How to help prevent agency burnout


We’ve all heard talk of the ‘Great Resignation’ and ‘quiet quitting.’ Whether you discuss the issue with colleagues or get your agency gossip from social media, there’s no avoiding the elephant in the room: agency burnout is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Burnout has been a ubiquitous and worrying theme in advertising and marketing agencies since the first ad man put pen to paper. Long hours, demanding clients, and high turnover have all factored into agency employees feeling undervalued and overworked. This leads many workers to quit their jobs due to burnout.

While many agencies have recognized the pressure on their teams and looked to make changes by investing in wellness programs, destigmatizing mental health, and adopting new, more flexible ways of working, change does not always happen fast enough to save employees from the effects of burnout. 

Today, we’re talking about how to identify burnout, why it’s such a significant problem for agencies, and what steps businesses can take to prevent it.                                                                  

What’s burnout?

Burnout is the sense of mental and physical exhaustion, often caused by chronic overworking and long-term stress. Unsurprisingly, this is a common phenomenon in agencies where the hours are long and the pressure is high.

What are the signs of burnout?

If you’re worried that you or your staff are experiencing burnout, these are the signs to look out for:

  • Inability to switch off: Burned-out workers struggle to disengage from work in their free time, ruminating over conversations and stressing about upcoming deadlines. This is mentally draining and prevents people from enjoying their lives outside work.

    Poor work-life balance can exacerbate this issue. In PR, it’s estimated that 41% of employees spend 49 to 79 hours working a week, which equates to around 24 unpaid work days each year.
  • Overwhelm, anxiety and depression: Burned-out employees are likely to be exhausted and on edge. If their work situation seriously affects their mental health, they may experience depression and anxiety.

    A lack of boundaries, working excessive hours, and constantly feeling under pressure to deliver can lead to a feeling of overwhelm, which goes hand in hand with anxiety and depression.

  • Exhaustion & trouble sleeping: Burnout can cause both insomnia and fatigue. If you’re unable to relax, you may find it difficult to fall asleep, leading to physical and mental exhaustion the following day. Countless studies have found that a lack of restorative sleep can lead to job performance detriment, with anxiety over making mistakes only fuelling the cycle of burnout.

Why is burnout such a big problem in agencies?

Burnout is a problem in many industries but is highly prevalent in the agency world. Why?

  • Prioritizing profit over wellbeing: An agency’s profits are driven by their staff’s productivity. The faster you work, the more projects you get over the line, the more money you make. When an agency’s leaders value its profit over the welfare of its employees, they are pushed harder to deliver more, often putting their personal lives on a backburner so they can prioritize client work.
  • Creating toxic work environments: It can be easy to blame the ‘Great Resignation’ on people’s unwillingness to work. But a person's relationship with their job often has less to do with the work itself and more with how they’re treated by their managers, peers, and clients. Workers contend with many challenges in agency workplaces; think overwhelming workloads, long hours that seep into evenings and weekends, micromanagers, bosses who don’t give credit where it’s due, and demanding clients who don’t respect boundaries — which become increasingly difficult to set in a connected world. And speaking of clients…
  • Overservicing clients creates a vicious cycle: Agencies must have clear boundaries with clients, including when it is appropriate to contact employees and the lead times for when they can expect work to be delivered. However, setting these boundaries can be difficult; another agency will always be willing to do the job faster or cheaper. However, overservicing clients contributes to a toxic work culture.

    Overservicing can occur in many ways, including being available to clients 24/7, delivering work with super-speedy turnarounds that see employees working around the clock, and agreeing to out-of-scope requests.

    Client managers are understandably cautious about pushing back on clients' unreasonable requests. The pressure to retain clients and hit profit and utilization goals make setting boundaries incredibly risky. But the more agencies give in to these requests, the more clients will expect this level of service, creating a vicious cycle that only the bravest agencies can break.

Let’s look at some statistics:

    • Mental health is declining: Calls to the NABS support line relating to mental health jumped by 15% from 2021 to 2022, and therapy referrals for employees suffering from mental health problems increased by 50% over the same period.

    • It’s about culture, not work: The quality of your work experience is up to 3x more impactful on your overall well-being than the number of days or hours worked.

    • Burnout has consequences for physical health: Employees who say they are burned out very often or always are 23% more likely to visit the emergency room.

    • Overtime is expected (and encouraged): More than half (53%) of UK marketing professionals said they currently work at least five hours of overtime per week.
  • This is a global problem: The Marketing and Advertising industry has a worldwide burnout rate of 69.6%, covering marketing and ad agencies, web design agencies, and digital agencies, among others.
  • Advertising has the 2nd highest turnover rate: The annual employee turnover rate in the advertising industry worldwide is 30%, the 2nd highest after tourism.
  • Agencies are aware of the issue: 57% of agencies reported ‘Employee well-being/burn-out’ as their top challenge when it comes to people and culture.
  • But they aren’t supporting staff: Only 21% of employees feel they can have open conversations with their People team about burnout.

So, how can you prevent employee burnout at your agency?

While you can’t burnout-proof an agency, you can take steps to reduce stress and better support your staff. Here’s how to help with agency burnout.

Promote a work-life balance & support their mental health

Work is important, yes, but so are our private lives. Agencies have a responsibility to their staff to create the best work environment possible that provides stimulation, rewarding opportunities, and room to rest. That means promoting a healthy work-life balance and providing the tools for employees to look after their mental health.

Culture begins at the top. Lead by example by encouraging senior leaders to down tools at an appropriate time. If junior staff members see their mentors working overtime, they will feel there is an expectation for them to do the same. It’s time to break that cycle.

Plus, make mental health an open conversation. Discuss the importance of switching off in all-hands and company-wide emails, and then take steps to facilitate this. For example, some businesses have banned sending emails out of hours, while others have implemented wellness programs that provide access to therapy and mental health resources.

Avoid overservicing clients by setting boundaries

If you allow clients to push a boundary once, they’ll do it again. However, that is often not the client's fault as the onus is on the agency to establish and maintain boundaries.

Setting boundaries can look like client managers only scheduling and accepting meetings between 9am and 5pm. That means no 7am calls, no 9pm presentations. This helps burned-out employees regain balance by separating their private lives from their work life.

A common issue in agencies is that clients expect immediate responses to emails and calls. Encouraging your team to avoid checking their emails outside work hours can help. Likewise, if they need to be contactable when not at their desk, provide them with a work mobile phone that they can switch off after 5pm, so clients can’t access them on their personal devices round the clock.

Lastly, be aware of scope creep. Offering to add a little extra value here and there is a kind gesture, but giving away too much free time piles additional work onto workers' already hefty workloads. 

Boundary setting is no easy task, especially if the client threatens to sever ties with your agency in favor of another. These difficult conversations must be had if you’re serious about preventing agency burnout by building a positive work environment. A serious but respectful discussion with a client that outlines the agency’s boundaries and ways of working can go a long way to improve agency-client relations while showing them you’re still on their side and committed to delivering the best work possible.

Promote a culture of compassion and accountability

To combat toxic work habits, promote a culture of kindness and responsibility. There are several ways to do this, though the process may take some time:

  • Build an empathetic leadership team
  • Set up a buddy system that sees colleagues supporting one another and opens up opportunities for conversations and collaboration
  • Partner with a well-being company to offer therapy and advice
  • Reward hard work adequately with timely promotions, time off in lieu, and bonuses

Implement time-management techniques

Finally, preventing employee burnout can also mean changing how you approach your work. Making small optimizations to how employees manage their time can greatly impact your agency’s bottom line by helping employees work more productivity — but without burning out.

Better time management comes down to intelligent task prioritization. It can be easy to treat every task and request as urgent and critical, but in reality, they’re not.

Dozens of time-management techniques, including the Eisenhower Decision Matrix, the ABCDE Method, the Pomodoro Technique, and Time Boxing, help employees prioritize their to-do lists and make the most of their workdays. Better workload management means employees can prioritize and plan their time more effectively, helping reduce feelings of overwhelm.

Understanding how your employees use their time can help you support this process. While an obsession with utilization rate can contribute to employee burnout, understanding how your team uses their time can help you encourage better time management and task prioritization. With Forecast, the all-in-one project management tool, you can identify when task loads are not being spread evenly across the agency, address inefficiencies causing stress, and better support individuals on your team to do the best work of their lives.

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