‘You have no excuse why you can’t work’: Agency employees grapple with burnout

It’s been a rough few weeks for an account manager at a creative agency. This person, who requested anonymity, said they’ve worked every weekend since mandatory lockdowns began.

It’s starting to get to them.

“Work and life is starting to blend together and it’s becoming unhealthy,” said the account manager. “The demand is suddenly higher because you have no excuse as to why you can’t work. My father is a doctor and I find myself on-call more than him during a pandemic, which is unheard of.”

As agencies and brands adapt to the new work from home reality amid the coronavirus pandemic, a familiar issue is starting to crop up once again: Burnout. With many agencies — like other companies — nearly four weeks into working remotely due to lockdowns across the country, agency employees say they are starting to feel burnout due to agencies’ current “always on” mentality. 

Of course, the burnout isn’t simply a result of the “always-on” mentality. While it has reached new heights during the pandemic, with employees adjusting to working from home, working longer hours, feeling the need to reply whenever they’re messaged and having to hop on Zoom calls so often that they’re spending more time in front of their screens than ever, those aren’t the only issues employees are dealing with.

And they don’t exist in a vacuum. Employees are worried about their families’ and friends’ safety as well as their own safety during the pandemic. But without much else to do, some are leaning on work to help them feel a sense of control amid the future unknowns. And that doesn’t work out so well. Plus, there’s more work than ever before as clients demand changes, marketing is pivoting on a dime, and the fear of losing business is very present.

The account manager isn’t alone in feeling the need to be responsive anytime. Agency employees across a whole host of roles — agency executives, media buyers, copywriters, art directors, account directors, even consultants — report that they are working longer hours to help clients reshape how they are marketing due to the pandemic. 

“It’s kind of like you have to constantly be available,” a copywriter previously told Digiday, adding that communicating over messaging apps like Microsoft Teams or Slack can exacerbate the issue, making it feel like responding immediately whenever someone messages you is necessary. 

The feeling of needing to be “always on” isn’t necessarily coming from agency leadership, according to employees who say that leadership has reiterated in town halls for employees to take time for themselves. The problem is that “there are teams that aren’t following that,” said the account manager. 

While burnout isn’t a new issue for agency employees — per Digiday+ research 32% of agency employees are worried about their mental health — the need to be in constant contact and working extended hours to meet clients’ needs mixed with the uncertainty of what’s to come has led to increased stress and anxiety for some. “Not knowing when this is going to end is very difficult,” said the copywriter. “That and the demand to deliver as much if not more than we would normally is hard. There’s a lot of pressure. And there’s no out.” 

Another new issue for employees dealing with burnout is the threat of being furloughed or laid off due to reduced client budgets as marketers reign in spending to manage fallout from the pandemic. Per Digiday+ research, 73% of ad buyers have clients who’ve paused spending — which will likely hurt agencies bottom lines and lead to more furloughs or layoffs. With that being the case, employees say they are less likely to bring up burnout as an issue. “The difference now is I feel helpless and I fear that if I bring up my burnout to my boss that I’ll lose my job,” said the account manager. 

That fear coupled with clients working more has led to employees feeling the need to keep working after hours and on weekends. “I had multiple calls over the weekend,” said Dan Fietsam, founder of consultancy Lotus Coterie. “That wasn’t happening before the crisis. My clients changed their work habits so I’ve had to adjust for them.” 

Agency employees and execs say that part of the problem is that without being able to leave home or do much else, clients and employees are turning to work for a sense of control in a time full of unknowns. “It’s a way to manage the lack of control over this thing,” said Fietsam.  “Everyone feels like they don’t know what will happen, how long it will last and haven’t been through this before. What can I do? Work.” 

Charlene Coughlin, managing director at Twist Creative, agreed. “People can’t do much else right now,” said Coughlin, adding that she hasn’t been asked to work more but is currently working over the weekend and on nights because there’s not much else she can do. “It’s not like you can go to a happy hour or restaurant or go leisurely shopping at Target. So some people are looking for something to fill their time that they feel good about. But it’s very easy to get very consumed very quickly.” 

While not all agency employees currently feel burnout, the possibility of getting burnt out is top of mind as employees navigate working remotely, working longer hours and the uncertainty of the weeks ahead. Agency executives say they are working to reiterate to employees that they should take time for themselves to avoid burnout. 

“Left unchecked, the intensity of work will break our clients and our people – we have to provide leadership on the issue of mental health, and live it through our own behaviors,” said Amanda Richman, CEO of Wavemaker, adding that the shop has been pushing people to find a balance. “[We’re] challenging ways of working, focusing on outcomes vs. tasks, developing a team communication charter, and setting boundaries to our day. Leaders need to create space for our people to cope with the crisis outside.” 

“Agencies must put their teams’ mental wellness at the forefront, by providing access to counseling services and other resources,” said Greg Stern, founder and co-chairman of BSSP and board chair of the 4A’s. “To avoid burnout, we need to structure the day to avoid an expectation of 24/7 accessibility. Limiting meetings and calls, providing a ‘meeting free’ lunch hour, for instance, maintaining virtual human contact outside of work-related calls will help maintain culture, and provide extra attention to those who may be home alone.” 

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Some agencies are working to not only tell employees they can log off but give employees more resources to manage stress. At Twist Creative, Coughlin and agency leadership are encouraging employees to take half-days, use teletherapy, meditate or take virtual yoga classes to help manage the stress. At The Many, the agency has given employees two extra personal days to give them more time to log off to deal with their own needs during this unprecedented time. 

“Agency leaders have to remember that at some point we’re back in the office and you don’t want to come back with employees that are burned out or aren’t passionate about the work or clients anymore,” said Coughlin. “That’ll just lead to more turnover or client turnover. Just because people are at home that doesn’t mean people can be on all the time.”

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