Confessions of an agency thirtysomething: ‘We act as machines’

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Long hours and unreasonable clients are facts of life inside agencies, but more attention is being paid to the issue of burnout and mental health. In this week’s edition of Confessions, in which we exchange anonymity for honesty, we spoke to an agency veteran in their mid-30s who suffered two burnouts of their own while working in the industry.

Edited highlights below.

How did it begin?
Basically, a lot of people in this industry are kept under contract for a few years until they’re hired full time. I was on contract, for about a year-and-a-half. There are no benefits. No job security. The longest contract I could get was six months so, from a stress level of entering the workforce and knowing you don’t have enough and you can’t make any commitments in your life because you don’t know what’s going on, that got tough. Within my first week at a company I said is this what my life is going to be like? Spending all day, every day, working my ass off. I work in an industry renowned for underpaying people, but this was too much.

Was it just about pay?
It starts there. The kind of money you’re paid, you either are expected to live at home or someone else is paying for you. For a lot of us entering the industry, it’s not the case. So we act as machines. It’s cheaper for them to have a bunch of machines churning out the work. I mean, I love to work out. I am naturally anxious, so I need that, but I couldn’t even sign a gym contract for a year because I didn’t know if I would have a job.

What were the hours like?
My days were generally that I would be in the office, from 8 a.m. to 5.30 pm. Then I would do something: try to work out, come home then work until 11 p.m. The problem with this industry is it’s like if you don’t have rings under your eyes and are falling apart you’re not giving much. I’m Type A. I want to muck in and do more and more and more until I physically can’t. And bosses make the most of it. I have seen people who resigned and gave maybe a month’s notice, and the company buried them with deadlines. They squeeze people dry so by the time they walk out they emotionally cannot function.

What happened when you burned out?
I wasn’t aware it was happening to me. I felt permanently wired. I was very jumpy. Anything gave me a fright. My anxiety was through the roof. I was permanently exhausted. My pupils were permanently blown. My eyes felt swollen. I wasn’t sleeping well. My mom asked if I was on drugs. A friend’s aunt — she’s a doctor — saw me at dinner and dragged me to the kitchen, and told me “You have adrenal fatigue.” I started getting depressed and forgetful. I would take out trays from the oven with my bare hands because I didn’t have the mental capacity to remember oven mitts. I would forget to lock my house at night.

What was it like at work?
Honestly, everyone’s always stressed and overloaded. I felt like I was drowning, and I was looking around and said “OK, but everyone’s drowning.” It’s all the same. I cried at work a lot. One day my boss asked how I was, and I just cried. They let me go home for the day, so, like, thanks I guess. We were so short-staffed and had such crazy deadlines we weren’t even able to be sick. On our team, the sickest person was allowed to go home. Everyone has to hold the fort down.

What happened next?
I could see a second round coming after I felt better and went back to work. So I made a decision to get out of this way of working. I quit. I work for a company now but I only do virtual assignments, I have way more control over balancing my life. I just want to achieve balance.

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