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“Gaslighting employees with constant pressure”: It’s improve or die for agencies tackling wellbeing support

Managing Director Giorgio Cassella

With PR, agency and marketing staff starting to open up about toxic company cultures, Evoluted’s Managing Director Giorgio Cassella writes about some of the negative experiences his own staff have experienced in previous roles and explores how agency leaders can do better.

“50% of marketing and comms professionals have reported stress, anxiety or burnout in the last 12 months.”

This sadly unshocking statistic was discussed last month in Prolific North, highlighting the enormity of the mental health problems being faced by the industry. Combined with the further grim report that over two-thirds of those experiencing these struggles feel unsupported by their employers, I felt compelled to address the issue head on. Somehow we have made it the norm in this industry to expect people to be “always on”, to deliver “above and beyond expectations” and do “whatever it takes” to ensure successful campaigns.

We’ve proliferated the Mad Men image of working all hours, gaslighting employees that dealing with constant pressure, negativity and toxic-personalities is part and parcel of the job. What was previously a satirical cautionary-tale has become our disappointing reality. Stories of toxic company cultures are all too common, and many employees from my own agency, Evoluted, have shared with me their own negative experiences from previous roles – traumas which still weigh them down and will take time, support and enormous personal strength to overcome.

One of our team members recalls their last agency where they were expected to achieve more client-delivery hours than there was working time in the month; while others managed well upwards of 15 different clients at any one time, each with their own demands and unique industries to learn. When they weren’t able to achieve these unrealistic expectations, threats of disciplinaries, performance plans and even unemployment followed.

Another employee once opened up to me, shortly after joining, saying that they’d left their previous role after being brought to tears by the Managing Director publicly shouting at them on their very first day.

Others bring stories which are all too commonly shared by other marketing professionals online: receiving work WhatsApp messages late at night and throughout weekends; being expected to take violent verbal abuse from clients as long as they keep paying their bills, and being excluded from opportunities because they didn’t fit with the clique.

Perhaps what disgusts me most after all of this, is to see the companies who treat their team members in this way continue to receive industry awards celebrating their “culture”, attracting fresh talent and compounding the disillusion that these behaviours are normal.

How can we as an industry, and as leaders, continue to accept this?

We can, and must, be better.

Crunching the numbers

Unsurprisingly, the impact of this is that UK agencies have shocking staff retention – just 42% on average, as revealed by The Drum’s 2022 Agency Wellbeing Census. While we’re pleased ours stands 50% higher than this, with almost a third of staff having been with us four years or more, we know there’s a lot more we can do. Agencies such as Journey Further with really strong retention serve as inspiration to redouble our efforts here.

The business impact of high staff turnover is immense. BrightHR calculates that it costs an average of £5,433 to hire a new employee through expenses like recruiters’ fees, job ad listings and staff resource required in the hiring process.

And then there’s the fact a new employee needs time to find their feet before they’re capable of matching the output of the person they’re replacing – Oxford Economics places this period at a whopping seven months, affecting business performance in the meantime.

By the time you factor in onboarding and training, the cost of replacing a single employee rises to over £30,000 on average. That’s just the financial impact – research by Wiley Edge found almost two-thirds of UK businesses are reporting negative impacts to their company culture as a result of high turnover. A revolving door demotivates the staff left behind, scares off potential recruits and unnerves clients concerned about service delivery.

To flip it the other way, happy workers are proven to be more productive – by 13%, according to the University of Oxford. But to focus too much on the numbers is to miss the human element in this.

We’re far from perfect 

Thankfully, there’s a lot of us who do care and recognise the critical importance of protecting our people’s mental health and wellbeing at work. It’s also a bit rich of me to point the finger at all the bad things going on without addressing how we’re encouraging positive wellbeing at Evoluted. We’re far from perfect but I’m proud of the measures we’ve implemented so far.

We provide a variety of routes for employees to share what’s on their minds in the space where they feel most psychologically safe: regular company-wide anonymous feedback surveys, pastorally-focused one-to-ones rather than work-focused discussion, weekly Lattice check-ins, or confidential monthly coaching sessions from Sanctus.

Encouraging our people to candidly share how they’re feeling as often as possible means our leadership team can provide individual support more effectively, address difficulties before they compound and take a proactive approach to mental health in the workplace. Almost all staff have used the Sanctus service at least once and many use it monthly.

Giorgio Cassella
Giorgio Cassella

People need their own space to recharge and enjoy a life beyond their laptops

With overworking being a common cause for employee burnout, we automate daily reports on time-tracking. While critical to business operations, time-tracking also raises opportunities to check-in with team members who are working outside of our 7am-7pm flexible hours or working longer hours than they should. Personal time should be protected and our people need their own space to recharge and enjoy a life beyond their laptops.

Ultimately, people settle at companies whose values reflect their own. So giving our people the chance to shape our culture, rather than it being dictated by the leadership team, is crucial. We do this by operating four Cultural Officer positions, open to anyone at Evoluted: Happiness & Wellbeing Officer, Diversity & Inclusion Officer, CSR Officer and our Social & Events Committee.

The roles are rotated every 6-12 months to encourage fresh perspectives and help us organically improve the way we operate. And while we encourage our people to work flexibly and remotely to suit their needs, we recognise that face-to-face meet-ups are still hugely beneficial in fostering a great culture and team camaraderie. We organise fully-expensed monthly whole-team socials (including travel and hotels), with a different type of activity each time – from comedy clubs to axe-throwing and go-karting to karaoke.

If they can’t see career progression they’re likely to jump ship

A reality of agency life is that no matter how happy people are, if they can’t see career progression they’re likely to jump ship. Lack of clear progression frameworks create jealousy and speculation – and we’ve heard of some agencies outright forbidding staff from discussing salary.

During lockdown we completely overhauled our process, building Flourish, our own progression framework tool, from the ground-up to provide transparent salary banding and progression routes for both individual contributors and managers. People know exactly what they need to do to reach the next step in their career, avoiding scenarios where staff are inclined to put up with stressful working conditions to avoid missing out on promotions or to stay in favour.

Recognising staff will get frustrated waiting for a pay review that might never come, or feel awkward having to ask for one, we use this framework every six-months to have regular open conversations about careers, salaries, personal goals and more.

The fundamental goal is for people to see Evoluted as the best place to develop their career for years to come – so policies like generous maternity/paternity packages, offering full-pay for up to 16-weeks, are hugely important to helping employees see a long-term future with the company.

That also means getting them to buy into our long-term plan. Too often in our industry, growth is treated as the be-all and end-all, causing agencies to scale as aggressively as possibly by piling up new business onto overworked account managers – thereby sacrificing staff wellbeing and quality of service, driving up staff turnover and destroying your reputation.

We are fiercely “People Over Profits” and while we’re ambitious, regular communication outlining steady growth targets to build our agency safely without compromising on culture and work/life balance ensures mutual understanding around how and why we make certain decisions for the company.

There isn’t an end-goal when it comes to wellbeing

I’m pleased with our progress so far, but I know we’ve still got much more to do. There isn’t an end-goal when it comes to wellbeing; but regular feedback, adapting initiatives to respond to changing needs (like our recent £2,000 cost of living payment for all staff) and building trust with employees provides an excellent foundation.

Taking action to improve wellbeing isn’t something only available to large organisations or high-growth companies. Simply providing the space for your people to talk openly about how they feel is a great foundation and all it takes is time and care.

Part of our core mission statement is to “build a better brand of agency”. We like to think we’re making good headway here and it’s so good to see other great companies making great efforts to prioritise mental health and wellbeing, like our near-namesakes Evolved implementing a four-day workweek.

Ultimately, the best talent will vote with their feet, prioritising employers who care and support them above perks and salary. Agencies failing to realign their culture to support wellbeing will fall by the wayside, and deservedly so.

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