Opinion: Calling time on our long-hours culture

A culture that burns out employees is never good for business.

Dec 18, 2018 04:46:00 AM | Article | Melissa Vodegel Matzen

If advertisers were Scouts or Brownies, there would surely be a tiredness badge to sew onto the uniform. Many in our industry wear exhaustion as a symbol of achievement. How many times has a dreary-eyed colleague sauntered in a minute late and proclaimed, proudly, that they "only got two hours' sleep last night"?

Late nights have always been part and parcel of the ad game, whether it's working on a campaign or—shall we say—"networking". While the toxic, Mad Men-lite boozing culture has subsided somewhat, the always-on heritage endures. So bad has it got that last month one desperate senior creative anonymously penned an exposé in Campaign about the impact of a long-hours working culture on adland’s mental health.

This level of anguish and the fact that the author had to write it anonymously is alarming. One might think that, as the world is taking mental health more seriously, our forward-looking industry would lead the charge. However, despite some progress, the opposite is true. Increasingly, agencies are providing a "home away from home" for their staff. Food and drink, sleeping pods and yoga rooms are laid out for millennial staff in the name of workplace culture. It’s all a bit Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

Although the work culture has changed shape, the outcome is the same: overstretched, overworked, overloaded. Working until 2am every day on a diet of meat-feast pizzas and Dixy Chicken is a race to the bottom for a number of reasons.

Let’s start with creativity. I bet that each of us has a friend or colleague who insists that they "work better at night". A couple of years ago, an article in Scientific American sought to validate the suggestion that exhaustion leads to improved creativity.

The thinking went that, when tired, the brain isn’t as good at filtering out distractions and focusing on a particular task. Which sounds bad. When tired, the brain is a lot less efficient at remembering connections between ideas of concepts. Which sounds even worse. Supposedly, this actually leads to consideration of a broader range of information, giving us access to alternative, diverse interpretations, thus fostering creativity.

I could list a thousand papers discrediting the study. Without the time or energy to step outside, see the world and have conversations with people outside the advertising bubble—to experience a dose of reality—making contextually relevant, innovative advertising is impossible.

Creative Stockholm syndrome

We are each a product of our environment, and if that environment doesn’t change often enough we suffer from creative Stockholm syndrome. The agency becomes our captor. Confined, we begin to trust the familiarity of the four walls, creating a feedback loop of work unrelatable to the daily lives of real people.

Which segues quite nicely to morale. If you’ve been working long hours for pittance, are you really going to produce your best work? If all you do is work, you miss family moments, your friend’s birthdays, the big game. You miss the defining moments in life—those that determine who you are as a person, those that feed your imagination. Your creative food.

Study after study shows that remaining sedentary and slumped, with retinas glued to a screen, can contribute to depression, anxiety, poor sleep and back problems. Depressed, injured creatives don’t produce good work. People are more inclined to produce their best creative work—and work in general—when their hours fit around their lives rather than the other way around.

Output, not hours

Likewise with productivity. Being at work for 80 hours a week doesn’t mean 80 hours of high-quality output. Invariably, the opposite is true. Tired, downtrodden people make mistakes. One might guess that Dolce & Gabbana’s creatives were in that camp when they approved its dog-whistle racist ad. Clearly for your clients, brand safety is of paramount importance in the age of the 280-character show trial. Staff who are awake and attuned to reality, with a healthy work/life balance and the headspace to reflect, don’t make that kind of mistakes.

There are basic steps that agencies can take to not just ensure but facilitate the well-being of their staff. Flexible working is basic. You want to go on an extended honeymoon? Do it. Got a Christmas nativity play at 2pm? Please do not miss it.

Zombified staff and presenteeism need consigning to history. As business leaders, we should be benchmarking not only against financial growth, but also whether our business is a place where people enjoy being in. We must aim for better.

Melissa Vodegel Matzen is managing director of Twelve, an agency in London.