Mental Health for Creative Agencies – 5 Ways Leaders Can Support and Protect Their Teams
Our industry is built on the output of unusual brains. We celebrate the genius of creativity along with the obsession, drive and single-minded focus that enables it. But these extremes of excellence can come at a cost. The creative industry overindexes in mental illness.
The topic carries so much stigma that we flip it to its opposite, mental health, then address it with the safe generalities of self-care. In so doing, we sidestep the crux of the issue: The intersection of what it is to be human with what we’re expected to be as creative professionals.
By all means celebrate the exceptional achievements of the creative mind on fire, generating one winning idea after another; of the hyper-focused strategist that nails one-line briefs. But also recognize that these feats may be enabled by a chemical imbalance. And that’s OK. But it also needs to be OK for those brains to rest. And sometimes to fail.
I’d like to propose an alternate framing: It’s ultimately less about mental illness than about valuing our people for the complete and complicated packages they are. Creating a culture of acceptance means radically rewriting the narrative.
So how do we do this?
Make it OK to talk about mental health challenges
We’re often cautioned not to disclose mental health conditions outside the confidentiality of human resources, for risk of discrimination. This is sound advice. And it’s also a problem, because it perpetuates fears of stigmatization, and it prevents people from asking for what they need to be successful.
One of the most impactful things leaders can do is to speak openly about our own mental health challenges. By sharing our experiences, we make it OK for others to talk about theirs. From a position of leadership, we have the credibility and social capital to change the way mental illness is perceived in the workplace.
Know how to respond when our people ask for what they need
Check in on people more often than you think you need to. Learn their human stories. It’s often the strain we carry outside of work that tips the scale. Offering support and a little extra grace can make the difference between coping and hitting a wall.
Too often we sidestep these conversations because we aren’t equipped as managers and worry we’ll say the wrong thing; in the process, we unwittingly reinforce the stigma and shame. Mental health training for managers is a must if we want to create a supportive culture that runs throughout the entire organization.
Create structures that allow superpowers to emerge from so-called disorders
Many characteristics of mental illness are also our superpowers. Bipolar and ADHD brains are often the most innovative—capable of rapid, fluid and divergent thinking, making connections others don’t see. Anxiety and overachievement can be two sides of the same coin. The anxious brain is hypervigilant, thinking around corners and anticipating outcomes. Depression and acute sensitivity are frequently interrelated.
The challenges of these conditions aren’t insignificant, but under the right conditions can be channeled into strengths. Building flexibility for individual work styles and rhythms can be a tremendous benefit to someone suffering from insomnia, depression or ADHD—who might do their best work outside of traditional business hours. Creating a system that prioritizes “think space,” with blocks for distraction-free time, can be a game-changer for those with neurodiverse wiring.
Model boundaries and prioritize downtime
People follow actions over words, so it’s not enough to say we value work-life balance if we aren’t living it. Leaders can make our values real by setting and adhering to their own boundaries. Take a mental health day from time to time and make it known. Set a “curfew” for after-hours communication. Schedule emails and Slack messages for morning delivery and encourage others to do the same. It’s up to leaders to dismantle the unhealthy notion that pushing yourself to burnout is a badge of honor.
Break out of the “servant” mindset
It’s said that the way we do anything is the way we do everything. For creative agencies, this applies profoundly: The way we let our clients treat us is the way we treat our people. We need to break out of the servant mindset and establish a culture of dignity and respect with our clients and for our people.
We exist in pursuit of creative excellence—built upon the output of inspired, challenging, unusual brains. It is often our complicated, messy humanity and idiosyncratic thought processes that are the very essence of our business—and that ultimately creates such resounding value to clients. Protecting and supporting these beautiful minds benefits us all.