Why Ad People Burn Out
A whip-smart white paper by Dsyke Suematsu called “Economic Treadmill: Why We Are Destined to Burn Out” should be required reading for all ad agency leaders regardless of discipline. He argues that using one’s mind for highly skilled or creative jobs (as opposed to doing tedious assembly-line-style work) has no bearing on the likelihood that a worker will burn out. What matters is the connection (or lack thereof) between the worker’s job and and the things he actually cares about:
What is deceptive, especially in the West, is our assumption that repetitive and mindless jobs are dehumanizing. On the other hand, the jobs that require us to use the abilities that are uniquely human, we assume to be humanizing. This is not necessarily true. The determining factor is not so much the nature of our jobs, but for whom they serve. “Burnout” is a result of consuming yourself for something other than yourself. You could be burnt out for an abstract concept, ideal, or even nothing (predicament). You end up burning yourself as fuel for something or someone else. This is what feels dehumanizing. In repetitive physical jobs, you could burn out your body for something other than yourself. In creative jobs, you could burn out your soul. Either way, it would be dehumanizing. Completely mindless jobs and incessantly mindful jobs could both be harmful to us.
Good managers are able to align the goals of an organization with the goals of the individuals who comprise it. It is an increasingly rare skill. When the de facto goal of an advertising agency–or any other organization for that matter–becomes nothing more than to make the quarterly numbers (or to do whatever it takes to make the client happy), the tether to the hearts of its employees is cut. This is why caring about doing great work is important. This is why your employees need to be proud of whatever is on the computer screen in front of them at all times. We have all seen how much advertising people despise staying one minute past 5:00 to do mediocre work. On the other hand, when they are doing something they are genuinely proud of, you cannot force them to go home.
That being said, pride in one’s work may not be enough. Dyske writes persuasively on how increases in productivity that have come thanks to technology (so often a jackal in sheep’s clothing) actually have increased the likelihood of burnout for those in creative positions:
…take graphic designers. Now with computers handling everything from typesetting, layout, image processing, color management to printing, what used to be done by several specialists are now combined into one person. The number of jobs one can handle in a year increased dramatically. Now designers spend more time being creative, and less time creating the final products. This may sound good, but in terms of stress and rewards, it is not. Because creativity is irrational and unpredictable, coming up with a creative solution can be highly stressful. Designers now have to come up with significantly more creative solutions per year for the same amount of money.
Perhaps worst of all, burnt-out people don’t quit. They keep coming to work. They just stop caring. Human beings have an almost limitless ability to put up with things that make them unhappy. Don’t make them. Every manager’s job is to give his people something to look forward to when their alarm goes off in the morning and they put their feet on the floor. Make your agency stand for something they care about.