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The Advertising Industry Needs a Makeover: Valuing Empathy Over Thick Skin

It feels like I’m watching a silent car crash from a distance. 


I keep telling myself, be patient. 


You’re lucky. 


You get to spend quality time with your two little boys.


Yet, I find it hard to stay positive. My sense of self is slowly slipping away as I take a step back from my business and search for a corporate job, gloomy thoughts start to creep in and the isolation feels unbreakable.


With hiring freezes at most brands and agencies, competition is higher than ever, imposter syndrome is spiraling out of control, my youngest becomes ill with what can only be coronavirus and I try to prevent my four year old from touching him. 


Luckily this time around, I’m highly aware of the lack of “happy chemicals” running through my body as I stop breastfeeding my nine month old and recollect the fourth trimester postnatal depression I experienced from my first pregnancy.


My confidence about my professional life is low but I manage to grab the few sparse interviews left knowing that this too shall pass. I realise my empathetic and sensitive nature can sometimes be mistaken for weakness so I work hard to muster up the “gravitas” I must have in order to get the job - it was written in the job spec of course.  


My inner critic takes over and I blow up the interview. With a loss of routine and purpose (outside of family), anxiety through the roof, and two little ones tugging at my shirt 24/7, I’m not my usual self and I find it hard to let go of the niggling adverse thoughts that unknowingly simmer to the surface. 


I tell myself I will find another one. All good things come to those who wait, right?


But how long do we wait? 


There is a mental health crisis at our heels. 

Mental illness remains one of the biggest killers. Before the crisis it was estimated that 1 in 6 people experience a mental health problem every week. Now, the Office for National Statistics found that between March 20 and March 30 almost half (49.6%) of people in the UK reported levels of anxiety. 


Unfortunately, in the advertising industry we are meant to have thick skin. We’re expected to portray a Don Draper-esque charisma, work well in high stakes situations, and compete for Top Dog with our colleagues. Thick skin, performing under pressure, and being on 24/7 are apparently mandatory traits.


Yet, in a survey by NABS and Mind, 60% of respondents in the advertising industry said work has had a negative impact on their wellbeing over the past 12 months.


So to the contrary, bringing our full selves to work in our industry seems crucial. If we can drop the constant pressure to always be “on,” to be funny, to be charismatic, and lead with authenticity and empathy we will grow faster and better. In a relationship-focused business, authenticity empowers us to better understand our clients and customers, and allows diverse teams and cultures to thrive. 


As Mike Robbins, author of Bring Your Whole Self to Work says in a Forbes article, “When we don’t bring our whole selves to work we suffer – lack of engagement, lack of productivity, and our well-being is diminished.  We aren’t able to do our best, most innovative work, and we spend and waste too much time trying to look good, fit in, and do or say the “right” thing. 


“For teams and organizations, this lack of psychological safety makes it difficult for the group or company to thrive and perform at their highest level because people are holding back some of who they really are.” 


But in an environment where competitiveness breeds success and working long hours is seen as commitment, how do we shed off the pizzazz and be our authentic selves?  


Be more human. ⁣

Workplaces need to stop valuing working long hours, presenteeism, and perfectionism, and start valuing people for who they are as imperfect individuals, or else invaluable employees will never progress and organisations will be stagnant. 


Especially at this very delicate time, when we are all experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions from perpetual groundhog days to lack of face-to-face contact, a more empathetic and open approach is necessary. 


We need to be mindful of people who may have been on the verge of a mental illness or who have already had problems in the past as they may be really struggling now. “The pandemic is having a serious negative impact on people with mental illness and we are worried things could get worse.” A total of 1,369 psychiatrists responded to the College’s survey between May 1 and May 6.


Please let’s stop high fiving each other for "being busy" and available to answer emails 24/7. Let’s start supporting each other by showing empathy, listening carefully, and being respectful of each other’s emotional needs. 


We are not defined by what we do. 

Employment is one of the most strongly evidenced determinants of mental health. As of May 10, approximately 7.5 million jobs were furloughed, and the UK ad market has dropped by 50%. The worst it has ever been. 


Lack of access to either employment or good quality employment can decrease quality of life. In the Mental Health Foundation’s survey, 28% of unemployed people reported current negative mental health, compared to 13% of people in paid employment.


Yet in the advertising industry we define ourselves by our award-winning work, job title and status. Becoming Top 30 under 30 in Campaign for instance, is associated with being the best, meaning we worked the hardest, and we are The Usain Bolt of the advertising industry.


It’s damaging that our work cultures continue to reward prestige and promotions with awards, and long hours with raises. The shiney wheel keeps on spinning and it becomes less and less obvious that the intense focus and drive to be Usain forces people’s identities to become synonymous with their work. You are what you do, so to speak. 


Instead, why don’t we use this time to take a break from our work (shocker!)? For those who are furloughed, gravel in the beauty of doing nothing. For those who are not, take more time to be with your family and worry less about your work. We don’t always have to be on, and it’s restorative for your mind and body to just be. 


“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” 

-Brené Brown


Vulnerability is a key driver for positive change. Leaders who facilitate open and honest conversations about feelings, mental health and life outside of work, will successfully get through this pandemic. 


Although talking openly about how we feel can be daunting, it helps break down barriers to create positive, more empathetic ways of working which is good for people and good for business. A more vulnerable culture means coworkers can have discussions that are uncomfortable yet crucial, so if there is someone struggling emotionally they can feel at ease bringing it up.


In an article by NABS, Diana Tickall, CEO of NABS, said “It’s vital, not only for employee wellbeing, but the success of our industry, that we train our managers and leaders to better identify and support the mental health of their teams. 33% of respondents felt their senior leadership team doesn’t encourage workplace wellbeing within their organisation. We must work together to put this on the very top of everyone’s agenda in adland.”


Imagine a workplace where people show up as their full selves. 

Where people who are struggling emotionally can share their experiences openly. 

Where people who don’t fit the mold get hired and celebrated. 

Where a diverse and empathetic culture is mandatory. 

I ask you to think, where would we be now?

How would we be getting through this pandemic differently? 


If you need advice or someone to talk to, NABS is a national charity that supports all of the UK’s adland [0800 707 6607]. They provide a confidential chat with one of their unbiased advisors to help make life’s difficult decisions a little bit easier to make.

Meagan Bickerstaff

Instagram @megandtheboys

Twitter @meaganbee_ @happynewmum










Source:  2017 survey commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation


Mental Health Statistics: UK and Worldwide


Psychiatrissts fear ‘tsunami’ of mental ilness after the pandemic