‘This is the equivalent of free beer’: Confessions of a strategist on how wellness platitudes aren’t enough to curb burnout

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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 →

The Great Resignation or Turnover Tsunami. Industry forecasters have labeled the post-pandemic brain drain with different names, but it all boils down to much of the same: Employee burnout. As more agencies adopt hybrid and flexible work policies, some still struggle to balance their workloads enough to keep the line between personal life and professional separate.

For our latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we exchange anonymity for candor, we hear from a strategist at a full-service marketing agency about how intense client work, office politics and little reprieve from leadership have caused for their burnout to reach a fever pitch.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Tell us what’s going on.

There’s no support or understanding of the burnout. To be frank, it’s like we’re trying to bend over backwards for clients, trying to make them happy, especially since they’re high-profile clients. There’s not really consideration for the other team’s time, their well-being, their thoughts, [or] their emotions. It’s like, let’s provide the absolute best service we can because they’re Nike, Amazon, Facebook or God knows what company name. It’s always in service to them instead of us. Then you have leadership who looks down and supports getting all the work done, and that leads to even further burnout.

My boss threw me under the bus for not handling this project. I was the only person on the team. I needed resources [and there was] not a lot of time. It blew up in our face. They wanted us to fix stuff within 24 hours. I was in shock. 

That sounds frustrating. Has your agency talked about burnout, especially given we’re in a pandemic?

They talk about [retention]. It’s all the same. [They] offer us these things you can use any time. We have a mental health day. But nobody talks about the actual people because there’s politics. Nobody wants to speak up because nobody wants to get fired because their livelihood is attached to these jobs. Everyone’s going to get new jobs and move on. [The agency] doesn’t realize what it’s really come down to. 

So the perks aren’t helping with the burnout?

All this about having Fridays off, this is the equivalent of free beer. You’re going to have free beer on tap. But the second, someone enjoys it too much, they look like an ass. And it doesn’t address the larger problem at all. It’s all platitude. Nobody’s going to use the Calm App or the Headspace App. We’re polishing turds and we’re expected to do it in less than the amount of time that we have.

So retention is important but what they’re offering isn’t enough to keep team members?

They say they want to retain talent but they don’t realize the workload is so intense and that causes even more burnout. The cycle is being brought on by them, that’s why everyone is leaving for better pay or better treatment elsewhere.

What should be done differently at your shop and throughout the industry?

Take on projects that don’t require strained resources. Focus on actually managing people’s time and their expectations instead of forcing work down on them. Train leadership on how to treat their employees and I think that would be the most important. It sounds like the most basic thing, but it’s the truth.


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