Dear Digital PR Industry, We Need to Talk About Burnout
We’ve all seen it.
If Twitter is anything like real life, it’s clear that we’re working too much.
Where are you at on the burnout scale?— J?EL (@joelstein) April 15, 2021
Not only that, we are also rewarding team members who work late nights and weekends with public shout-outs on their big wins.
And by doing this, we are making it clear to junior team members that they are expected to be always on.
I’m worried about this.
I’ve burned out both as an employee and as a boss, so I know how this ends.
Those non-stop late night ideas are not some sort of creative nirvana, but a symptom of your overloaded brain finding it impossible to disconnect.
That need to constantly share your latest link in public is no longer a joyful celebration, but a sigh of relief – you can relax a little now that you got that one link for your client after so much pivoting and chasing.
The end-of-week Friday feeling becomes a green light to drink as much as you know you deserve after the incredibly stressful week you just had.
Your free time turns into ‘the time when I’ll finally be able to catch up on all the to-dos I can never get done during the working week with all the deadlines, pitches, meetings and day-to-day tasks.’
Depending on your age, you will be able to run on empty for longer but eventually your body will catch up and your mind will refuse to keep going on like this.
This generalised appetite for unrealistic expectations needs to end or we’re going to make everyone sick.
Maybe it started out as a one off: You decided to work extra hours to come up with some ideas for an unexpected pitch, or you wanted to help a colleague with a slow campaign.
But then the pandemic hit.
All of a sudden it’s all-too easy to keep your laptop open while you are having dinner so you can send a couple more emails before bed. You know you should be grateful for this job in such an uncertain time so when your boss messages you after seeing you online, you are quick to reply.
And so it begins, the cycle of late nights and out-of-hours emails/Slack chats/last minute requests.
You look around and you’re not alone. Every time you check your Twitter, there’s a fellow digital PR sharing the latest big link they landed or writing a lengthy thread about the job.
The more you see your boss retweeting your colleagues’ big wins, the more you worry about the fact that you haven’t managed to turn around that campaign you just launched. It doesn’t help that the client is also on Twitter, sharing the links that your colleagues are getting with their campaigns.
And it doesn’t stop, not even during the weekend, not even during Christmas.
You set out an out-of-office reply on your last day but you cancelled it the following Monday when you finally faced up to the fact that you need to do more work. There is no giving up on that campaign, you have to find a way to hook it onto something – you need to meet that target.
You’ve seen what happened to that guy who didn’t meet his target, who didn’t come up with enough good ideas for that last minute pitch, who didn’t live up to the expectations set by the Account Manager who upsold the client before asking if what was promised was even possible.
Stress. You better tweet that you’re so incredibly lucky to work where you work, you better write a thread packed with great links you achieved in the last month, you better start looking for another job.
The other side of digital PR Twitter
After numerous discussions with people at different levels of seniority and from different teams, I believe it’s time someone addresses the elephant in the room:
Working non-stop has been established as a requirement for getting the job done if you are to succeed in the digital PR industry.
My DMs are full of messages from juniors asking for advice to achieve unrealistic results, demotivated execs wanting to quit the industry or go freelance so they can leave the agency life behind, managers struggling to teach their team members, and Heads-Of struggling to revert a toxic work environment forming in front of their eyes.
The past few months have shown me a side of the current workings of our industry that needs to be talked about.
And it’s not that I don’t get the hustle element of what we do or the need to work after hours sometimes… But one thing is me as a manager deciding I will work in the evening, and another thing is me contacting team members so they can hustle with me no matter the time of day.
One of us has a choice and that person is me. I choose their job title, their targets, their processes, their salaries. They either do what I tell them or else.
Regardless of rank, I hear the same story again and again:
- Unrealistic targets set by salesmen and not based on real life performance.
- Training without a teacher that has been reduced to a set of instructions in a document so anyone can get started ASAP, even if they don’t understand what they are doing or why.
- Lack of support for junior team members to help them manage an increasing number of accounts they are not ready for.
- Being held to the standard of the most productive member of the team, even when that person needs to work evenings and weekends to keep up themselves.
- Toxic client relations where ‘no’ is not allowed and out-of-office communications are a given.
- The expectation to always be on, consuming the news, keeping up with trending topics and the most popular media.
- Lack of leadership training and support for senior team members as they grow into management roles.
- Borderline abusive behaviours of founders and managers that trickle down from the top, and a lack of HR procedures for people to report issues.
I’ve got DM after DM describing the same issues across teams.
This situation is not sustainable, these amazing results we are seeing come at a cost.
We are paving the road to our success with our team’s wellbeing
My advice for those struggling with what I’m describing here
If you’re reading this and thinking to yourself that I’m writing about you, I probably am.
I see you.
And I’m here to tell you that you can change this situation.
The first step is to talk to your manager.
Targets can be adjusted. Accounts can be reassigned. Responsibilities can be reviewed. You are entitled to ask and receive further training to help you achieve more in less time.
But if you continue working after hours to meet your targets without raising the issue of burnout once, you will give your manager the impression that you can handle it.
Give your leader the chance to help you.
It won’t be an easy conversation but it is an important one. I can recommend a book called Crucial Conversations that will give you a clear framework for communicating when stakes are high.
Now, I know not everyone can be open and honest at work about this stuff.
If you find yourself in a situation where:
- You feel pressured to always be on by your peers, the process or your boss.
- You’re working alongside others who can’t seem to disconnect ever.
- The expectation is to deliver results “no matter what“.
- Your manager has made it clear that working after hours is the way to go, either verbally or with their actions.
Then chances are that your workplace has a culture of overworking and is not a good fit for what you want.
But here’s the good news: Digital PR is in high demand.
You have specialised in an area of digital marketing that is booming right now. Regardless of your seniority, I promise you, there is a job out there for you.
Talk to James Congdon, he’s a recruiter who has placed many of your peers in their current jobs.
If you’re a woman and haven’t joined Areej’s Women In Tech SEO group yet, do it. Members are constantly hiring or sharing job opportunities they see in their networks.
Follow Shaun on LinkedIn, his team is always looking for new people across different disciplines.
Message me. I won’t necessarily hire you but I can connect you to someone who might.
There are jobs out there with teams that won’t expect you to work at all hours of the day so you can barely meet unrealistic goals set by someone in a sales pitch.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
You can grow and learn and do amazing work while disconnecting every day.
But change comes from you. Protect yourself and set boundaries.
If you keep going like this, you’ll be perpetuating the cycle of unrealistic goals by meeting them no-matter-what.
Don’t burn yourself out to just tread water. No job is worth your mental health.
Why am I writing this? (A case for prioritising mental health over money)
As I said at the beginning, I have experienced burnout both as an employee and as a manager.
But above all, I am responsible for burning people out.
I delegated responsibilities to a brilliant junior way too soon, leaving him to his own devices while I focused on growing the business. It wasn’t long before his work was suffering, his motivation was gone and his mind had checked out.
I delayed replacing people who left and piled the tasks on an exec who was good at the job but didn’t have the support she needed for the shift in workload. A few months later, she left after a heated argument with me where she told me repeatedly that I didn’t do enough to help her.
I hired someone to delegate a role I had designed and filled in myself but didn’t adjust the expectations. This person was being held to my standard and I had way more experience than he did so it was completely unfair. Eight months later, he was gone.
Those experiences made me into a better leader but it came at a cost. Those three people could still be at NeoMam had I been aware of what was going on behind the positive feedback, the “I’m working on a new angle” updates, the last-minute day off requests.
If only I were to know what was going on. If only someone had said something.
I can’t change the past but perhaps I can start an important conversation.
That’s why I’m writing this.
My leadership style today is very different from the one that led me to burn people out.
I have read a lot of books, talked to a lot of leaders and worked with a lot of people since that time.
But above all, I’ve shifted my focus.
These days my number one priority as a leader is not NeoMam’s brand, the clients, the billings, or the service.
Right now, my main focus is my team. Protecting their happiness is the reason behind most of the decisions I make as a CEO.
If I were to share the lengths I go to protect our enjoyment levels, you would tell me that you can’t run a successful business that way.
I’m here to tell you that you can.
The wrong clients are sucking energy out of you. The wrong topics are not inspiring you. The wrong content is affecting your results. The wrong projects are pulling you back. The wrong process is wasting your time. The wrong targets are spreading you too thin.
In most cases, all you’re giving away by rejecting what makes you unhappy is money.
On the one hand you’ve got making decisions to make everyone’s lives more enjoyable, on the other you’ve got a bank account.
Your job as a manager is to make the tough decisions your team can’t make to help them reach their full potential.
These decisions will become clear if you shift your focus: be aware of yourself + keep your eyes/ears open to the issues your team is facing.
Here’s some things you can start doing today:
1. Be a better example to your team
Remember that your team follows your lead. Your company policy may be that people don’t work nights and weekends, but if messages are still flying after-hours and bosses are celebrating coverage or dissecting campaigns on social media during the weekend, workers are going to interpret expectations accordingly.
Before you click ‘Send’ or ‘Publish’ on that thing you’re working on, check the time and ask yourself “Is this really that urgent or important that it has to go out right now?”
2. Set targets based on your team’s performance and improve their results before increasing your targets
Setting unattainable goals tied to a client contract won’t make your team magically deliver better work, it will just stress everyone out – yourself included.
Realistic targets don’t make you any less ambitious. Keeping a finger on the pulse of the business (current practices, skills, capacity, workload and results) will help you define goals that push your team without overwhelming them.
3. Find out what your people love and hate doing
The more you align your team to what they truly enjoy doing, the better they will perform. Making someone responsible for a task or an outcome they naturally push against will put both of you in a bad place.
What do they love doing? What do they hate doing? Ask the questions and listen. Take notes and remember.
|NO, they don’t||YES. they do|
|Do they Get it?||Is it because they don’t quite get it yet? When you skip the why to train people on the how, you end up with people who don’t seem to get it.
Try this: Assess whether you’ve got more to teach them. If the answer is no, then it’s time to have an open & honest conversation about changing roles or changing jobs.
|Do they get it but they hate it? Helping your team members uncover what they don’t want to do is a powerful tool for career development.
Try this: Time to have an open & honest conversation about changing roles or changing jobs.
|Do they Want it?||Is it because they don’t want this role? There will be times when it will be about not wanting the job but in most cases, it’s about the conditions surrounding the task at hand.
Try this: Time to have an open & honest conversation about what it is that they don’t like about the job in its current state.
|Do they want it but they hate it? This could mean that they need more training and support.
Try this: Drill down, what is it exactly that they aren’t enjoying right now? What is the cause of their frustration?
|Do they have the Capacity to do it?||Is it because they don’t have the skills to perform the job? It’s your responsibility as a leader to teach your team and be there to support them if they need additional training.
Try this: Start by gauging the knowledge they have on every element in the role. This will help you uncover areas where further development is required.
|Do they have the capacity to do it but they hate it? When this happens, it’s likely that you’re dealing with someone has outgrown the role and needs a bigger challenge.
Try this: If you haven’t worked with your team member to develop a progression plan, then it’s time you do exactly that.
4. Watch out for problem clients
Whether you’re a junior manager or a business owner, it’s your responsibility to identify clients with whom the team are having a difficult time so you can do something about it.
Sometimes difficulties come from expectations that haven’t been clearly communicated, other times you’re missing steps in your process to help keep things on track. But more often than not, it’s a matter of bad fit: your client is not the right fit for your agency’s approach & your agency is not the right fit for your client’s needs.
If you can’t fix the problem with better communication, clearer expectations or a tailored process, then you will do everyone involved a service by ending the relationship.
5. Make time to talk to everyone on your team
Fuck hierarchy, you need to listen to everyone in your team so step out of your wall of mid-level managers.
It’s important that you keep your door open, especially if you’re in a Head-Of or Director position. Find out what’s working well, what’s not working that well and how you can help. These conversations can inform everything you do in your role, whilst giving you plenty of ideas for individual and team goals for the future.
If we keep leading with turnover, we will end up building a culture akin to that of investment banking, where the cult of overwork is alive and well.
It won’t be easy to change course on overworking once it’s established as a part of our industry’s culture.
We need to stop dangling the overwork carrot as the key to employee growth within our companies before it’s too late.
The long-hours culture we are fostering is prevalent in many advertising agencies as well, but as Maisie McCabe wisely said, “a reinvention of how we work could solve this problem.”
We’re holding in our hands the opportunity to rebuild our workplaces, and our industry with them. Can we build a culture that doesn’t glamourise the idea of being always ‘on’? I think we can. Can we put our mental health first? We have a responsibility to.
If 2020 taught us anything is that things can be done in a different way.