Tanya Joseph: Stress is never good so why do we make juniors suffer?

Making juniors frequently work long, gruelling hours will not generate the best work. People are much more likely to come up with great ideas when they are rested and relaxed.

I was recently having a drink with a senior agency figure, sharing old war stories about how when we started out we would get up before we went to bed, work 25 hours a day for 50p a week and were still grateful.

Unsurprisingly, the conversation quickly moved to “kids today” who don’t know they’re born, who want paying and purpose.

We were joking but when I asked my friend what it was really like for the juniors in his agency today, the laughing stopped. Because things haven’t changed, not really. The agency model was and is based on relatively junior people doing most of the work. They are not paid well and work long hours. 

Now, of course, these are generally very bright young things who are often pleased to be given extraordinarily high levels of responsibility. But I can’t help but feel that it cannot be right.

There is the lack of transparency for a start. I would wager that unless the client has worked agency side, they probably don’t realise quite how much is managed by the kids on their account. They think they are paying for lots of director time, although if they looked properly at the fee structure, they would realise there would be no way they could get that level of senior service on the fees they pay.

But I also worry that the model just doesn’t generate the best work from anyone.

Constantly working long hours is exhausting and then there’s the additional stress of our ‘always-on’ digital culture.

READ MORE: The benefits of integrating workplace wellbeing into performance management

The science bit

Now, I know there are lots of people out there who believe that stress can produce great results. And I agree. But only under exceptional circumstances, that is to say when the stress is exceptional, unusual, not commonplace. If you are working under stress, you cannot expect to work above par all the time. In fact, you are more likely to be working well below par.

There are lots of academic studies to support this view. Here is the science bit: stress, even at relatively low levels, can have an impact on the prefrontal cortex – the bit of the brain responsible for those complex functions such as abstract thought, judgement, reasoning, and creative thought, which distinguish us from other species.

When we are under pressure, our brain moves to survival mode and decides that all higher thought is going to be superfluous to our immediate needs so shuts down this area. All the action moves to the primal area, which deals better with flight or fight situations. Great if you are face-to-face with a bear (think Leo DiCaprio in The Revenant), but not if your challenge is to come up with a brilliant idea for a new product launch.

There are enough people on both the agency and client side who know the [fee] model is broken

The science also accounts for the light-bulb moment in the shower (anyone who has worked with me has had to endure many mornings of my walking into the office declaring an utterly brilliant thought that had come to me while doing my ablutions). Well, as a psychologist friend pointed out, it is obvious that you are going to think more clearly when you are rested and relaxed.

We need to let the kids leave on time most days because the days we really do need them to work late, to pull an all-nighter, we want them to have the energy (physical and creative) to do so.

READ MORE: Brands must commit to long-term wellbeing goals to drive change

So, how will we manage all the client work? Well, maybe we need to take a long hard look at fee structures. There are enough people on both the agency and client side who know the model is broken, maybe now is the time to be honest enough for both sides to own up to the fact that great work comes at a price. At the moment, that price is being paid for by the kids.

Tanya Joseph is a consultant, chair of The Pool, and was architect of the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign at Sport England

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