Mental Health in the Ad Industry

From Jennifer Frieman, Global Chief Talent Officer, Momentum Worldwide

As some parts of the industry are returning to office, how is Momentum approaching the return?  And how much of that decision is based on mental wellbeing of your teams?

In the early days of the pandemic, there was an unrelenting narrative of loss and return to what we had lost. This loss translated into our work lives where the focus was on how to get back to where we were before remote work remedies had become the new normal for agency employees. Momentum started the journey of “returning” to the office with this ambition, alongside peer agencies across the nation and around the world. We invited people to come back voluntarily at first, with safety as a priority, and then we transitioned to mandatory return policies when we could ensure safe spaces were available.

What we found was that while the drive to get back to the office emerged as a symbol of normalcy, when we got back to the office it was anything but normal. When people did come in, the office didn’t feel the same. Even with the opportunity to see colleagues in person, they were struggling with the mandates that felt out of touch with their productivity at home and new lifestyles, where work from home had begun to feel comfortable and there was balance between personal and work needs. This was creating stress for our people and we needed to shift our approach to support a new reality that put our people’s mental health and wellbeing first.

When Omicron sent us back home, we had a chance to step back, and we realized that the notion of a “return” to the office was flawed. We took a pause, and working with our leaders and teams around the world, redefined our call to return to the office. We realized that this wasn’t a return that was highly anticipated by our teams who were either settled into new routines or had joined us during the pandemic and hadn’t ever worked in our offices. Instead, it was an opportunity to welcome our teams to the new future of work. Our new way of working was renamed Welcome Forward, acknowledging that there could be no return to pre-pandemic work after all we’d learned and grown through the experience. We introduced a new model that allowed people to move with intention across our three main work spaces—the home office; our newly remodeled “clubhouse” offices, where new open-air collaboration spaces have been introduced; or inspiration sites—which allow for fluid connection sites where individuals can come together in ways that support connection and the work of the day. This new work model has let our talent find new ways to integrate work and life with balance that we’ve been told works better for them, which makes us and our teams happy.

 

As the pandemic blurred the lines between work and personal life, how would you recommend ensuring balance?

The intentionality of our new working model is a great place to start in designing a new workflow that ensures better work/life integration. The lines between professional and personal worlds were blurry even before the pandemic. Entering or leaving the office or the home was a physical signal of a shift in focus and priorities, a clocking in or out for the modern era. Of course, access to personal and professional contacts and communication through our always-on mobile devices meant that we could be drawn into either world throughout the course of the day. The big difference today is that many days start and end in the same place, sometimes in the same room, and work-life integration takes a bit more intentionality to balance.

Getting this right requires effort, but we can learn from what worked in the past and consider our own individual needs in new ways to make this more fluid setup work even better than the old ways of working.

One technique that I’ve found helpful has been to create new signals to demarcate the start and end of work—put away the laptop, close the door to the office, leave the house for a walk. Even a small shift can create a new physical boundary to replicate the entering or exiting of an “office.” It’s also important to establish boundaries that ensure important work and personal needs are met; if one finds work has moved into their personal time, they can focus on not taking work calls or emails when they’re with friends or family, and vice versa. If someone is guilty of working until late at night and not shutting off, making sure the laptop is off at least a few hours before bed can be a boundary that allows their brain switch off fully to support better sleep.

For some people, a combined work and personal mobile device creates too much opportunity to mix business and pleasure, so they are intentional about having two devices and leaving one locked in a drawer or at home when they are in work or personal mode. Maximizing your time and focus can be helpful. There may be times when the blurred lines allow for more access to things that people want to be involved in, and other times where there’s a real need to focus on one thing without distraction; considering when each setup works best can be a way of creating outcomes that improve life and work.

Finally, it’s worth stepping back and acknowledging that this is a new reality for everyone and it’s important to be realistic and patient with oneself as we figure out what works best for our own needs. There will be good days and bad days in finding new balance. The goal is to learn and continue to improve as we get comfortable in a new rhythm.

 

What are some ways in which you prioritize your mental health as an ad executive?

I have worked really hard to set new boundaries this year, including turning off my phone when I am with my family and creating a quiet and private workspace at home where I am not interrupted while I’m working in my home office.

I find that full days of video calls are more draining than live meetings for me, so when I’m working from home or have a heavy schedule of calls, I take time to evaluate my schedule and block time for focused work when my mental energy is strongest. That time to work alone has made a huge difference in creating a better mental balance for me.

I work hard to keep it all in perspective and believe in learning through the experiences we are living through. I find that I can be my own harshest critic, so giving myself a chance to experiment, learn and reflect has been mentally healthy for me.

 

May is Mental Health Awareness month and as advertising and media professionals, we have the power to shape how mental health/illness is portrayed. How do you recommend we depict a better portrayal, challenge stigma and change the conversation?

Mental health has always felt like a topic that was taboo to discuss openly, but our mental health is no different from our physical health; they are interlinked. We all have good days and bad days, and we need to take care of ourselves. I believe that talking openly about mental health as a community is important. Agencies can provide education, share stories and give people access to tools that support their health and wellbeing. Leaders who share their own mental and physical health needs openly with their teams and organizations help reduce the stigma through their own vulnerability and ability to demonstrate that the journey of mental wellness is present at all levels, even at the top performance levels. Their disclosure opens the door to honesty across all teams. Many agencies, ours included, have introduced new boundaries within our work setup—from mental health days to no-meeting Fridays—with the intention of normalizing mental health, recognizing the need for “space” to think and recharge, and to create an everyday structure that supports wellbeing.

Jennifer Frieman was appointed Global Chief Talent Officer in 2013, having previously been McCann Worldgroup’s Global Head of Learning and Development from 2011–2013. Prior to that, she was SVP, Global Head of Organizational Development at Momentum from 2007–2013. She champions our industry leading D,E &I efforts through volunteer and committee work with organization that include Venture for America, the 3% group and 4A’s High School.

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