The mentally-healthy report started in 2018. It was a hunch off of industry conversations relating to burnout, time off work, stories of not knowing how to cope, and whether it will always be like this.
Rather than be guided by hearsay, Never Not Creative, Unltd and Everymind joined forces back then to quantify the size of the challenge. Fast forward to 2022, and we’ve now completed three surveys of the creative, media, and marketing industries, with almost 5,000 responses and over 200,000 data points.
Every wave, we get deeper and deeper into understanding how we’re dealing with our mental health, attitudes towards the relationships we have, and what levers we can pull to make improvements across our industry.
NOT INTO READING? WATCH THE RESULTS PRESENTATION HERE.
1. Our attitudes towards mental ill-health are improving. We’re more likely to disagree that people who disclose a diagnosis of depression will be treated differently.
However, that doesn’t translate into having the confidence to speak up ourselves. We’re no more likely to speak up about a diagnosis than in 2020.
2. A gap appears in the overall mental well-being of respondents from media agencies vs creative agencies (creative agencies include advertising, full-service, design, and production). Media agency respondents appear mentally healthier, and their workplaces are generally seen to be more effective in addressing mental health than their creative counterparts.
3. We need to watch out for the younger people in our industry more than ever. They have the best stigma levels, but those under 29 are more likely to show signs of depression than respondents over 40.
4. Workplaces that are perceived to put profit before people are also more likely to have employees that display signs of mental ill-health and who are reporting negative experiences at work.
5. The concept of ‘tolerable demands’ defined by the SMART WORK framework developed at Curtin University has a strong negative correlation with mental ill-health across respondents.
6. We have a clearer idea than ever before of the signals, signs, experiences, and solutions that can make a difference in the mental well-being of people in our industry. From more empathetic leaders to appropriate structure and resources and support in making the demands of our jobs tolerable, we also found a high correlation between signing the Mentally-Healthy Minimum Standards and a perception of a more effective approach to mental well-being by employers.
One of the most promising findings from this latest wave of research was that our mental well-being seemed to have improved. The Mentally-Healthy study uses the Depression Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS) to measure anxiety, depression, and stress levels. For the first time since we started this mission into understanding mental health, we found that just under half of respondents showed mild to Extremely severe signs of anxiety and depression. In the previous two waves, this was more than half. We still see approximately a third of respondents displaying moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression, but these symptoms are now more moderate than severe.
Interestingly, when asked to rate their levels of mental health (out of 10), the respondents' self-rating closely correlated with their levels on the DASS.
We conducted a regression analysis to investigate whether any groups faired better or worse. For the first time, we found a gap opening up between media agencies and creative agencies. People in creative agencies were almost twice as likely to show moderate to severe symptoms of depression vs media agencies. We had looked for this difference in previous studies, but that was never observed. It accompanied a hypothesis that there may be a difference between the agency and client sides. While some minor differences can be seen, none can be said to be significant, like the one between creative and media agencies.
Another significant finding from the regression analysis showed respondents under 29 to be 1.5x more likely to show signs of depression than respondents over 40.
What is driving such significant differences?
From a creative vs media perspective, we have several hypotheses. These are put forward from verbatim responses in the study and discussions with industry peers.
1. There is seen to be comparatively more stability in the retained nature of contracts in the media agency business than the project/retainer plus nature of creative businesses. The quantity of work may be more likely to be known ahead of time, and while the work may be a little less stimulating, there is greater clarity on what is to be achieved. Creative businesses may try to plan and sell services based on time (how long it is likely to take to deliver a piece of work against a brief), but that can change dramatically once the work has started, depending on the success of the team working the brief. This can result in wildly different realities versus the intended plan.
2. As an industry, the media agency governing body (the Media Federation of Australia - MFA) is actively working with members to improve mental well-being and defining the media agency world as a safe, rewarding world to work in. They also actively focus on softer skills, resilience, and career building for individuals under 30 through their nGen program. The Advertising Council Australia (ACA) and the Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA) have more recently begun to make mental health a priority. Promisingly, the ACA’s Create Space action plan has a pillar dedicated to mental well-being and strongly encourages employers to sign the Mentally-Healthy Minimum Standards and train their employees in Mental Health First Aid.
3. A significant talent shortage across the entire industry places pressure on teams trying to deliver on work commitments to clients while, in some cases operating at 50% of the resource needed (and indeed paid for). This seems to be impacting the creative industry harder as deadlines are not easing, and the production of ‘creative’ can not be compromised.
4. Many experts agree that the creative agency business model is under severe pressure. It has been for many years. Most likely, since creative agencies stopped being able to negotiate deals where their fee was a percentage of a client’s total marketing or advertising spend. Now work is more fragmented, specialist agencies are eating into traditional agency share of budgets, and the economies of scale are fast disappearing. Agency veterans and leaders will nod and say there’s nothing new here. They’ve been told it for many years. It’s hurt business, but there have been other ways to protect or accept reducing margins. But now, there is another effect. The health of the people in our industry. Not just the health of our profit margins.
5. Creative agencies appear to be making mental well-being a different level of priority than their media agency counterparts. And when they do, their programs, initiatives, or course of action are less effective, according to participants.
The stressors in 2022 were almost identical in type and significance to previous waves.
Number 1 - the pressure we place on ourselves to perform. Our industry is packed with dedication and perfectionism, so we often see our work’s output as a reflection of our personal worth. By all accounts, the ‘quiet quitting’ trend that seems to be flooding through other knowledge worker-based industries doesn’t appear to have lapped up against the shores of the creative, media, and marketing beaches. Our dedication to our craft and our expectation that what we do can and does have a significant impact out in the world drives us on.
At least, that’s what we’re helped to believe.
In a recent conversation, this finding about the pressure of our own expectations was relayed as an excuse for a business not to help an employee grappling with stress and their mental health. The pressure of this employee's expectation was used to express that they were the problem and that they need to ‘step back a little’ and perhaps they ‘can’t handle the pressure that comes with their role.’
By now, as you read this, I hope that you’re shaking your head in disbelief. That is most definitely not the out-take of this observation. It is up to businesses, leaders, and managers to support and safeguard against this situation. For the cultures we’ve created, the expectations that we lightly reinforce through awards, pitch wins, and internal rewards and promotions enforce the immense personal pressure resulting from constantly trying to be our 100% best.
Of course, pressure from others (clients, leaders, managers, and peers) closely follows. A more direct pressure that can be communicated through multiple means, channels of communication, and formal / informal meetings and discussions.
Multiple responsibilities, unrealistic expectations, and long hours all form a melting pot of stress that can sometimes lead to a feeling of no way out… unless that way out is out of the job or even out of the industry.
All of the above relate to the ‘job’ we are asked to do. Right now, the design of that job seems inherently flawed. Indeed, when was the last time we evaluated how the job was done in the face of a drastically changed / changing type of work to be delivered?
We observed many comments about toxic relationships and unreasonable demands between clients and agencies and, in turn, agencies and their people.
We also found that on every measure of stress that we asked participants to respond to, the group reporting to be from creative, design, and production businesses reported higher levels of stress than those in media agencies, media owners, or client-side marketers.
Sleep, a significant driver of good mental health (when we get enough), had improved between the 2020 and 2022 waves of research. The Sleep Health Foundation recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep for adults a night. 64% of respondents claimed to be getting a good night’s sleep.
However, we found a difference between male and female respondents. 43% of male respondents were getting less than the recommended hours of sleep per night, which was higher than 32% of female respondents.
While we saw positive gains in levels of mental well-being regarding anxiety and depression overall, there are also still alarming signs of the effects our jobs may have on our health.
80% of respondents agreed that they often take their job home with them, with 69% agreeing that their job tends to directly affect their health. With their job keeping them awake at night, approximately two-thirds can’t switch off and agree that they ‘work under a great deal of tension.’
In the recurring media vs creative divide, this escalates to almost 4 out of 5 creative agency participants agreeing their job affects their health and nearly 3 out of 4 agreeing that work keeps them awake at night. These are not healthy levels for any industry, especially one like ours, where the largest muscles we have to flex daily are our minds.
On the flip side, there’s a reason that we’re all here. This industry is stimulating, has opportunities to progress in our careers, and on the whole (when it’s not about the work), it’s a generally and genuinely supportive environment. We’re satisfied with the physical environments we work in and the people we work with, and we believe that the businesses we work for have good opportunities on the horizon.
The work we do is stimulating (based on the SMART WORK framework developed by the Future of Work Institute out of Curtin University in WA) and closely matches our desires to be challenged – but we’ll return to this later in the report.
Indeed, we also saw encouraging signs for mental well-being as we gauged the effect of the pandemic. 70% of respondents believed that leaders had handled the pandemic to the best of their ability, and 63% agreed that empathy had become a more appreciated skill in their workplace culture over the last 12-24 months.
In 2021, the Advertising Council of Australia conducted an industry census called Create Space. While the study’s main focus was to better understand the diversity, equity, and inclusion of the advertising industry, the depth of the research included a look at cultural norms and attitudes affecting inclusion and belonging. With ACA’s permission, Mentally-Healthy 2022 replicated some of these questions to dig deeper into micro-aggressions and how they affected our mental health.
Firstly, the responses were, in many cases, identical, which gave us the confidence to dig deeper. We also found that nearly half of respondents claimed to have been interrupted or not listened to in meetings, 30% reported feeling undervalued compared to colleagues of equal competence, and 1 in 4 believed their managers were restricting their career progression and that they’d witnessed other people taking sole credibility for shared efforts. However, our study covered a wider industry cohort than just advertising (or creative) agencies. When we again compared media and creative, the results were consistently worse. Perhaps most alarmingly, 26% of creative agency respondents felt that they had been bullied or undermined somehow.
Interestingly, when we compared perceptions of how effective respondents believed their businesses were in addressing mental health, we found a strong correlation between higher effectiveness and significantly reduced experiences of micro-aggressions in their culture. For example, being interrupted or not listened to in meetings fell to 31% (vs 45%), feeling undervalued was halved to 15%, and being bullied or undermined dropped to just under 7%.
Healthier cultures, behaviours, attitudes, opportunities, and support were strongly aligned with employes’ perception of a more effective approach to mental well-being.
When we first started the Mentally-Healthy Change Group, our primary goal was to ‘smash the stigma of mental health in our industry.’ The 2022 study confirms that we’re continuing to make great strides toward achieving this. Between 2020 and 2022, we saw a 24% increase in disagreement with the statement, “People in my industry would be treated poorly if they were to disclose they had been diagnosed with a mental illness.” This improved from 32% in 2018, 39% in 2020, and 49% in 2022. While we can’t take all the credit (Societal attitudes toward mental health have also been improving), it’s comforting to know that we’re making a dent in the stigma issue. This year, the Australian government’s National Mental Health Commission recognised Mentally-Healthy and the work that Never Not Creative and Unltd have been doing as 1 of a handful of successful industry-specific case studies on addressing mental health in workplaces.
Of course, we don’t get to pat ourselves on the back, turn around with a smug grin and proclaim our job is done. There’s a further step that we need to address. While we all seem open to others being vulnerable and disclosing their challenges, we’re not yet as willing to take that step ourselves. When specifically asked, “in my industry, I would not tell anyone if I had been diagnosed with depression,” only 36% disagreed, while 39% answered ‘agree’.
We’ve shone a very bright and intense spotlight on mental health in the last few years. We’re more aware of it and even more educated about our own mental well-being (69% of respondents believe they could recognise if they had a mental health problem). Still, we don’t think that our personal perceptions will be matched by the reactions of our managers or peers. From verbatim as well as experience from our Asking For A Friend initiative (a monthly event where anyone can ask questions to an industry leader and a psychologist anonymously), we’ve found that when some people have chosen to speak up, they’re perhaps not matched by a manager who knows how to deal with the conversation. In this respect, extending the opportunities for all managers or employees in general to get access to Mental Health First Aid training is an excellent way to train people to listen, validate and point colleagues in the right direction for the correct type of support. The response, “Well, you either suck it up or perhaps find another industry if this doesn’t feel right for you”, is no longer morally or legally acceptable.
This change and progress grows in importance when it comes to the younger people in our industry. 66% of under-25’s disagreed that people would be treated poorly (even better than the average). Still, when it came to themselves, 52% agreed that they wouldn’t tell anyone if they had a diagnosis of depression.
There are a couple of hypotheses relating to this finding. Firstly, it appears that the confidence to speak up improves with age and experience. While 26% of those under 25’s disagreed that they wouldn’t tell anyone, this improved to 36% at 25-34 and 40% at 35-44. It seems a little easier or perhaps expected to disclose mental ill-health once you’ve got some wins under your belt or are closer to the top of the ladder.
Secondly, the younger people entering our industry have grown up with a much more positive mental well-being culture throughout their education, and peer groups than older members of the industry will have done. Schools and universities now teach a ‘growth mindset’ and resilience and have dedicated counsellors on staff. Very little (if any) of this was present more than ten years ago. So when graduates and school leavers enter our industry, and workplaces do not have the same attitudes, support, and services, is it any surprise that they close up?
In further analysis, we again found a gap between media and creative agencies. Only 16% of media agency respondents agreed that someone would be treated differently, while this more than doubled (34%) for creative agency respondents.
After friends and family, our first port of call in seeking help with our mental health are colleagues, bosses, and peers in the industry. Respondents were as likely to consult a boss, colleague, or peer as a GP (47%). Almost a third of respondents had seen a psychologist in the last 12 months.
The levels of help-seeking are encouraging (even if they haven’t moved significantly between 2020 and 2022). When digging deeper, though, we found worrying, although not totally surprising, differences between male and female respondents. Across the range of help-seeking solutions, men were less likely to reach out for support.
The masculine norms appear to be alive and kicking, and when we analysed further, we found that the top reasons for not seeking help were, “If I ignore it, it will go away”, “I’m ashamed”, and “I can’t afford it.” When comparing with women, the reasons were similar, apart from one. Women were much more likely to say they wouldn’t seek support because they couldn’t take the time away from other commitments.
This study wave saw evidence of employers beginning to step up in addressing the challenges of mental ill-health in their businesses. In a significant improvement, we observed a 33% increase in respondents believing that companies are making mental health a medium-high priority and an almost identical increase in the perception of the effectiveness of their strategies.
There’s still room for improvement, of course. The scores for priority are some way from matching the ratings for effectiveness, but the signs are heartening. Other watch-outs in the data included leaders ranking their businesses as 51% more effective in their mental health strategies than employees and media agencies, who were rated as 72% more effective than respondents in creative agencies.
Can we explain the gaps between priority and effectiveness, leaders and employees? Well, one of the most telling findings we observed came from the question, “Which of the below are most important to you in terms of improving your mental well-being at work?”
This observation continues to shine a light on the path to a solution that has been staring us in the face if we just ran our businesses responsibly. The mental-health checklist isn’t going to make a dent in this problem we’re tackling. Posters, yoga Thursdays, mindfulness sessions, healthy food and snacks, and an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) do not dig us out of the hole. They probably won’t make things worse, but they’re more likely the equivalent of passing a Kleenex to someone with pneumonia.
No, the overwhelming and majority response came in the form of how we are set up to do THE WORK. ore than 90% of respondents agreed that if we're going to make a difference to mental well-being, then our workplaces would…
- Develop more empathetic and educated leaders
- Hire and develop leaders who lead by example
- Provide flexible working conditionsAllocate appropriate structure and resources, and
- Communicate clear objectives to employees
We’re crying out for workplaces that understand it’s the people who do the work, and we need to let them do their work in the most conducive environments. Again (if it didn’t sink in beforehand), the best way to improve mental well-being is to take a serious look at how the work is done and the relationships involved in getting it done.
This is further reinforced by existing research. One framework, the SMART WORK framework, the result of a research review by The Centre For Transformative Work Design at Curtin University, looks at how good work and role design can lead to healthier, happier workplace cultures that prevent harm, enhance well-being, and allow their employees to thrive.
In a nutshell (and you can read more here), the framework consists of 5 key pillars that can affect someone’s ability to thrive (or not) at work.
Stimulating - the extent to which a job involves skill variety, task variety, and problem-solving demands.
Mastery - the degree to which your job provides role clarity, feedback, and task identity.
Agency - the extent to which you can organise your own schedule, choose the methods to achieve your work goals and the freedom you have to make judgements and decisions.
Relational - the extent to which an individual experiences a sense of support, purpose, and social contact in their role.
Tolerable Demands - the extent to which a job involves time pressure, emotional demands, and role conflict.
To investigate their effect on the creative, media, and marketing industry respondents, we asked two questions (while also explaining the framework as part of the exercise).
1. Which of the below do you believe is most important in being able to manage your mental health at work?
2. And how well does your current workplace deliver on your needs relating to the SMART Work framework?
Regarding importance, relational support (83% essential or very important) and tolerable demands (78%) were the top 2, closely followed by mastery, agency, and stimulating. While there is no direct evidence, an inference here is that ‘stimulating’ is arguably built into the industry and so less desired, given it’s a table stake for the type of work.
We found significant gaps when comparing whether current experience in their role matched the importance they reported. We also all but confirmed our inference about stimulating work as 58% of respondents agreed that they experienced ‘stimulating’ either 100% or very well, in comparison with 64% placing it as essential or very important.
More importantly, the gaps we found were most prominent in the ‘tolerable demands’ pillar. Only 33% of respondents agreed that their experience was 100% or Very Well (vs 78% importance), and 35% claimed they experienced tolerable demands somewhat or not at all. While relational support and agency fared slightly better, mastery was the other gap (77% importance vs 40% experience).
The take-out? Design roles, job processes, work methodologies, and manager-employee relationships that have clarity around tasks and objectives and give people the right amount of time and emotional pressures to allow them to achieve their goals. Sounds pretty obvious when you put it like that. And not a mental health checklist in sight!
The numbers were accentuated when looking at respondents with moderate to very severe anxiety. 51% reported a poor experience with tolerable demands vs 28% with only low / mild anxiety. Mastery displayed a similar correlation (40% vs 23%).
Our final creative vs. media investigation also highlighted significant gaps in this area. 24% of creative agency respondents experienced positive tolerable demand vs the 81% who had underscored its importance. Agency and relational support were also clearly better experienced in media agencies (60% and 52%, respectively, vs 50% and 38% in creative agencies).
After this review of the data and comparative studies, we arrive at a pretty solid conclusion. We must fix the systems, the ways of working, the relationships, and the managerial capacity (to be a good manager) to ensure that our industry can do the work it craves and is more than capable of. Work that can and has solved many problems across the world.
Of course, it would be remiss to discard the other half of the industry who showed signs of being mentally healthy. We can learn a lot from them.
The people who rated their mental health as a 8-10 on a scale of 10 (which, by the way, mirrored the DASS scores very closely) were much more likely to… get a good night’s sleep, not work when sick, not take their job home with them, experience a strong sense of support at work, were given the opportunity and resources to work flexibly, be given opportunities to learn and progress in their career and be sponsored or championed by a senior colleague to succeed. In nearly every case, those with more positive levels of mental well-being were half as likely to experience the micro-aggressions mentioned earlier in this report. Less likely to be interrupted, less likely to see someone else take credit for their work, and less likely to be bullied or undermined.
Again, this finding is a giant clue to what we can do to improve mental well-being in our teams and workplaces. Treat people with respect, include them, accept them, and work to support them, not control or undermine them.
There is no silver bullet in making significant shifts in the mental well-being of the people in our industry. However, many signals point to the type of sentiment, communication, tone, and culture aligned with a mentally-healthier workplace.
Our analysis found a strong correlation between lower levels of mental well-being and a belief that a respondent’s workplace prioritised profit over people (and vice versa). This correlated further with the attitudes and behaviours experienced by people at work. Significant differences were observed between profit first and people first when it came to being interrupted in meetings, having opportunities restricted by a manager, feeling undervalued compared to colleagues… and more.
But if leaders needed one more straw to break the back of the argument, it’s that only 17% of employees who believed their business put people first are likely to leave in the next 12 months, compared to their peers who thought it was all about the money (44%).
A further signal was evident in participants who recalled that their workplace had signed the Mentally-Healthy Minimum Standards. A caveat – signing the standards does not make your business mentally healthy. I didn’t really have to say that, right? We have found that most companies who have signed the standards also have a clearly defined and communicated approach to their mental well-being strategy. They will put other policies in place, train leaders and managers in mental health first aid, and add additional mental well-being days to leave. As explained before, not necessarily making inroads into the problem, but certainly doing a better job managing it.
While the Minimum Standards are not an aspirational strategy for better mental health at work, they are a clear explanation and guide to a line that (with new psychosocial hazard legislation here / incoming) faces the consequences for being crossed.
Founder, Never Not Creative
After every wave of Mentally-Healthy research, the findings have informed our initiatives in the subsequent year. In 2019 we launched the Minimum Standards and Asking For A Friend, along with supporting free Mental Health First Aid training and publications sharing leaders’ lived experiences with mental ill-health. In 2021 we curiously set about unpacking empathy after finding that was what respondents wished for from their leaders. Our work has now also been recognised by the Australian Governement's National Mental Health Commission as a case study on industry initiatives addressing mental health.
In 2023 we’re aiming to kick-start two main initiatives.
Our mentally-healthy change group will begin interviews with agency leaders and teams in 2023 to better understand the systems from a perspective of why we do the work, how we work, whom we work for, how we’re rewarded for the work, and whom we work with.
This work would not be possible without the volunteers who help make it happen. Nina Nyman and Kate Holland from our best buds UnLtd, Andy Wright from Never Not Creative, Ross Tynan from NSW Health / the University of Newcastle, our Mentally Healthy Change Group crew Emilie Tan and Catherine Ross, and our friends and partners in inputting to and promoting the survey, Advertising Council Australia, AGDA, MFA, AANA, The Marketing Academy, IAB IMAA. And all of our collaborators over the last four years. We’ll be back in 2024 with more.