by Carey Finn (@carey_finn) What can agencies do to promote wellbeing in the workplace? MarkLives spoke to a range of voices on what is – and ought to be – happening to effect positive change.

The issues around mental health and general wellbeing in the South African advertising and marketing industries are serious – and it seems they are finally starting to be taken as such.

After decades of being passed off as part of the trade, topics such as stress and overwork, workplace-fuelled depression and anxiety, plus bullying and harassment, are getting the airtime they deserve. While adland has a long way to go before it can relax for those infamous end-of-week drinks, many agencies are taking steps to make working conditions more sustainable. MarkLives spoke to a range of voices on what is – and ought to be – happening to effect positive change.

Bongani Chinkanda

HDI Youth Marketeers CEO

As part of a dedicated mental health journey through the TBWA collective, Bongani Chinkanda and his team have signed up to employee wellness provider, ICAS Southern Africa. They have done this “so that, when someone is feeling stressed or have any other issues, they are able to connect with ICAS [and have access to counselling],” he explains. The service is also available to the immediate family of staff members. HDI Youth’s human resources department may also be approached to resolve any workplace problems that may arise, says Chinkanda.

Going forward, Chinkanda says that he would like to make improvements around change management. “Because our industry is in such flux, what we’re trying to do, as HDI, is have policies and processes in place to walk staff through anxious periods in the agency,” he explains, mentioning the loss of a client as a hypothetical example of when this would be helpful.

For the broader industry, Chinkanda suggests setting clear boundaries around behaviour that may be intimidating or otherwise problematic. “I’m not a fan of [the idea] that creatives are difficult people,” he says. “There’s a myth that the ECD can curse and swear and throw laptops around because [they’re] having a creative moment. Great work should not be at the risk of breaking down juniors. I think it is the responsibility of us as agency leaders to make sure that there’s an environment where that doesn’t happen.”

Michelle Caldeira

Blue Moon Corporate Communications managing director

Workplace bullying is far subtler than the schoolyard image we tend to have of it, says Michelle Caldeira, and agencies need to understand that and be aware of red flags such as constant criticism or the assignment of impossible schedules. The efforts of the employee-alignment division of Blue Moon are focused on adding people’s potential to the bottom line of an organisation, something that can only occur if they are “in a great space and feeling great about the company,” she says.

While businesses may introduce mindfulness classes, yoga and the like as part of efforts to promote positivity and wellbeing in the workplace, and Blue Moon itself has taken similar steps, Caldeira emphasises that they are not a quick fix. “All of that stuff, as far as I am concerned, is supporting material,” she says. “It’s creating an environment of awareness but it doesn’t push anyone to take action as they should.” More important, she reckons, is that the workplace be a space where employees feel safe enough to express themselves.

According to Caldeira, a key part of creating a safe workspace is ensuring team relationships are sufficiently strong that colleagues notice when someone is having a bad day or otherwise struggling and in need of a hand. If they are working remotely, this may become apparent in mistakes that crop up in their projects, or the way they interact with others telephonically or on office chat platforms. Should a staff member at Blue Moon need time to decompress, mental health days (rebranded from duvet days) may be taken without any questions asked.

Vanessa Gibb

VML South Africa director of people operations

“It’s useful to think about it in three levels: policy, which is a good place to start but completely useless by itself; artefacts; and practice,” says Vanessa Gibb. While overarching company, WPP, has a number of workplace policies in place, which all employees are walked through upon joining, VML SA takes a few extra steps to make sure they are integrated into daily office life. “I think, in a creative environment, where you employ a lot of people who pride themselves as rulebreakers, saying ‘it’s written in the policy’ is seldom an effective way to get anything done,” she says.

Enter the aforementioned artefacts, one example of which is a manifesto on diversity and inclusion, intended to quash bullying and harassment by setting out what the agency is trying to build, and what it will and will not tolerate, says Gibb. All employees are asked to sign to indicate their agreement. “That’s something we try to have as more of an active document,” she says. “We reference it; we base conversations on it. I think it’s similar to our values – we find numerous ways to talk about those every single day, and bring them into the way we work.”

Gibb says that providing employees with free access to a counsellor has been well-received. While sessions themselves are kept strictly confidential, the counsellors have been able to flag concerning trends for Gibb and her team, allowing remedial action to be taken. For example, it emerged that a large number of employees were experiencing high levels of stress related to recent promotions and a subsequent fear of failure. The agency was then able to reassess the way in which it was handling promotions to reduce stress.

Though VML SA has taken steps to encourage optimal employee wellbeing, she emphasises that working society as a whole has a long way to go. She thinks that young people are being affected by an epidemic of stress, and advises that all employers think about the issues on a daily basis. “Even though we’ve got stuff in place, this is something that needs to occupy our minds a lot, because I don’t think we can say, oh, tick, we’ve addressed that,” she says. “I think there’s still a huge task to do in terms of destigmatising mental illness.”

Jarred Cinman

VML South Africa CEO

From a CEO point of view, Jarred Cinman, who served as a LifeLine counsellor for five years, says that his approach is “to try to put it out there that being honest and open [about mental health] is okay, and that it’s okay to need help.” He talks to employees about his own journey with anxiety and depression, and believes it makes a big difference. “It gives people permission to be vulnerable, and to be themselves,” he says.

“And that’s the heart of a healthy culture. In most companies that I encounter, everybody is too scared to speak the truth. They’re keeping everything to themselves, and they’re pretending that everything’s okay, but it isn’t.”

Michelle Beh

The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town) MD & strategy director

Since the agency’s restructuring, its approach to wellbeing has become a mostly informal one, says Michelle Beh. “In a lot of ways, we have more of an open-door policy, and more of a personal, family-feel policy, where we’re quite flexible in terms of understanding people’s personal lives,” she says. “We allow people the space to deal with any issues that they may face, [for example] where they may potentially have to work from home at times, or take some time off. When your employees are in a good mental space, you get more out of them.” Beh herself, as a mother of two, says that she has benefitted from this understanding and support.

When it comes to bullying and harassment in the industry, she believes that it’s necessary to set clear standards of what is and isn’t acceptable in the workplace, and hold each other accountable. “Every employee who joins the industry should be aware of those standards, so that they know where those boundaries are,” she says. “I think one of the issues is that, especially when you’re young, coming into the industry, people are not sure when those boundaries have been crossed and which behaviours are not acceptable.”

Beh suggests that having an external, safe forum where people can bring up issues could be beneficial, particularly for young employees and freelancers who may not feel comfortable raising concerns through designated channels within an agency. This is especially true where senior members of staff, including directors and owners, are involved, she says.

Wouter Lombard

M&C Saatchi Abel talent partner

In recent years, conversations around family responsibility leave sparked a broader discussion about employee wellbeing, says Wouter Lombard, with exciting results. In the interests of inclusivity, the agency has, since last year, added five annual days of personal leave to staff contracts, which may be taken for reasons ranging from mental health to administrative errands, religious events and bereavement. General annual leave remains untouched. M&C Saatchi Abel has also introduced a month-long sabbatical to staff members who have served for a period of 10 years.

“From inception, as an agency we have been set on doing good and making a difference,” says Lombard. “So we are also giving our staff one day every six months to go and spend time with our charities. We’ve got 100 people in the office in Cape Town – that’s 200 days that we can make a difference in people’s lives.”

M&C Saatchi Abel supports an orphanage and a home for abused mothers and children. “Time to go do good is important for us,” he says.

Further tweaks that the agency has made to improve employee wellbeing include making its maternity-leave policy gender-neutral to support the primary caregiver in a relationship, whomever that may be, and ensuring that it covers surrogacy and adoption. The agency provides four months of paid leave for the primary caregiver and two weeks for the non-primary caregiver.

In daily life, Lombard says that the agency encourages employees to talk to their managers first about any issues that may be affecting them but, should that be difficult, the HR team is available 24/7, and all of the partners may also be approached. “We’ve got an incredibly open-door policy,” he says. “We’ve worked very, very hard to eliminate any form of ego in our agency.”

Brenda Khumalo

Collective ID managing director

“We are always willing to offer support,” says Brenda Khumalo of the agency’s approach to employee wellbeing. “We don’t have a specific mental-health policy in place but we do have a workplace harassment policy, which also speaks to bullying.” For day-to-day issues or other grievances, she says that employees may approach whichever senior member of staff they feel most comfortable talking to and, in the case of harassment, the necessary steps will be taken to conduct a formal investigation, which could result in a disciplinary hearing.

She says that the agency is mindful of work-life balance and, where possible, will give employees time off in lieu of extra hours logged during exceptionally intense production periods. This, she says, is done to ensure that the team is well-rested and able to give its best. Following a similar line of thought, the agency organises an annual staff retreat to ease into the year.

Khumalo also mentions monthly braais for morale, yearly wellness days that promote holistic health through relaxation, diet and movement hacks, as well as group life and disability cover offered to all employees, which she says touches on mental health.

Together with other senior female members of Collective ID, she arranges informal networking and learning events for women in the agency and broader industry, creating a space where people can share experiences, discuss difficulties and find inspiration. “For me, that speaks a lot to mental health,” she says. “As women, we face so many issues in the workplace; it’s so nice to hear that you are not in it alone.”

Since the agency is small, they are able to understand each employee’s individual situation, says Khumalo. “And we help a lot,” she says, sharing a story of how the company arranged support for an employee who was struggling to juggle family and work responsibilities. “When people are happy, it makes it easier for us, because then we work as a team,” she says. “If things aren’t okay at home, nothing is okay – you can’t expect somebody to be okay at work.”

Tarryn Pickup & Rika Nell

Joe Public United marketing manager & talent director (respectively)

To encourage general workplace wellbeing, employees at Joe Public United have access to a number of “people development offerings”, according to Tarryn Pickup and Rika Nell. These include strengths and career-coaching, systems workshops, which aid in the resolution of conflict and misunderstandings, and skills development. Staff may also make use of counselling through ICAS, as well as private hypnotherapy sessions.

The two emphasise how the agency takes issues of harassment very seriously; it is simply not tolerated and is investigated in its fullest capacity, they say. HR deals with any complaints of harassment or bullying as needed, and also introduces talks and workshops when required. A culture of transparency and trust is important and, with that in mind, Joe Public United works to create an environment where untoward behaviour is not accepted. The agency believes that the industry as a whole should support mental- and health-wellness facilities and modalities as an investment, because it allows people to grow to their fullest potential.

Bogosi Motshegwa

Thinkerneur founder

Brand consultant and strategist Bogosi Motshegwa believes that macro obstacles to optimal employee wellness include SA’s high unemployment rate and general lack of job security, which may make workers hesitant to complain or ask for anything beyond their paycheck. Other issues include “working crazy hours”, which he feels has become the norm, working on multiple accounts simultaneously (“the industry has made it seem normal for one person to be responsible for half an agency’s clients”), and unhealthy competition within agencies.

It is also his opinion that, despite reforms in adland, compensation – and opportunities – may not always be as equitable as they could be across races and genders. “The stresses that cause lack of, or limited, mental and physical wellness, are not distributed equally,” he says, with, he suspects, women and people of colour bearing the bulk of the load. “The truth is, we aren’t as progressive as we’d like to think. Name me 10 ad agencies that are female-run – not just female run but black-female-run. These would need to be multinationals, not companies started by those women. I’ll wait.”

Ways to improve the situation, suggests Motshegwa, include greater respect for employees at all levels and fair pay: “People don’t want bean bags and alcohol every Friday; people want to get paid.”

Claire Cobbledick

Gumtree South Africa general manager

An industry veteran and former MD of Jupiter Cape Town, Claire Cobbledick sees three main impediments to employee wellbeing. “I think there’s a structural creative-industry problem around billing and costing of services,” she says, suggesting that it often turns agencies into “sweatshops”, with underpaid young people put into positions of weighty responsibility. “I think that has to do with how agencies negotiate their relationships with their clients. It’s an industry that somehow ended up being founded on the principle that you can get cheap labour – and I think that is a really big problem, and it impacts heavily on employee wellness.”

The second issue, she says, is that agencies sometimes mistake what they understand as an open, creative environment for one in which harassment and other issues can’t occur. “[The idea that] ‘everything goes’ can actually, in some ways, be threatening and almost lawless,” she says. Agencies may think that having rules means clamping down on creativity, she says, but this is simply not the case.

A related area for improvement involves respect for diversity. “Agencies are not always extremely diverse places,” says Cobbledick. “What’s permissible is often as defined by a particular kind of person, and I don’t know that this is always recognised. What is acceptable behaviour needs to be considered from many different points of view.” As examples, she mentions practices of drinking at work, or having explicit sexual discussions, both of which she found to be common in her career in adland but which would not be considered appropriate universally.

None of this is the result of bad intention, however, she reckons, while proposing increased consideration, reflection and awareness as possible solutions. Agencies need to proactively think about the environment that they want to build, she says, rather than simply stating that they want to be a free, creative space.

Gary Willmott

Hi5 Technologies CEO

Gary Willmott, who heads up digital staff engagement platform Hi5, offers some general, perhaps surprising, insights based on research his company has conducted across a wide range of industries in SA. “In the creative industries, professional growth and meaningful work are coming up as more important [to employee happiness] than remuneration or providing customers with excellent service,” he says.

His research also suggests that most local advertising and marketing employees want to – and feel they are able to – learn as part of their role, and that frequent feedback and recognition are important part sof their professional growth and satisfaction. Oh, and millennials still don’t feel like they are being heard, he says.

Andy Wright

Never Not Creative creator

When it comes to best practice, agency leaders should “focus on fixing the issues with their business that cause poor mental health,” says Andy Wright, creator of the organisation which, together with UnLtd and Everymind, undertook a groundbreaking study into the mental health and wellbeing of the media, marketing and creative industry in Australia in 2018. This means looking at how the business and its expectations have been designed, he says, as well as how things get done.

Wright suggests that employees be given the freedom to design their own roles, with older leaders letting go of the assumption that their way of going about things is always best. He also emphasises the importance of setting boundaries and saying no. “Creative industry stereotypes still exist: clients say jump; we go how high?” he quips. “A request comes in at five o’clock on a Friday, and suddenly you’re working the weekend; those types of things put pressure on people.”

While employee-assistance programmes and projects to create a fun, creative atmosphere at work may be helpful in fostering staff wellbeing, Wright echoes Blue Moon’s Caldeira in cautioning against an overreliance on them. “What we have to do is focus on the thing which is the biggest contributor, which is the role itself,” he says. “It’s not whether you’ve got nice things around the office and free lunch and that kind of stuff; what are the things in your role that are causing poor mental health? All the other stuff is like using 5% of your day to fix the other 95%.”

Trying to initiate conversations about depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges may be awkward, says Wright, particularly where there is an age and/or gender difference between the speaker and listener. Instead, encourage conversations about job satisfaction, which can shine a light on many of the same issues, sans the feelings of discomfort, he suggests.

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The opinions expressed by the people interviewed do not necessarily reflect those of the author or MarkLives.


Carey FinnCarey Finn (@carey_finn) is a writer and editor with a decade and a half of industry experience, having covered everything from ethical sushi in Japan to the technicalities of roofing, agriculture, medical stuff and more. She’s also taught English and journalism, and dabbled in various other communications ventures along the way, including risk reporting. She is a contributing writer to

This year, MarkLives is shining a #SPOTLIGHT on health and wellness in the ad and marketing industries. We would like to hear your story and use our platform to create change in our industry, so please email us at ourstories at marklives dot com.

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