Subscribe to the daily newsletter.

“I was disciplined for not answering a WhatsApp message”: Lifting the lid on the ‘toxic’ culture within some PR and marketing workplaces

header

Behind the portrayal of glossy offices with ping pong tables and stocked up beer fridges, a number of Northern PR and marketing professionals dealing with anxiety, stress and burnout have painted a different picture.

As World Mental Health Day is recognised today, reports of ‘toxic’ bosses, demanding clients and long hours are all having a big impact on the mental health of those working across the PR, comms and marketing industries.

“If I heard a Slack notification my heart would sink to my stomach, seeing my boss’s name pop up on my phone would cause instant dread,” Sarah*, a PR executive based in Manchester, told Prolific North.

“The situation was so toxic and uncomfortable I never felt I could ever say how I was feeling – it would ultimately have made things worse.”

According to new research by mental health network State of Us, conducted alongside research partner Coleman Parkes, 50% of the marketing and comms professionals surveyed reported severe stress, anxiety or burnout in the last 12 months.

67% of those who experienced mental health challenges said their employers were doing the bare minimum to help employees with mental health problems.

It’s a stark figure that is all too familiar to Sarah*: “I was scared from day one to ever admit when I was struggling, that anything that deviated from being tough wouldn’t be accepted.

“I learnt to live with putting on a front as I know so many of my peers did. Going to work was like an acting job, you had to play the ultimate role of pretending you were fine when you weren’t.”

She recalled how the demands from tight deadlines and high expectations took its toll, resulting in what felt like “living in a constant pressure cooker”.

Tim*, a marketer from Manchester, shares a similar experience. ”I used to suffer badly from burnout,” he said. “When you end up in a company where there’s no boundaries it’s a toxic relationship. You don’t realise how bad things are until you get out of it.

“I think those that are truly toxic are very good at gaslighting, I don’t like to use terms loosely but until I left, you’re made to feel like you’re the problem not them and therefore you don’t speak up about the problem.”

“I was pulled into a disciplinary because I didn’t answer a WhatsApp message”

It isn’t just about ‘toxic’ workplaces, the very nature of the industry with tight deadlines and tackling feisty clients can fuel that dreaded Sunday ‘scaries’ feeling.

“I was pulled into a disciplinary because I didn’t answer a WhatsApp message to a client on a Saturday when I was trying to enjoy my weekend and switch off,” said Sarah*.

“This all came to a head when I caught Covid and was so ill I lost my voice, only to have my boss ring me and scream down the phone because a campaign hadn’t gone according to plan.” 

Whilst some parts of the marketing and PR industry may have hidden issues bubbling away beneath the surface, some workplaces are actively trying to encourage conversations around mental health in the workplace.

It follows another stark figure, this time from a survey conducted by media industry wellbeing charity NABS and Mind, which found 64% of advertising and media employees have considered leaving the industry as their wellbeing was impacted by work.  

For Sam Taylor, co-founder and creative director at Leeds-based digital development agency madeby.studio, making time for regular check-ins and moving to a four day week has been beneficial for staff.

Subscribe to the Prolific North Daily Newsletter Today!

Want all the latest content from Prolific North delivered direct to your inbox daily? Of course you do!

Sam Taylor, co-founder and creative director at madeby.studio
Sam Taylor, co-founder and creative director at madeby.studio


Alongside co-founder Matt Wheeler, the duo have both become mental health first aiders and signed up to become a mindful employer, a national initiative to support employers in taking a positive approach towards mental health.

But as a business owner, he pointed out it’s not just staff experiencing issues with mental health – it can be senior management and those at the top too. “I’ve struggled in the past, even before starting up the studio,” he said. 

“Especially as a small business, working with big clients and making sure we deliver things on time has led to 12 hour days for 14-15 days straight, not having weekends.

“That’s when we were like ‘right we’ve got to really focus on how we’re going to do this in the future, because we can’t have something like that again’, because it was nearly the end of the company.”

“I do think the stigma has decreased over time”

It’s something Bethan Vincent, founder of York-based marketing consultancy Open Velocity and former Netsells Marketing Director, can agree with. During the Covid pandemic with restrictions on social life outside of work, she explained how remote working led to overworking.


Bethan Vincent, founder of York-based marketing consultancy Open Velocity
Bethan Vincent, founder of York-based marketing consultancy Open Velocity


“I took all the bad habits I developed through to launching my business. Stuff like not taking a lunch break and finishing at 7 or 8pm. Not because I felt I had to, because I didn’t want to not be successful.

“We’re a remote-first company. I very much believe in working from home but you have to develop good habits around it.”

On how previous employers have supported her through any issues, she offers a contrasting opinion as she has always felt comfortable to speak up within senior roles.

“I do think the stigma has decreased over time, especially in the last five years. I’ve always worked for companies where it’s been very encouraged to share if you have any issues.”

Despite her own more positive experiences, she recalls hearing “horror stories” from others in the industry and believes “as a leader it is your absolute role to be human, I think people respect you a lot more for doing that”.

PR manager John* from Newcastle felt the former agency he worked at didn’t offer the support he needed with increasing workloads. Although “things were fine” for the first year, micromanagement set in during lockdown and his subsequent complaints were shunned by HR.

“The hours became longer and longer as the months went on, and in the absence of overtime pay, it just became too much,” he said. 

“Myself and several other members of the delivery team raised our concerns at our increasing workload and were told the company was looking out for new staff – they never materialised though. As the sales team brought in more and more work, it just got lumped on top of us. But the pizza buffets and breakfast sessions were apparently a sweetener – not for those of us who were overworked though.

“By December of last year, I found myself walking home from meeting with a friend for coffee and just crying as I panicked at the thought of going back to the office in six days’ time post-Christmas break. Thankfully, I ramped up the job search and moved jobs.”

For Olivia*, a marketing manager in Manchester, although she is now happy where she works – it hasn’t always been the case with previous employers..

“In my old role, sometimes I’d walk in and say ‘morning’ on a Monday, all happy and excited to start the day, and my boss would not even look up at me as I walked in,” she said. “I’d rack my brain thinking ‘What the hell?’ Have I done anything?’

“It just turns out that he was just really moody and took it out on everyone around him. Now I’m at my new place, my new boss is always the first to say hello to everyone that walks in, makes us all a brew and never fails to ask how our weekend was. I can speak to him about anything and I’m never left second guessing myself. It couldn’t be more different.”

What support is there in the industry?

Colin Young, a former national newspaper journalist who spent 20 years working at The Sun and The Daily Mail, initially struggled with his mental health when he was made redundant which was a “really tough” time. He was unsure of what support was available to him, until he started working part-time in PR with mental health charity If U Care Share.


Colin Young
Colin Young


Little did they know, the charity was helping him cope with his mental health issues.

“It’s just been a completely refreshing job to go into, while also opening my eyes to what’s going on? So many people are suffering perhaps, like I did, suffering in silence.” 

As a number of those we spoke to confirmed, knowing where to get support specifically in the comms, PR or marketing industry isn’t simple but industry leaders are trying to change this.

Steve Underwood, former dentsu managing partner and co-founder of Newcastle-based agency Bonded, believes as an employer he is responsible for having a “proactive stance” when it comes to mental health in the workplace.

“Myself and my fellow directors have worked in challenging agency environments for a number of years. We’re certainly experienced and each deals with those different challenges in different ways.”


Steve Underwood
Steve Underwood


Underwood has galvanised regional participation in national wellbeing movement RED January, set up a support network for fellow agency, business and brand marketers, and helped to launch a North East committee for NABS where he is now chairman.

“Negative mental health and wellbeing is, to a certain extent, part of life and everyone goes through it in varying degrees. It’s more the recognition that there’s going to be difficult times at points within your life.

“If we’re there to support our staff through that, and have connections and give them the best foundations to look after themselves and help them through it, then I just think that’s a really positive thing.”

At workplace wellbeing consultancy The Vibrancy Hub, co-founders Katy Brown and Laura Bamber have previously worked in marketing across iProspect, THG and New Balance to name a few.

“I think the industry can be tough – super fast-paced, high pressure, competitive, the need to be visible; plus the added layer of being very digitally connected – what a recipe!” said Katy Brown. 

“In my early thirties I knew I was existing in a state of low level stress and anxiety, super distracted and rarely fully present. I remember thinking ‘there has to be another way. I was also a woman in a male environment, constantly feeling the need to over-prove.”



After prioritising her wellbeing, she now teaches companies how to tackle this through coaching and workshops with clients such as WeWork and Autotrader.

“We have seen time and again that investing in employee stress prevention is vital to an organisation’s growth strategy. We support people through wellbeing workshops, team off-site days and 121 wellbeing or life coaching.”

What’s driving issues and what can be done better?

“When agencies grow too quickly and don’t have the right support networks in place, if they’re onboarding lots and lots of clients, ultimately they’re not able to recruit quick enough or are trying to take on too much all at once. That’s when the real pressures happen and ultimately falls onto the staff that work for them,” Underwood said.

When the pressure does land on staff, Sarah* believes there needs to be “more transparency with agency owners and staff” with HR support or mental health procedures.

“I feel agencies need to be held accountable if they have failed to support staff and there needs to be more conversations in the industry as a whole about how outdated and toxic work attitudes need to be changed.”

For Tim*, seeing leaders be open about mental health, giving staff time off when they need it and treating a mental health issue the same as any illness, can drive positive change.

“Now that I’m working for a company who cares, I can see that there is wider support for mental health issues,” said John*. “Not only does this company promote conversation about mental health through anonymous surveys and regular 1-1s, they have also pointed us to NABS and wider IPA forums for support.”

Being a solo or remote worker poses its own challenges in the industry too, said Bethan Vincent. Taking the time to have a lunch break, exercise and finding local groups to be part of a community is key to wellbeing. “It’s really important that you feel like you’re in a community when you’re outside work.”

Being part of a community is something that Sam Taylor agrees with. Whether it’s other agencies or other staff, it can “relieve a lot of those stresses”.

Finally, wellbeing and mental health support “needs to move way up the priority list,” added Katy Brown. 

“If organisations want their people to be operating and contributing at their best, whilst feeling engaged and joyful, then providing regular wellbeing education is no longer a ‘nice to have’.”

*Names have been changed for anonymity. If you have been affected by any of the issues raised there are multiple services and organisations that can offer advice and support, including NABS and State of Us mentioned in this piece.

Related News