We may be breaking the stigma, but we still need to fix the system

Credit: Anthony Tran
Credit: Anthony Tran

Have we really made much progress in supporting or addressing the actual mental health of our colleagues and employees?

Self-care. Mindfulness. Meditation. Resilience. Empathy. Yoga. Flexible schedules. Over the last few years, these mental health “buzzwords” have finally become part of our workplace vernacular. 

While some agencies were early adopters, others began offering mental health benefits more consistently in 2020 — largely thanks to the pandemic blurring the lines between work and home even more than before. Leaders recognized that they needed to do SOMETHING to help mitigate the compounding stress...even if they weren’t sure exactly what. 

The increased access to resources, such as subscriptions to Headspace or Wednesday afternoon yoga, seems to have made a significant impact in breaking down stigmas and sparking conversations surrounding stress, burnout and overwhelm. But before we all start congratulating ourselves, we need to pause for a reality check.

Our industry thrives on talk. We excel at highlighting the positive while quietly ignoring, or “reframing,” the negative. It’s literally how we make our money. So while we put on a good show about mental health, have we really made much progress in supporting or addressing the actual mental health of our colleagues and employees?

Through a ton of research, personal experience and candid conversations, I have identified five challenges that still stand in the way of the industry more holistically, and responsibly, approaching mental health — and it’s going to take a lot more than talk to fix them.

Challenge 1: Many agencies view Mental health resources as a “perk.” 

Happy hours! Yoga! Free beer Fridays! Perks are fun, and they can boost morale. But they’re still positioned as “options” or “extras,” and are often provided without an organizational goal of achieving a specific outcome. Essentially, they’re checking a box.

A 2020 study by Australian mental health organizations asked advertising folks what the most important element to improve mental health in their workplaces would be. At the top of the list were things like empathetic leaders and clear objectives. At the bottom of the list? “Perks.” 

When agencies approach mental health resources like a bonus, it signals that leadership  sees emotional wellness as trendy, transactional and optional — and ultimately, expendable. 

Solution: Integrate mental health into the core of your operations. 

Think of mental health the same as other operational resources, such as project management tools, leadership training or timesheet entry systems. Put the same systems in place to ensure employees are not only aware of these tools, but continually encouraged to engage with them, and recognized for doing so. 

Involve your staff by allowing them to shape your company’s mental health support systems, rather than handing them down from HR. Invite employees to collaborate on identifying what mental health programs would be most beneficial for them. Send quarterly surveys to gauge participation and well-being, and to improve services and communication. 

Challenge #2: We’re offering emotional support…in isolation 

When an agency offers resources without support, it puts the responsibility entirely on employees to seek them out. And oftentimes, feeling like you have to solve things by yourself only makes them worse. 

Solution: Establish safe spaces. 

Just like achieving physical health takes doctors, nutritionists and trainers, mental health requires a support system, too. We can’t expect employees to thrive in a vacuum, no matter how many resources we put on the table. 

When the world locked down, I hosted weekly “Empathy and Space” sessions for employees craving connection. They didn’t have to be experiencing anything specific, and they didn't need to say a word if they didn't want to. It was simply a place to feel seen, be acknowledged, connect — and know that others were struggling, too. 

Our group formed wonderful bonds and gradually got more vulnerable with our feelings and challenges, because we knew there was no judgment. It’s why group therapy is used in so many recovery programs: connection and belonging are integral to our health.

Challenge #3: We’re approaching mental health resources as “checkbox” 

You wouldn’t walk someone to an airplane, hand them the keys, and tell them “It’s just like driving a car, you’ll figure it out!” But that’s what we’re doing when we provide employees with mental health resources, but no guidance on how to use them. 

When companies neglect the “training” part of “soft-skills training,” as with emotional and mental health, it becomes too easy to escape accountability and put the blame on the individual when they need help beyond what their manager or HR is comfortable addressing. And we all know that blame leads nowhere good. 

Solution: Require mental health training 

The same way agencies may offer regular hard-skills trainings on platforms, technologies or design methodologies, we need to make mental health training one of our required learning paths. This takes the pressure off of the individual to reach out, which can feel scary and vulnerable, and allows leadership to more easily spot when someone is struggling by creating opportunities for noticing, asking and listening. 

We must also be candid when leadership’s behavior actively contributes to employee stress. Just as a compassionate manager influences their employees’ well-being, so can a burned-out one. Invest in training for leadership, and reward them for being honest with their team about their own challenges. 

Challenge #4: We’re not addressing the root cause

While agencies have gotten better at providing resources to “alleviate” stress, how often does leadership stop to ask, “Why are my employees so stressed all the time to begin with?” 

Our industry is notorious for long hours, ridiculous deadlines, unreasonable expectations, blurred boundaries and dysfunctional client relationships. Not only is our culture flawed, but we’ve created a broken business model that’s designed to achieve financial results at the expense of employee well-being. Our problem is systemic, and we need to approach it that way if we’re going to create sustainable change.

There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in. ― Desmond Tutu

The solution: Redesign the system

Individual actions can’t create sweeping reform within a broken system. If agencies want to truly invest in mental health, we need to rethink the way we do business as a whole.

Some agencies have already started to say no to the traditional pitch process, which sets an unfair expectation that we’re eager to work long hours for free (not to mention deal with internal abuse). It’s a great start, but we can’t stop there.

Imagine if we all reset expectations with our clients from the get-go. Establishing realistic boundaries in our contracts — clearly noting business hours and restricting communications outside of that time frame; adding parameters for turnaround times to cut down on “last minute” fire-drills;’ or providing a copy of company holidays, so clients know that when we’re off, we’re OFF. 

This requires internal work, too. We can train account leads to better navigate difficult conversations with clients and diplomatically stand-up for their teammates.  We can create policies that emphasize the importance of personal time — for example, no email after 7pm, no Slack on weekends, meeting-free Fridays or heads-down work blocks. 

There are probably hundreds more small changes that can add up to a systemic shift. We just have to be willing to commit to them.

Challenge #5: Mental Health may be normalized, but Mental Illness is still stigmatized 

If you scroll back up to the top of this article, I would bet that none of those mental health buzzwords made you especially uncomfortable. 

But how about these? Depression. Anxiety. Eating Disorder. OCD. Addiction. Abuse. Alcoholism. Postpartum Depression. Bipolar disorder. Schizophrenia. 

While we may be breaking down stigmas around mental health, mental illness is still largely taboo. By only addressing the positive and preventative side, we’re completely ignoring the needs of people already in the thick of serious challenges. What does that say about their importance, their needs and their value?

According to Mental Health America, nearly 3 in 5 employees feel their employer does not provide a safe environment for people with mental illness. That’s more than HALF. We can’t simply ignore something we’re uncomfortable with and hope that it goes away. What will go away instead are incredible, wonderful, brilliant people who deserve far better than what they’re receiving. 

Solution: I don’t have one, but we need one FAST

Maybe it starts by adding words like “treatment,” “diagnosis” and “therapy’ to our dialogues, instead of just glossing them over with language about wellness, prevention and management. Maybe we can question why we consider taking cholesterol medication to be normal, but taking anti-anxiety medication to be taboo, or a sign of weakness. 

Or maybe it starts with something more this like this:

My name is Amy. I have two kids and a successful career. I practice mindfulness and meditation, and study empathy and self-compassion. I have also been taking anxiety and depression medication for the last two years. I am talking about it here so that you can feel comfortable talking about it, too. But I am not broken. The system is. And we — the ones who work in this wonderful yet dysfunctional industry every day — are the only ones who can change it.

Resources and training:

Mental Health organizations:

Amy Small is SVP of Creative and Brand at Media Cause.


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