Media agencies say investing in employee mental health can boost business

mental health

Nearly three years into the pandemic, media agencies are noticing their employee mental health programs can help drive business.

During this time, many organizations have reexamined their workplace culture and expanded their health benefits, vacation time and other perks. These various mental health initiatives, they found, helped improve recruitment and retention, engagement and bolstered client relationships.

Publicis Groupe Canada launched a broad, formalized mental health plan in summer 2020, said Stephanie McRae, head of diversity and inclusion at Publicis Canada. All 2,000 Publicis Canada employees and their dependents now have access to $5,000 (previously $1,000) in assistance for mental health services, which can be applied to therapy and counseling.

“As the pandemic proceeded, we realized… we had benefits coverage for mental health [and] access to employee assistance programs, but we realized our employees were needing more,” McRae said. “So we took some actions to increase access to mental health.”

Publicis developed a mental health resources kit to walk employees through these benefits. The firm has also invited guest speakers, with many focusing on mental health topics like setting boundaries or practicing mindfulness, and developed mental health first aid certification, training on how to identify signs of people facing mental health challenges, in partnership with the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

In 2021, more than 100 employees were trained in mental health first aid; another 170 are expected to complete this training by the end of 2022, including the entire Publicis Canada exec team. McRae said management needs to understand the importance and stigma of mental health and how to help struggling employees.

“In this hybrid work environment, we’re not in the room every day to pick up on those physical cues all the time,” McRae added.

After implementing these changes, Publicis said usage of the annual $5,000 stipend tripled since increasing it from $1,000, though exact figures were not provided. McRae said signups for first aid training have been filling up “like a Lady Gaga show” and execs are considering offering more sessions.

“[Mental health support is] going to help everyone, and it’s only going to be a win-win,” McRae said.

Across IPG’s brands, including Acxiom, Kinesso and Matterkind, Renu Hooda, global chief talent officer, has similarly used a strategic approach to mental health to prioritize giving people what they want.

“Giving free yoga lessons or a meditation app subscription is not enough if we can’t really help them with workplace burnout, which is the main cause of workplace mental health issues,” Hooda said. “Our belief was that if we make our company a positive and inclusive place, the rest will follow. It’s not about free lunches or free coffee, it’s about, ‘are we giving our employees a meaningful experience’ when they are taking care of our people and clients.”

IPG employees get additional time off, with those in the U.S. getting a summer break in August and a winter break in December, six bonus days throughout the year and other gym and health app subscriptions. But supporting worker mental health also requires a cultural shift at the organization level, Hooda added, both internally and externally with client relations.

“We empower our people to be able to talk about their workload and ask for help and resources,” she said. “We review that in conjunction with our client contracts. … This industry is notorious for burning out our people without challenging our clients on their expectations.”

IPG has also offered mental health first aid training through those associations in the U.S. and England and encouraged senior leadership to share their mental health experience. For example, topics they cover include depression, suicide, anxiety, where to get help and overcoming workplace stigmas.

Rick Milenthal, CEO of independent agency Shipyard, echoed the positive impact that mental health programs can have — especially when it comes to employee engagement surveys and client relationships. His firm actually started focusing on a mental health initiative nearly four years ago when an executive lost his son to suicide.

“We’re not a big holding company or anything … so the first thing we did is substantively make sure all of our health care benefits were superior in encouraging confidential counseling, and then we promote,” Milenthal said. “That’s not just something in our benefit plan, not something tucked at every all hands meeting. It’s reminding folks, ‘You have three sessions with a counselor that are no cost.’”

In addition to the benefits and policies supporting mental health, Milenthal said agencies need to work at promoting those services and teach managers how to respond to requests, for instance, when people request a leave or ask for support.

Shipyard’s employee surveys have shown that support for mental health is the No. 1 reason for retention. These practices have also helped the firm to scale business and produce for clients even in a demanding environment, and the results show up in client reviews.

“We’ve had [clients put it] as one of the defining reasons they chose us,” Milenthal said.

In some cases, Milenthal said implementing mental health can be viewed as a financial burden, but he has seen it as a “rocket ship” for his agency: better retention, lower attrition, increased creativity and productivity.

“Even if you look at it, the hard numbers financially, if you get more serious about what you’re doing from a mental health standpoint, maybe in the beginning, it might have a cost. In the long term, [it is] a huge return on investment. … Just get started, and you’ll be amazed at the returns, both emotionally and, frankly, business-wise,” Milenthal said.

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