeism, discretionary effort and presenteeism, Morneau Shepell was able to attach a dollar figure to the toxic combination of poor heath, absenteeism and presenteeism.

It is the first time nabs has participated in the study, as it seeks to better understand how its range of services can benefit those professionals. Mark Neves, director of nabs central region, said the goal is to create industry benchmarks, to track progress and drill down to specific agency functions such as account director, copywriter, creative director, etc.

One of the objectives, he said, is to identify and provide solutions for problem areas before employees find themselves in a full-blown crisis. “It’s trying to engage people in the industry further up the stream, not when they’re in dire need of help,” he said. But improvements won’t happen fast. “The likelihood that they’re going to go from at-risk to optimal health year-over-year is pretty slim… You’re not going to take a massive leap over a one-year timeline.”

The study is built around a metric called the Total Health Index (THI), which measures all aspects of a person’s wellbeing, from mental and physical health, to the balance between work and life.

Agencies…we have a problem...

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