Come on, adland. How are you going to respond to this tragedy?

Steve ElrickIn this guest post, Steve Elrick challenges the advertising industry to think differently about work-life balance following the death of copywriter Mita Diran.

It’s only advertising. Nobody dies.

Tragically it seems that wasn’t the case for Mita Diran. Most of us in advertising in Asia will have seen the first reports. Which also mentions a similar tale of Gabriel Lee in China.

I think some of our first reactions to a story like this is a sort of incredulity. In this modern age how someone could possibly die from overwork?

All the facts aren’t out yet of course and we have to be careful.

Of course, we can already surmise, as it’s been hinted, that other elements contributed to the cause of the tragedy, but lets not diminish that for Mita and her family it is most certainly a tragedy. Perhaps there were congenital health issues? Perhaps the medicating of exhaustion with powerful over-the-shelf stimulants (be they ‘only’ super strong cans of caffeine) made a pre-existing condition worse?

Even if, and even so, you have to fear that this perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances would never have happened if she wasn’t in a wider industry working culture that condones (and sometimes even boasts about) pushing people way beyond normal healthy boundaries.

This really isn’t about working long hours and a work life balance – those are conversations being held around the world in just about every business. This is about extremes; extremes that often seem to be becoming norms.

If it was many other industries it would be classified as sweat shop labour and defined as illegal – but of course it’s advertising, a ‘cushy’, sometimes professional, and often seemingly glamorous office job. The positive spin being that it’s a career choice where people willingly clock up crazy hours with a hunger and a passion to prove themselves and get ahead. And often it’s just that.

However I get the feeling, and I’ve seen the evidence, that those ‘crazy hours’ are too often not an option but an expectation.

For the last few years what used to be the very long hours and occasional ‘all-nighters’ for pitches has turned into the rule and not the exception.

12 to 14 hour days and nonexistent weekends aren’t unusual.

More is being asked of less people for lower margins with shorter deadlines. We have often become a commodity business pushing out vastly more product at steadily decreasing margin with ever decreasing respect.

As shocking as stories like Mita’s are – if we push people to such extremes should they really be a surprise?

And yes, if they are only uppermost tip of the iceberg, how many other people below are tired, burned out, depressed, disillusioned, unhealthy and unhappy because of the way we have accepted to work?

Almost more depressing to me is the apparent silence from the business itself. For there not to be any outcry or condemnation from an industry that touts itself as being a ‘people business’ is kinda sad..

At the very, very least: would it be too much to ask that the principals of agency networks in Asia confirm that these extremes are actually in violation of their own corporate guidelines – as I am sure they MUST be.

(Providing the company has any soul whatsoever.)

Hell, even a very quick Google cruise of agency websites will promise you principles like these:

But for all that we ask of our people, we believe in giving back even more.  By making it our responsibility to make people better.  By helping them unleash their passion, harness their talents and follow their dreams.”

“We treat our people as human beings. We help them when they are in trouble — with their jobs, with illnesses, with emotional problems.”

Chairmen, CEO’s, ECD’s – by coming out and publicly restating your own Agency principles as regards to fair and humane working practice would at the very least give the most junior and powerless employees a base from which to understand what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

You owe that to them, you really do. For every potential Mita within your company.

And if your response is – “Hey, I would never ask someone to work so many hours that it impacted their health”, well of course not, that would be criminal.

But when’s the last time you specifically asked someone NOT to?

Steve Elrick is the former Asia Pacific executive creative director at BBH


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