Brands rally to support marketers struggling with mental health

With motivation low, confidence knocked and resilience being tested by the latest lockdown, marketers are being encouraged to seek emotional support and open up about their mental health.

mental health While commutes may have disappeared for many and healthier work/life balances been struck, the pandemic and the dramatic shift to remote working has undoubtedly taken a toll on marketers’ mental health.

Exclusive data from the 2021 Marketing Week Career and Salary Survey reveals 40.2% of the 2,453 respondents surveyed say working from home has had a ‘somewhat negative’ or ‘very negative’ impact on their mental health. Amongst marketers aged 18 to 34, this number rises to over half (51.6%).

Calls to NABS, the advertising and media support organisation, are up by 35% year on year, including interactions with the service’s digital redundancy tool. Some 23% of calls to the advice line are from individuals specifically reaching out for emotional support. Mental health is cited as the main reason for over half (51%) of calls, followed by low mood and confidence (20%) and work pressures (16%).

NABS’s wellbeing poll from November reveals the industry is struggling most with low motivation, anxiety, isolation and the pressure of work, while during one-to-one coaching sessions confidence, stress and resilience have emerged as key issues.

The organisation delivered 11 more confidence sessions in 2020, which saw a 20% increase in attendance. Issues around confidence are being amplified by working from home, as some marketers are starved of formal feedback and regular one-to-ones with managers are delayed.

In addition, attendance has grown by 57% for masterclasses helping parents manage their confidence and resilience, while more than 4,500 people have watched NABS’s video guides to furlough.

Head of support at NABS, Annabel McCaffrey, explains that while on the face of it the biggest proportion of calls focus on financial support, when the team dig deeper there is almost always a mental health element. This is a big reason why NABS is supporting today’s Time to Talk Day 2021 (4 February), a movement encouraging people to start conversations about mental health.

Challenge is there right now and it’s ok to feel discouraged and worried. You need to give yourself some space.

Raj Kumar, Aviva

The timing is crucial as a shift is taking place within the marketing community from the first and second lockdowns to the third. Unable to see an end to the crisis and emotionally exhausted by the uncertainty, marketers have found the novelty of remote working has worn off and a second wave of home-schooling is affecting motivation.

“There was a novelty, an adrenaline that was getting us through. But with this third lockdown, there’s the relentlessness of it. We did a wellbeing survey and the big message is that suddenly motivation and drive have deflated, and people are really struggling with that,” says McCaffrey.

“One of the things that we’re really conscious of when we talk to people about finding new motivation is it’s no longer about saying ‘I ticked 10 things off my task list’. We encourage people to think about what behaviour might you adopt today that’s going to make you feel happier.”

Despite being relatively consistent during the first two lockdowns, motivation and drive have been hit hard by the third lockdown, agrees NABS head of careers, Uzma Afridi. As a result, coping mechanisms are evolving.

This Much I Learned about mental health

“What worked in the first lockdown is very unlikely to work in this one. It’s a different time of year, it’s different circumstances. It might look the same, but the rules have changed. The thing that’s really coming through for people is that uncertainty,” she notes.

“The brain doesn’t deal with uncertainty very well. It would rather know what is or isn’t going to happen. In a limbo state the brain doesn’t know what to plan for. We’re also seeing fatigue has kicked in.”

While she points out that the marketing industry is full of incredibly resourceful and creative people, Afridi believes the emotional toll may come later with the end of the furlough scheme and the knock-on effect of redundancies.

“Marketing has always been an industry where there’s pressure. When you make cuts in the business and the workload stays the same you will see the pressure that creates for those still in the business,” Afridi notes.

“The pressure is being shifted in a different direction, but we know marketers have always been under pressure. It’s going to be amplified.”

Making a difference

As businesses edge towards a year operating during a pandemic, the pressure to drive growth in 2021 means a lot of attention is falling on the marketing department. And in many cases that is a marketing department depleted by redundancies, furlough and reduced budgets.

Aviva group brand and reputation director, Raj Kumar, agrees that the pressure is “immense” as every business chases growth. However, he is confident there is something in the marketer’s spirit that could present an opportunity.

“The good thing is every marketer joins a brand to grow it. We leave the caution to finance. You never hear a marketer say: ‘Headwinds are coming and therefore I would just like to maintain what I have right now or have a reduction of 5%’. Marketers always go ‘I’m going to grow this brand’ and see how they can do it best,” he argues.

“Challenge is there right now and it’s ok to feel discouraged and worried. You need to give yourself some space. Explore those feelings, because ultimately that leadership will start with a mastery of self. What has helped me is the measure of success or failure is set by me. Sometimes it might be in line with the project success or failure, sometimes it won’t be.”

Compared to the reaction to the financial crisis of 2008, Kumar believes there has been a sea change within business in terms of acknowledging the importance of mental health. Within his own business there has been a concerted effort to support employee wellbeing.

We did a wellbeing survey and the big message is that suddenly motivation and drive have deflated, and people are really struggling with that.

Annabel McCaffrey, NABS

Aviva, for example, gifted every member of staff a £100 voucher at Christmas in recognition of their hard work, while the insurer has given all 16,000 UK workers an extra day off in 2021 to support their wellbeing.

Employees can access 35 hours of paid leave to help with caring responsibilities and there is flexible working for all, meaning workers are guaranteed full pay even if they are unable to work their contracted hours due to caring responsibilities.

As well as having free access to meditation apps Headspace and Thrive, all staff can access preventative medicine via DigiCare+ Workplace app and a full range of menopause support. Aviva also developed the #Backtobest wellbeing campaign to encourage employees to earn points for tips and tricks that benefit their wellbeing, from exercising to drinking a litre of water.

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The company is now sending iPads to employees who are struggling to home-school their children due to a lack of devices and has introduced a ‘Power Hour’ every day, whereby employees get an hour free to spend on something that enhances their wellbeing.

Kumar explains that constantly listening to employee sentiment and rapid decision making at an executive level has helped Aviva push these measures through at speed. Acutely aware the lockdown feels different this time, due to the pressures of home-schooling coupled with the bad weather, the leadership team set a goal to create the ‘winter of wellbeing’. This shift in tone starts from the top.

“We have to role model our values and behaviours at times like this, because if you don’t do it in the bad times then it’s not really a value. It’s only really a value when it’s tested,” says Kumar. “What’s more even the leaders need to take time. Acknowledging the fact that all our exec are people makes you feel more human and authentic.”

Being bold

Being human and relatable is all part of ITV’s internal response to Covid-19. In line with its high-profile ‘Britain Get Talking’ campaign, which aims to encourage 10 million people to improve their mental or physical health by 2023, the broadcaster has made mental health a priority internally.

“We were very clear when we decided to tackle this issue of helping people take care of their mental health as an external campaign we absolutely had to live it internally, because you can’t have a disconnect between what your brand says and what it does,” explains ITV director of social purpose, Clare Phillips. “We absolutely had to be true and authentic.”

ITV spent time developing its approach to mental health, starting with the recognition that employees are the broadcaster’s highest priority. The focus is on promoting an open culture where people are free to speak about their mental health without judgement, promoting positive mental wellbeing and providing support.

This response has stepped up since the onset of the pandemic. ITV’s health and wellbeing group meets weekly, pushing out emails promoting new courses and events. The latest events include a webinar on managing anxiety and an online drop-in session for people to discuss how they’re feeling, run in collaboration between ITV Pride and mental health charity Frazzled Café.

As well as encouraging people to talk to their manager and seek advice from their peers through networking groups, Philips explains ITV is much more visible about promoting its support services. This includes a confidential employee assistance programme offering staff the opportunity to discuss any issues they are experiencing. In addition, the broadcaster has been highlighting its tie-up with Togetherall, a 24-hour forum and community of professional advisors.

Keeping the routes of communication open with senior leadership has also been crucial. At the start of the pandemic ITV CEO Carolyn McCall began hosting bi-weekly vodcasts recorded from her home. While sometimes she discusses a new programme launch or work being done to transform the business, McCall actively encourages staff to ask her anything and she will try to answer.

“On the vodcast you also hear people from across the company talk about how they’re feeling and some of that will be, ‘I’m finding it really difficult working from home and home-schooling is really tough’. To hear that from the most senior people in the company is really reassuring that we’re all finding it challenging,” says Philips.

She believes it is essential that ITV talks about its culture and what it stands for on the subject of mental health, as well as its work on diversity and inclusion, and wider environmental commitments. Philips says the company has become “a lot bolder” in terms of showing what it stands for, which matters to prospective employees.

“It’s important to take a stand and state what you believe in as an organisation because people are more values driven in terms of the companies they work for,” Philips adds. “You’ve also got to put that into action, because otherwise it’s empty. When it comes to mental health that is what we’re seeing.”

Evolving mindset

While companies in general are gaining a greater appreciation of mental health, Afridi urges brands to ensure they have policies in place around wellbeing as this is a statement of intent that shows employees you take the matter seriously.

She explains that policies also have to be flexible enough to manage the issues of real life that have been magnified by the pandemic. Businesses should, for example, be mindful of the emotional impact of world events such as the murder of George Floyd last year, as well as people’s personal circumstances.

“Your team member might say ‘I need a mental health day today’. Are there policies in place that can help facilitate this? People have lost relatives and friends, and being in a lockdown situation can have an impact on mental health, so it’s making sure that people do feel they can take the time out without feeling it will impact their job,” Afridi adds.

Being agile enough to update the mental health provision is crucial. At the onset of Covid-19, Marks & Spencer assessed its mental health and wellbeing support tools to understand what more was needed.

It’s important to take a stand and state what you believe in as an organisation because people are more values driven in terms of the companies they work for.

Clare Philips, ITV

“Whilst we already offer some great resources, such as our free, confidential support line ‘PAM Assist’ and mindfulness sessions, they were all geared towards offering support when there was a problem, rather than helping colleagues manage their day-to-day mental wellbeing,” explains director of clothing and home marketing, Nathan Ansell.

“As a result, we partnered with Unmind, an app that has been specifically designed for the workplace to support colleagues to regularly take time for their mental health and we’ve had great feedback.”

Last month, Marks & Spencer also ran its first wellbeing fair featuring sessions with Dr Heather Bolton from Unmind, and doctor and government mental health ambassador Alex George, as well as M&S nutritionists.

Ansell also believes that regular communication and maintaining an open culture have also been essential in terms of morale and wellbeing during the pandemic.

Brands that have struck the right note and supported employees throughout the crisis stand in good stead to retain and attract talent in the post-pandemic world. Marketers are also using this time to think about their options and how their careers might evolve.

NABS has seen a growing number of people seeking career coaching to develop a “growth mindset” and find ways to become more resourceful. Some 70% of respondents to the organisation’s latest wellbeing survey say they have used the last three months to reassess their priorities and consider the direction they want to go in.

Kumar is confident that marketers can use this period of uncertainty to free themselves from the fear of failure.

“In a crisis a real positive is that you don’t have the fear of failure, because everybody is trying so many different new things. There is a shifting paradigm, so if things fail people move past it. It’s a true time for a growth mindset,” he suggests.

“You can fail and it won’t cost you your career. You’ll learn from it, move quickly, because the time is so compressed in a crisis that you don’t have all the fear factors that you would if you were in a normal business. Go out of your comfort zone, because even if you think your resilience is low, it is much higher because you’ll be forgiven much more by the business and by customers.”

Anyone needing help can contact NABS for free, impartial and confidential advice via or 0800 707 6607.