Our shared pandemic experience must lead to better understanding of mental health challenges

Many people within the agency and marketing sectors are facing a tough time due to the ongoing pandemic. To provide support, the ICA is interviewed a range of people at all levels within the industry who have overcome mental health challenges and built resiliency.  This series seeks to remove the stigma around mental health where it exists, and to provide help where it’s needed through relatable stories and strategies.

The series facilitator, Jordan Friesen, Principal Consultant at Mindset Mental Health Strategy, wraps up the series and shares his call to action for industry employees and leaders.

It was a privilege to be involved in the ICA’s “Resiliency” series of articles. As a mental healthcare professional, interviewing eight people in agencies, at various stages in their careers, on the challenges they’ve faced with mental health and resiliency proved to be both enlightening and inspiring.

From the interviews emerge some powerful stories on a challenging subject, which are so relatable because they are told by people in your own industry. Thank you to Andy Krupski, Ania Russocki, Lauren LiBetti, Rachel Hlinko, Samantha Kamiel, Phil Talledes, Eve Rémillard-Larose and Cat Wiles for having the courage to take part. It’s clear that stigma around mental health issues still exists in the agency world, and the sharing of these evocative stories is one of the best ways to combat stigma in any setting.

It’s useful to situate some of the issues raised in the interviews within the context of how the pandemic has impacted mental health in Canada overall. Mental wellbeing indicators have fallen significantly below pre-pandemic levels, and have been so for 12-plus consecutive months now, according to The Mental Health Index (MHI) from LifeWorks. Nearly half (45%) of Canadians feel the need for mental health support, according to its April 2021 Canadian report, which also records an overall MHI score of -11, a decline from the pre-pandemic base level of zero. Key issues identified in the April report relate to depression (-12.5), followed by work productivity (-11.8), anxiety (-11.6), and isolation (-11.5).

Bringing this back to the agency world, the ICA’s own mental health research correlates strongly with these overall findings. Not only are 61% of employees “pandemic fatigued,” they are also experiencing issues around work pressures during lockdowns, with one participant saying: “Permission to leave my camera off occasionally would make a world of difference. There are very hard days that would be easier with just the occasional allowance of privacy.” The report also shows that agencies, and their leaders, could do a better job in bridging the gap with people who are feeling vulnerable – while 47.9% say that they “always or usually feel that they can be authentic and vulnerable with their agency leadership,” it’s concerning that 21.4% of respondents indicated that they could “rarely or never” be authentic and vulnerable with leadership.

Suffice to say that, after more than 12 months, we’ve arrived at a place where employees are feeling mentally exhausted, agencies and their leaders continue to be stretched thin, and as a result, the creative, strategic brains that drive the marketing industry are more challenged than ever.

But if we examine the stories shared over the course of this series we can, perhaps, begin to uncover some collective wisdom that can help employees and agencies bounce back stronger, together.

First, I think it’s important to acknowledge the dual responsibility that exists around this issue. Like any aspect of our health, we all have a responsibility to do what we can to look after our mental health and wellbeing. At the same time, there is an organizational responsibility as well. If creative, strategic, brains are what power this industry, then agencies should also be proactively looking after the brain health of their employees too. By the same token, each of us can and should be learning how to look after our own mental health as a key area of skill for the future of a brain-based economy.

Focusing on individual strategies, what’s apparent from the series of articles is that each person had their own set of practices and strategies to support their mental wellbeing and resilience, with a few common themes”

  • Self-awareness is critical to building your resilience. Understanding what impacts your mental health, what works to help you recover, and what you can do proactively is important because it’s all very unique to each individual.
  • Therapy works. Many of our participants talked openly about their experience seeking professional help. But it doesn’t always “click” the first time, so being open to finding the right fit is key.
  • As the world around us changes, we need to be mindful that our needs may change as well. We heard many stories of people “evolving” their toolbox, re-evaluating ways in which they’d managed stress, anxiety, or their mood in the past and either returning to old tools, or seeking out new ones.
  • To the point above, be open to trying new things – therapy, hobbies, exercise, journaling, and gratitude all emerged as routes towards mental wellbeing. Experiment and find what works for you.

Looking at organizational strategies, both leaders and less senior staff provided insight on how agencies can better support their employees around mental health and wellbeing:

  • Businesses, including agencies, need to be more human-centred in the ways in which they design and deliver work. Recognizing that we bring our whole selves to work and ensuring that a workplace can accommodate the different realities we’re living in is becoming more important.
  • Leadership skills will need to be re-thought, with a strong focus on the attributes some may have once thought of as “soft.” Empathy, building quality relationships, and cultivating authenticity should be considered as important for leaders as the ability to craft a brilliant pitch.
  • The pandemic, and its aftermath, provides an opportunity for organizations to fundamentally rethink the assumptions they have about work and how it gets done. We know from best-practices like Canada’s National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety that what creates the conditions for mental health at work are the processes, structures, and systems we work within. In this regard, let’s not go back to normal. Let’s go back to better.

Above all, the pandemic has given us all a visceral, common understanding of what it means to experience a challenge with our mental health. As we move toward a post-pandemic world, let’s use that understanding to create workplaces that are more compassionate, supportive, safe, and ultimately, human.


Jordan Friesen is a registered Occupational Therapist and Principal Consultant at Mindset Mental Health Strategy. He uses his skills as a consultant to assist organizations who want to take progressive action to support the mental health of their workforce as a competitive advantage and business imperative for the future of work.

Cossette, Juniper Park\TBWA, Momentum WW, Pigeon Brands, Sid Lee, The Hive and Weber Shandwick are members of the Institute of Communication Agencies. Report on Marketing is where leading Canadian agencies showcase their insights, cutting-edge research and client successes. The Report on Marketing provides a valuable source of thought leadership for Canadian marketers to draw inspiration from. Find more articles like this at the Report on Marketing.

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