Burning out isn’t cool

The advertising industry needs a mental health check.

I’ve always been fascinated — and slightly irritated — by “hustle culture.”

Early in my career, I’d feel both insecure and disdainful when friends would brag about late nights at the office, or show up for happy hour drinks well after happy hour was over, frazzled but oozing with a hint of pride for putting in a 12-hour workday.

I’ve always been a diligent worker, so it was curious to me that my peers seemed to be putting in so much more time and effort. Was I not working hard enough?

As I got older, and started developing my BS meter as a journalist, “hustle culture” began to reveal itself for what it really was: a blatant disregard for mental health and work-life balance.

I’ve been lucky in my career to have a flexible work schedule even before COVID-19, when working from home was simply not a thing. People would ask me all the time if I was actually working while I “worked” from home, to which I would respond by laughing and probably over-compensating.

Now, after a year of working from home, it’s abundantly clear how long hours, hard work, and yes, stress and burnout, can exist at the home office, just as it can in the physical office.

As we re-emerge from this pandemic and, hopefully, into a better way of working, it's time for companies to leave the “hustle culture” narrative in the before times and invest in employee mental health. And no, I don’t just mean by sending everyone a Seamless gift card and putting a mandatory Zoom happy hour on the calendar.

If anything can make this country wake up to our mental health crisis, it’s a year in homebound isolation, thanks to a global pandemic that’s claimed more than 3 million lives.

More than three out of four Americans attribute their stress to COVID-19, according to The American Psychological Association. For people with uncomfortable or dangerous living situations, it’s even worse. COVID is the real-life premise of a sci-fi novel that will be bankrolling America's therapy industry for the foreseeable future.

But, COVID aside, most Americas report stress as a result of work. According to the American Institute of Stress (AIS), 83% of U.S. adults suffer from work-related stress, which kills 120 million Americans every year and costs $190 billion in annual healthcare expenses.

Now the stigma is finally softening around mental health in the workplace — hello, my name is Alison and I have anxiety like millions of other millennials — it’s time for companies to acknowledge it in their benefits packages. And yes, that means more than just offering a subscription to Headspace.

Mental health treatment, which is often not covered by insurance, is inaccessibly expensive for so many people. Employers can help by looking for more comprehensive health insurance plans that include counseling and therapy, or even by bringing resources in-house that support employees. Or, they can invest in an Employee Assistance Program to offer free counseling and support.

Sounds too expensive? Workplace stress, which can lead to mental as well as physical illness, costs U.S businesses $300 billion annually, according to IAS. Seems like it's worth the investment.

When I interview leadership in this industry, I always ask what they are most focused on, most concerned about, what keeps them up at night. Almost always, they say talent. Without happy talent, you don’t have good work. Without good work, you don’t have happy clients. Without happy clients...we know where that leads.

The ad industry, infamous for falling prey to hustle culture’s traps, has an opportunity in front of it to return to the office in a much different way. It’s an opportunity to be intentional about what we demand of our employees.

Let’s go back to the office, but let’s make it normal to leave by 6pm. Let’s work back up to business trips, but not ask our executives to be on the road for months on end. Let’s not shame people for wanting to get home to their families, or to cook a nice dinner, or feed their dog, or work out, or simply REST.

We’re re-entering a much different world from the one we left, and the younger generation of talent entering the workforce isn’t going to have as much tolerance for burning out.

The choice is simple: invest in your employees’ mental health, or watch them burn out and walk away.

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