Work/life balance: Is media getting the balance right?

The media industry is renowned for its "work hard, play hard" philosophy. But is burning the candle at both ends sustainable and can a career in media seriously damage not only your liver, but also your long-term wellbeing?

Media is known for being a "work hard, play hard" industry, where late-night pitch preparations and hard-nosed negotiations over ad space go hand in hand with a relentless round of boozy lunches, after-work drinks and corporate entertainment.

And, with the recession creating almost daily announcements of further redundancies and cutbacks, the pressure to perform has never been greater. Many media employees, fearful of their job security, are putting in extra hours in an already overloaded schedule.

Andrew Barnett, managing director of taxi advertising specialist Ubiquitous, believes it has become much tougher to achieve any kind of work/life balance over the past 30 years and says he is working harder than ever. "You're now expected to put in longer hours, get in early and leave late," he says.

"The industry is more competitive and more corporate. It can't be healthy, but, sadly, we are in a dog-eat-dog environment and it's all about survival of the fittest."

Health writer Jane Alexander, author of self-help guide The Overload Solution, urges media professionals to get their lives in balance or suffer the consequences.

"The media industry has an appalling record for overload," she says. "It has an inbuilt culture of presenteeism and perfection. You are expected to work hard and party hard, permanently showing a bright and cheery face to the entire world."

This behaviour, Alexander argues, takes its toll on media professionals and the damage is "much greater and more dangerous than people think". She points to "frightening numbers of people" who experience burnout, depression, anxiety, despair, mental and physical breakdown and even suicide.

"It's estimated that up to 90% of visits to the GP are the results of the effects of stress," she says. "Chronic stress is now a global epidemic linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents caused by overtiredness or stress, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide."

Besides these conditions, stress is also responsible for a huge array of physical and psychological problems, from irritable bowl syndrome to insomnia.

Although there are no official statistics about how many media professionals are affected by stress, calls to industry helpline NABS have risen by more than 50% in 2008.

NABS senior support worker Nicky Harris attests that many callers talk about their struggle to manage their workload and the pressures of their role, as well as their reluctance to approach line managers in case they are perceived as weak.

"We don't record specific calls under the category of ‘stress', but a proportion of the people calling the NABS Helpline with concerns such as redundancy or salary queries will frequently discuss how they work weekends and long hours," she says. "We have also had calls asking for guidance around the working time directives, with regards to the hours that media professionals are spending  in the office."

The helpline has also seen a rise in calls regarding maternity and flexible working over the past three years - up from 4% of total inquiries in 2006  to 7.5% in 2008 - indicating that callers are more aware of their rights to reduced hours in order to create a good work/life balance. Last year, NABS supported hundreds of individuals financially, with support varying from one-off emergency grants to longer-term regular assistance.

"We have noticed our pivotal position in these uncertain times," says Harris. "Two in three of NABS beneficiaries are aged between 25 and 65, so they are of prime working age. These are people who have encountered very difficult times. They may already be reliant on state benefits and, in many cases, are suffering serious health problems."

Numerous research studies show that extra hours do not correlate to increased productivity, but even the most senior media professionals struggle to strike a work/life balance.

Former Starcom MediaVest chief executive Linda Smith, for example, stepped down from her role in July to spend more time with her family, particularly her husband, who is unwell. She claims she couldn't see a way to satisfy both family and work demands.

"The more you work in the industry, the more you become involved in everything that surrounds it," she says. "The social side is actually a core part of the job - they are interlinked. If you don't attend social events, you struggle a bit with your profile and that certainly goes against you. For me, balancing work and family was something I found harder and harder to control."

Thinkbox chief executive Tess Alps agrees: "Media is not a nine-to-five career and if you expect that, then you need to go and work in accounting."

But it's not all doom and gloom. Mike Emmett, adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is much less concerned than Jane Alexander about media's "work hard, play hard" philosophy. He believes the social side of the industry actually provides a valuable outlet for stress, as long as media workers are able to enjoy themselves.

However, he agrees there is no point working away at your desk until the small hours. "To me, ‘play' indicates there is a balance - it implies enthusiasm," he says. "The vulnerable employees are those who are working defensively, who feel out of control and who are fearing for their jobs. If you're feeling pressured, you are better off going to the pub with your colleagues than staying glued to your desk."

Media Week presents three "Days in the Life" of hard-working media professionals, and Mark Millard, founder of consultancy Wellbeing Wizard, analyses how successfully they are striking a work/life balance

Chris Forrester
Head of sales, CBS Outdoor
06.00: Alarm goes off. Feel tired after staying in a bar with clients for a lot longer than I'd planned. Remember I have a breakfast meeting, so reset the alarm for 06.30.
08.30: Meet two agency heads for breakfast. The restaurant is full of media people - is breakfast the new lunch?
10.30: Over to another media agency to meet a board director.
12.00: Internal managers meeting to analyse the week's progress.
12.30: Call a client on the way to the Tube to check plans for 2009 and the likelihood of the deal that's being discussed.
13.00: Lunch at Westfield shopping centre with a senior planner, then set off to take a client on a site tour. Read notes on the way.
14.30: Arrive at London Bridge to start the tour. The campaign is a great mix of traditional sites and cross-projection (XTP), LCD digital screens and digital escalator panels (DEPs). Finish the tour in Westfield looking at the final part of the client's campaign. With Westfield's new digital panels, the creative looks strong, a great end to the tour. Westfield is packed - when do people work and what happened to the credit crunch?
18.00: Back to the Camden office to prepare for the following day's meeting. Decide to give kickboxing a miss and see some friends instead.
20.00: Finally make it to meet friends. Remember I have another breakfast meeting tomorrow, so quickly decide to spend the extra half-hour with friends rather than in bed.
02.30: Wake to find my daughter Izzy (aged five) is being ill. Take care of her and take her back to bed.

Mark says...
Work dominates Chris' life and there is far less juggling than in the other two diaries. Other parts of life fit around work and work time expands into non-work, meaning that distinctions are more blurred - for example, breakfast meetings. Could he be missing out?
Work/life rating: "Work is a major part of my life"

Nicky Owen
Communications planning director, Team Unilever, Mindshare
06.30: Wake up to radio and baby son wailing.
06.45: Feed son, cats and self, at the same time as having a catch-up with husband.
07.00: Shower, do washing and load dishwasher. Dress son and secure in buggy.
08.00: Powerwalk with buggy, usually singing rhymes or pointing out in a vague attempt to be an educational influence.
08.20: Deposit son at nursery for the day and walk to train station.
08.25: Check BlackBerry while waiting. Skim Metro.
08.55: Arrive at work, plough through e-mails, make "to do" list.
10.00 to 12.30: Internal meetings, then back at my desk to open yet more e-mails.
12.30: Drink soup at desk. Check Hotmail and Facebook to sort weekend social arrangements.
13.30: Finalise presentation and take a cab to see clients. Run through one of the projects for a couple of hours.
15.45: Back at desk to find a raft of new e-mails from the US. Return a couple of client calls and then do a few more slides that must be drafted and sent out before the end of the day.
17.00: Make sure have printed out a couple of documents and load onto USB stick, before rushing out to collect son at nursery. Read thelondonpaper and London Lite on train.
18.00: Unload washing and dishwasher, feed cats and start dinner while son plays, and then sit down with him and play.
18.30: Bath, bottle, then bed for son, with a rather tuneless lullaby that could well induce nightmares rather than deep sleep.
19.00: Cook dinner, have a glass of wine and chat with husband.
20.00: Check BlackBerry again. Read through documents and make notes for the following day's presentation.
21.00: Call a friend or family for a catch-up, then watch something from the planner on Sky+.
22.30: Read in bed. Sleep.

Mark says...
Nicky aims to fulfil a wide range of roles and responsibilities, particularly non-work tasks. She's actively juggling to get the work/life balance the way she wants it to be. However, can she keep all the balls in the air?
Work/life rating: "Work is one part of my life"

Sam Phillips
New business and marketing director, Omnicom Media Group UK
06.30: Get up or am woken up by my two boys.
06.30-07.50: Fly around the house trying to get the boys washed, dressed, fed and ready for school. Sometimes I have the chance to read the paper over breakfast.
08.00-08.40: Take the boys to school, which I only do when my husband, a teacher, is working.
08.40: Drop the car off at home and take the train to work, which takes about an hour and a half. Have my BlackBerry with me to keep up with what's going on.
10.00: Arrive at the office. Start by reviewing the pitches we're involved in - usually quite a lot as my job scans the whole of Omnicom Media Group - and see who needs help.
10.30-11.30: I usually have a meeting with at least one of my pitch team in the group, such as OMD, PHD or Rocket.
11.30: Return and make calls to contacts such as the AAR or journalists.
12.30: Oversee a meeting on our revised credentials for pitching.
12.30-13.00: Liaise with my international contacts.
13.00-14.30: Business lunch with clients.
14.30-16.00: Work on one of our pitches, quite often as one of the pitch team.
16.00-18.30: Follow up new business leads, keep reporting systems up to date and make more international calls to keep up to speed with our deals on the network level.
18.30-19.00: Go home.
20.00-20.30: Kids are in bed. Have dinner with my husband.
21.30: May do a bit of paperwork.
23.00: Bed.

Mark says...
Sam has an organised and consistent approach to both work and non-work, but with less juggling than Nicky, and she uses a similar approach for both work and home life commitments. But she is very matter of fact, almost businesslike, with her home commitments - is there a chance she may regret this approach later on in life?
Work/life rating: "Work and life are largely equivalent"


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