Why Adland’s “Always On” Culture Is Killing Creativity & Creating Burnout

Why Adland’s “Always On” Culture Is Killing Creativity & Creating Burnout

Charles Sturt University’s lecturer in communication, Victoria Erskine (pictured below), shares research on the impacts to wellbeing for content creators, storytellers and digital professionals who are under ever more pressure to be ‘on’ 24-7…

Just another day at the office

7pm:  you’re heading home for the night, grabbing some dinner on the way and planning to squeeze in a quick walk with the dog, when you get a text from your boss to jump online and check out the backlash taking off on your client’s Facebook site after an ill-advised tweet from the CEO has gone viral.

No need to go back to the office to deal with this crisis – you can do it all from your phone as you line up at the Thai takeaway. You can monitor, respond and report back on how you calmed the social storm with ease while your boss gets on the phone to the CEO.

8pm: The Pad Thai goes cold on the kitchen bench as the dog gives you one of those “when can we go out and play?” looks …again.

10pm: You just need to see what the headlines are saying before you head off to bed. Too wired to sleep, you keep the phone by the bed and social alerts on…just in case something blows up overnight.

As I prepare to meet a new cohort of undergraduate communication students starting uni next week, I find myself questioning how can I even hope to prepare them with the knowledge, skills attitudes and more importantly resilience they are going to need to thrive in an industry that invented the 24/7 “always on” culture.

“Always on” culture expected in communication jobs

I read with no surprise but a heavy heart, the account on ABC online of media professionals as young as 21 suffering burnout which supported what has been well reported as a decline in mental health of young people, so much so that it is now a WHO priority.

While stress in the media industry is nothing new, after the hellish summer of bushfires we have recently experienced, I am more concerned than ever about the wellbeing of frontline communication professionals.

Drought, bushfires, floods, Coronavirus. The pressure for brands to achieve Insta-fame and the public’s insatiable appetite for constantly refreshed news and information, is turning many media and communication professionals into zombies.

“Things can be fine one minute and a flaming ball of fire the next. You need to be resilient to deal with these situation in a quick, professional and efficient manner.” Regional PR practitioner

This is a world where the public demands greater empathy and authenticity not only from our politicians (hello #scottyfrommarketing) but equally from big brands, banks, insurance companies, supermarkets – frankly, any business. This adds even more responsibility for content creators, story tellers and digital natives behind the scenes to deliver more innovative ways to connect and build trust with the distracted masses.

No pressure.

Getting wellbeing on the agenda

It’s encouraging to see the Public Relations Institute of Australia has this topic high on the agenda building on a 2018 study that showed people in the media, marketing and creative industries were 29 per cent more likely to show symptoms of anxiety than the general population. In the UK the Public Relations and Communications Association has developed a mental health tool kit where it claims 89 per cent of public relations professionals have struggled with their mental health in the last year. The top reasons reported; heavy workload, competing deadlines, demanding clients, low self-worth on the job and lack of work-life balance.

What this is all pointing to is a need for professionals at all stages of their careers to be more aware of the factors that undermine their ability to operate effectively in a profession where the currency is problem solving, critical thinking and fast paced decision-making. While the industry has been obsessed with education around technology, AI and digital media and the pressure to be on top of this rapidly changing media landscape, it is equally as critical to the future of our profession that we all have a clear understanding of the personal and professional protective factors needed to maintain resilience.

Fighting the zombie culture

In two studies in 2019, my fellow Charles Sturt University researcher Dr Sharon Schoenmaker and I surveyed communication professionals and students and discovered they have a strong sense of what helps build resilience but can’t always make it happen.

Our research shows the following five factors help practitioners to build resilience: strong relationships, determination, reflexivity, a positive attitude and self-care practices like regular exercise, socialising with friends, mediation and mindfulness practice.   In short, prevention is much better than a cure.

But it’s not all up to the individual. Organisations have a major role to play in encouraging the ability of their communication professionals to practice the initiatives that build resilience and prevent burnout. Communication professionals need to know they have ongoing employment and a supportive organisational culture, that they have agency to be able to make changes and speak up. And professionals need to trust their emotional intelligence and adaptability so they can read their workmates and accurately judge their own sense of wellbeing, to collectively build resilience at work.

Resilience means learning how to be adaptable but it is so much more than that. As educators we need to model to emerging professionals how to embed resilience as a non-negotiable part of their daily practice at work.  Opportunities to practice resilient responses in supported learning environments where academics and their peers believe in its value is critical.  Our duty of care to our students demand we as the experienced professionals step up to the plate.

It’s never been a more exciting time to work in communication and I am so hopeful about the future  career prospects for our students who will have skills that are highly valued and essential to create more meaning, greater human connection and understanding in our increasingly crazy and complex world.

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