Working hard, or hardly working?

(As part of our commitment to leading discussions around important industry issues, The Message is working with nabs Canada on a series of reports examining key determinants in workplace health—from diversity, to ageism, to bullying and sexism. In Part 1, CHRIS POWELL got an exclusive look at a new study from Morneau Shepell that highlights the physical, mental and financial costs of the industry’s always-on approach.)

When Jay Bertram was a young account director at the former Chiat\Day in the late 1980s, staffers signalled their never-quit work ethos by making up T-shirts reading “Chiat\Day and Night.”

“We wore it as a badge of honour, that we worked harder than anybody else,” said Bertram. Nearly 30 years later, and now executive director of nabs Canada, Bertram sees the human and financial costs associated with the industry’s hard-charging lifestyle in an entirely different light.

The hard-driving, high-expectation culture that has long characterized the industry is not only outdated, but is hurting businesses and possibly preventing them from producing their best work

Recent research from nabs, based on a survey by Toronto-based human resources company Morneau Shepell, suggests that many of Canada’s agency employees—particularly those in the junior and intermediate ranks—are walking a tightrope when it comes to their physical and mental health.

Compared with the Canadian workforce as a whole, the numbers are troubling. People working in advertising are less healthy, both physically and mentally, than the average Canadian employee, said Ross Taylor, senior customer success manager with LifeWorks by Morneau Shepell, which combines employee assistance, wellness, recognition incentive programs.

“Overall, physical and mental health were below national benchmarks, due to higher rates of sedentary workplaces and concerns about the industry’s ability to handle workload respectively, including a higher risk of burnout,” he said.

But while it’s hurting the people working in agencies, it’s also hurting the bottom line. The study suggests that the financial implications are enormous. The agencies that participated in the study, for example, stand to lose an estimated $15,909 per full-time employee, per year through a combination lost time and lost productivity. Although the entire cost of illness can’t be directly attributed to unhealthy workplaces, they are powerful contributors to stress and anxiety, which in turn can complicate and compound other health issues.

The causes are wide-ranging, from an expectation of 24/7, 365 service to systemic “ageism” throughout the industry—with older employees increasingly being replaced by younger, inexperienced workers. Bertram suggests that as few as 5% of today’s agency employees are over the age of 50. Junior employees, he said, might be fearful of speaking out about being asked to work after-hours or on the weekend, holidays, etc. The costs of their silence could be significant.

The study findings suggest that in addition to burnout and anxiety, agency employees are also at elevated risk for depression, substance abuse and eating disorders. They are often leaving work feeling mentally and/or physical exhausted, failing to achieve optimal work-life balance, and putting off important health tests such as cancer screenings.

Morneau Shepell surveyed 332 employees from 12 agencies ranging in size from 12 to more than 300 employees. The self-reported surveys were completed between November 2017 and March 2018. Using a base of a $55,000 average annual salary and 240 work days per year, then balancing those numbers against absenteeism, discretionary effort and presenteeism, Morneau Shepell was able to attach a dollar figure to the toxic combination of poor heath, absenteeism and presenteeism.

It is the first time nabs has participated in the study, as it seeks to better understand how its range of services can benefit those professionals. Mark Neves, director of nabs central region, said the goal is to create industry benchmarks, to track progress and drill down to specific agency functions such as account director, copywriter, creative director, etc.

One of the objectives, he said, is to identify and provide solutions for problem areas before employees find themselves in a full-blown crisis. “It’s trying to engage people in the industry further up the stream, not when they’re in dire need of help,” he said. But improvements won’t happen fast. “The likelihood that they’re going to go from at-risk to optimal health year-over-year is pretty slim… You’re not going to take a massive leap over a one-year timeline.”

The study is built around a metric called the Total Health Index (THI), which measures all aspects of a person’s wellbeing, from mental and physical health, to the balance between work and life.

Agencies…we have a problem

Just about every agency veteran has a horror story about an unbearable boss or demanding client, but the impact of the profession’s day-to-day demands, as measured by the nabs survey, is sobering.

Nearly three-quarters (71%) of the 332 agency employees who participated in the study qualified as either “strained/problem” or “at risk” when it came to their THI, well above Canadian workers as a whole (49%). At the other end of the spectrum, just 3% of participating agency employees had an “optimal” THI score, compared with 14% of Canadian workers.

“I knew for sure there would be a group of people that are close to breaking point,” says Neves. About 7% of nabs survey respondents are “at risk” compared to 3% of the entire workforce. “But I didn’t think [agencies] would also score so much higher than the national average in the problem and strained categories.”

The implications are significant. The study identifies people who fall in the problem category—24% of respondents—as “experiencing some physical, psychological or financial symptoms that are having a negative impact on their total health and productivity.”

The 7% in the at-risk category, meanwhile, are at risk for “significant” health issues (physical, mental, work or life) and are frequently off work or on the verge of being off work. It deems access to support services as “essential” for their wellbeing.

Engagement and productivity are lacking

Less than half (47%) of study participants reported that they are engaged at work, compared with 53% of Canadian employees. Women, people under the age of 37 and those working in intermediate roles reported the lowest engagement scores among agency personnel. (One relatively positive number here is that while 9% of the agency respondents are “disengaged,” that’s better than the overall workforce, which is 16% disengaged.)

While it’s important to note that all of the survey metrics—including engagement—are self-reported, the survey also found that the health of more than half (53%) of engaged employed is defined as either “strained” or “problem.”

Neves said that engaged employees could be working longer hours, taking work home, and don’t have sufficient time to ensure they’re eating healthy. “Usually engaged employees are either healthy and active, but somehow in our industry the ones that are most engaged are actually at risk,” he said.

Just over one-third (39%) of agency employees responded that they are productive at work, compared with 54% of all Canadian workers, while 17% said they are unproductive.

The financial cost: $15,000 per employee 

While the human costs are striking, the financial implications reveal a strong business case for employers to look closely at employee wellness. Health issues alone—from the sedentary nature of agency work, to anxiety and tobacco use—are costing an estimated $6,645 per person. Nearly one-third of agency respondents (32%) reported that they experience anxiety, for example, which Morneau Shepell calculates as costing a 100-person shop about $284,639. Depression costs another $220,181.

Meanwhile the costs of lost productivity are even higher. Absenteeism, discretionary effort (employees failing to give 100% effort) and presenteeism (employees who are present at work, but not fully healthy) have a more significant financial impact than health, costing about $9,200 per employee per year, costing a 100-person agency nearly $1 million per year.

Bertram calls these costs “silent killers” for agencies that don’t receive the attention they deserve. “The money that is being wasted because of the lack of efficiency should alarm any CFO,” he said. “They should say ‘We should pay more attention to this as an investment rather than a cost.'”

Hmm, maybe that should go on a T-shirt.


Chris Powell