Why it’s ok to say you are not ok on our agency floor

Experiments from our first 6 months focusing on mental health and wellbeing

Gautam Reghunath,
EVP & Branch Head, Dentsu Webchutney Bengaluru.

We’ve arguably just had our most successful year yet at Dentsu Webchutney. A whole lot of new business success, Cannes Lions, Spikes, Kyoorius and many more wins later, the standards have been set, the mood is gung-ho and energies are high. Or are they?

At their best, agencies are dynamic environments, with opportunities for work that are both varied and fulfilling. Our industry is ripe with talented people, creative brands and with our proximity to popular culture, it’s no surprise that many are drawn to the agency lifestyle.

On our agency floor, we’re always up for celebrating the joys of work and life. But if our hope going forward is is that we try & bring our authentic selves to work, it means us not shying away from the hard stuff such as stress, anxiety etc. either. As we grow, we realize that work can often ask a lot of an individual, from looming deadlines to late nights. And dealing with these work pressures while also managing personal commitments & relationships can often be tricky.

The reality of our industry is that after a while, the glamour of working in it often appears to wear thin. Clients no longer become exciting to work with. Work parties and industry events turn into tiring responsibilities filled with people you’d rather avoid. Soon the hours add up and even time spent at home is filled by replying to emails and work WhatsApp groups. The truth is that even the most demanding clients do not need responses immediately — they just need their expectations managed. Increasing demands usually mean junior employees are the ones often biting more than they can chew but do their managers have the proper training to deal with those stresses?

To help us initiate this conversation & best practices in our Bangalore office, over the last 6 months, we’ve been collaborating with the Hank Nunn Institute (HNI), a not-for-profit that provides services in mental health, workplace stress management and other individual and organizational needs. At a moment in time when we’ve just hit a huge high as an office professionally, we believe we can use this as a marker to go even higher — both as individuals and as a team.

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 grappling with various cultural and personnel issues including burnout, overworked staffers, high turnover and more. At the heart of it is this underlying tone at work that ‘hustle’ is good. There’s even a phrase for it now: struggle porn. This undying quest to hustle is untenable over time and it leads to an unwillingness for employees to speak up about how they’re feeling even when they’re struggling or feeling of lack of support.

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. The duty of every empathetic office should be to provide policies or through their actions show that it is okay for people to speak their truth without putting their job at risk. HNI’s trained professionals visit our office once every week where employees 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.

From the perspective of the workplace, the first steps to creating a culture that supports mental health is to ensure people experience their jobs in meaningful and purposeful ways. It could start with the basics — conversations about work satisfaction, autonomy, inter-personal equations, growth prospects etc. It’s key that managers do not check out from employees post their initiation. The most stressful type of leaders are usually unavailable or absent — leaving their employees without direction or feedback, and showing little concern and consideration. Not receiving guidance and direction from a leader has a direct impact on morale and well-being. I’ve often been shattered reading exit interviews from our ex-employees that call out this particular feedback.

The role of HNI and other similar partners in the future will be to help on our journey to becoming an open, progressive work environment where individuals can thrive and perform, and where one needn’t come at the cost of the other. Our access to HNI’s therapists and clinical psychologists aside, the idea is for all of us to understand that it is okay to not always be okay. To encourage everyone on our floor to talk openly and show more compassion. It may be as small as recognizing when others are going through a tough moment and allowing them the time and space for themselves. It may also be about listening or just having each other’s backs during a tough period. To be a space both for introverts and extroverts.

There are other experiments currently live; such as trying to reduce time spent at work by making it significantly harder to get the multiple approvals needed to come in to office on a weekend. Similar to other agencies, we’ve recently piloted Hard Stop Thursdays where the lights go off at 6.30pm, no matter what. The hope is not to limit work flexibility or add more processes but for these tactics to open up a conversation about planning our work life better, improving our efficiency and most importantly being thoughtful and respectful of ‘time’ as a group. Baby steps.

Our learnings over the last few months have been many and the focus on mental health resources aside, our need to adapt and change has never been more obvious. Our industry is built on deadlines, deliverables, stress and nights out to celebrate or commiserate. 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 breaking down. We all live on a human spectrum, touched by mental health. Meanwhile the last few years have seen the modern workplace undergo major changes, and what today’s workforce is after demands that companies redefine what having a ‘good work culture’ means from the ground up.

India’s favourite creative agency. Estd. 1999.