Let’s talk about managing stress—personal advice from across the industry

For most people, their job is a source of real—and often significant—stress and anxiety. It’s always been that way, and it’s unlikely that will change anytime soon.

But thanks to initiatives like Bell Let’s Talk Day—which marks its 10th anniversary today—the conversations about stress and anxiety are changing; there’s a greater understanding about what it is, the damage it can cause, and the importance of trying to reduce it where we can and manage it where we cannot.

In advertising, media and marketing, there is considerable evidence to suggest the situation is unique: Constant deadlines and the unpredictability of creative work have always been there. More recently, those realities have been compounded by untenable cost pressures, blown-up business models and the breakneck pace of tech-driven change.

“Early in my career I would lose sleep a lot, stressed out, wondering if my ideas were good enough, if I was an imposter,” said Travis Cowdy, executive creative director at DentsuBos. “I still do sometimes—I’m not sure any creative ever feels they are good enough.”

On top of that there were (and are) undeniably anachronistic attitudes towards work and work life across the industry, and some management philosophies have produced painfully toxic environments for employees.

“‘If you don’t come into work on Saturday, don’t bother showing up on Sunday!’ Something I heard early in my advertising career. It’s no wonder people develop substance abuse problems,” said Good&Ready founder Alan Madill. “But advertising doesn’t need to be a burnout job.”

And that’s the crucial point here.

We recognize that mental health is an extraordinarily complex matter often requiring professional help, and there are few quick fixes or easy answers. But for Bell Let’s Talk Day, The Message reached out to people working across the industry and asked them to open up and share some of their truths about the stress and anxiety they feel at work and what they do to manage it.

When do they get the most stressed? How do they cope with anxiety and self-doubt? Do they have any tactics to manage those stressful times? Here’s what they told us.

Travis Cowdy, executive creative director, DentsuBos

How do you manage work stress?

I think a lot of us creatives think we need to live, breathe, and bleed advertising to be successful. For me, balance and other interests are what recharge and inspire me.

The other big thing is finding time to lead a healthy lifestyle. (When possible, over-indulging at a wrap dinner is also good for your mental health once in a while.)

Do you have any specific tactics?

I can’t stress enough how much better I feel and how much more productive I am when I’m carving out just a bit of time every day to get outside. We adopted a rescue mutt and it really forces me to get out and not be tethered to my phone, even if it is only for a few 20-minute stints a day. Animals are great stress relievers. And family. No brief is more important than family. Some friends are like family. Find time for them, every day.

And take your vacation! Do it. Don’t leave a single day unused. Tell your manager when you need extra time. Nothing is more important than your health and well-being. Absolutely nothing.

Sarah Thompson, chief strategy officer, Mindshare Canada

How do you manage work stress?

You need an arsenal of tools to manage stress because sometimes one won’t work. What you should not do is drink more coffee, say yes to more projects or put in more hours. You are only at your best when you care for yourself.

Do you have any specific tactics?

I believe in giving myself a break, going for a walk, splashing cold water on my face or using techniques like closing my eyes and focusing on my breath to get back in tune with myself.

Step away on your vacation, weekend and evenings as much as you can. Our perspective creates our stress. You need to challenge your perspective and put it in a new frame.

How do you overcome moments of self-doubt?

I embrace my imposter syndrome. I think if you frame it as a way to drive yourself forward and always learn, it is great. If it is keeping you from celebrating your successes, it is going to hurt you.

Are there times you feel most susceptible to stress or anxiety?

When you have 13 things that all have the same priority, or you have short term projects that are keeping you from the long term—those keep me stressed. And if I have too many speaking engagements when I have to turn up the knowledge, charm and energy—that can create anxiety.

I know the scenarios more than I did early in my career and know how to manage them to ensure I am bringing my best. That can be as simple as not over-committing to social activities in the week.

Christina Yu, managing partner and creative, Rethink

How do you manage work stress?

Throughout my career I’ve had life and executive coaching as well as therapy that has helped me with my stress and anxiety.

When I’m having a bad day or particularly stressful time at work, I have Aaron Starkman that I can shove all my stress on to. Kidding… but not. I have partners that I can lean on for strength and support. It’s good to lean on others for help.

Do you have any specific tactics?

  1. Box breathing: Breathe out four seconds and breathe in four seconds. Slow and deep. Its amazing;
  2. Meditation: I’ll listen to an audio meditation;
  3. I buy Lego sets and build them; and
  4. Rescue remedy drops or a swig of whiskey.

And exercising increases endorphins. Exercising helps me ease my mind. A good adrenaline workout or a pilates/yoga workout helps put things in perspective.

How do you overcome moments of self doubt?

I’ve learned to lean on others for strength. Surround yourself with people that will help lift you up when you’re down.

Are there times or specific moments you’re most susceptible to anxiety on the job? 

I have anxiety on Sundays. Nervous about the week.

Alan Madill, founder and creative, Good&Ready

How do you manage work stress?

Don’t let other people’s stress become your stress. I’ve worked with people that aren’t happy unless they are creating chaos. It’s not productive. Avoid these people. Constantly working under pressure is not sustainable.

Do you have any specific tactics?

Delegate and collaborate. Don’t do it all by yourself. Others are just as talented as you and can help get the job done.

When stress becomes too much, stop. Go for a walk. Get a good night’s sleep. Tackle the job the next morning. Fatigue doesn’t make you brilliant. A good night’s sleep does.

Find a passion that isn’t work-related and do it as often as you can. Cook, learn an instrument, practise yoga, do whatever. I’m happier in advertising because I have other things in my life. Real “life experience” makes me better at my job.

Joe Nanni, vice-president, creative director, Community

How do you manage work stress?

Ian Mirlin once said to me, “There are a lot more important things than advertising, but within these walls nothing is more important than advertising.” So when things are tough, I think of what’s more important than advertising.

Do you have any specific tactics?

Notebooks. When I write things down like to do lists, plot out timelines, track reference material… when it’s all down on paper it feels more manageable. The problems get smaller and the solutions become bigger.

My grandfather used to say, “This too will pass.” So I literally think past the moment or the challenge in front of me and into the future, to moments of comfort. I may be stressed about travel for a presentation or something, but in my head I’m already at the park with my daughter.

Are there times or specific moments you’re most susceptible to anxiety on the job? 

Deadlines. When a deadline is approaching and I don’t feel we have enough material to meet the ask or we’re not well prepared—those are hard moments.

Alanna Nathanson, co-founder and co-chief creative officer, Giants & Gentlemen

How do you manage work stress?

I talk about it. I find it very harmful to bottle things up inside. I usually turn to my partners, my colleagues, my husband or my friends, depending on the situation, to work through the issue at hand: “A problem shared is a problem halved.” Nine out of 10 grandmas can’t be wrong.

Do you have any specific tactics?

I breathe. Three deep breaths in a row make a world of difference. And then I move forward. I try hard not to dwell.

Are there times or specific moments you’re most susceptible to anxiety on the job? 

When I haven’t have enough sleep or yoga. Or sleep. Did I mention sleep?

Geoff Hardwicke, managing director, Trigger

How do you manage work stress?

I look for little wins. Might simply be getting out a “low-pressure” e-mail to a client that I’m extra fond of… just to get that quick satisfaction—and likely a nice “Thanks Geoff” reply.

A 10-minute coffee break with my favourite art director helps too, as a sounding board.

Do you have any specific tactics?

I still believe in “de-cluttering” my mind. To me that means taking 10 minutes to physically de-clutter. This could be simply removing all the unimportant items off my desk so I can focus on the key important stuff.

Or de-cluttering my thoughts by doing an old fashioned Top 10 list. I often find after I write it all down, it doesn’t look as daunting as I felt it was in my head.

I’m an early morning person by nature… when things get a little crazy, I find balance by just coming into work earlier than normal. I feel when I can sit at my desk before the craziness begins and organize my day, it’s helpful.

How do you overcome moments of self doubt?

This can happen to the best of us. I certainly went through this more than once in my career. It helps to have a support group outside of work to keep your spirits up when you are hit with an attack of “lack of confidence.”

I sometimes say to myself, “Hey, I was good before this happened, don’t let this affect your total outlook of yourself. You were good before, you will be good again!”

Are there times or specific moments you’re most susceptible to anxiety on the job? 

I seem to get anxiety around end of month (revenue time). The ups/downs of advertising margins is not for the weak-in-the stomach.

These are just some of the replies The Message received in response to its questions about stress in the industry. We will publish additional responses this week.

David Brown