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Cult of overwork has become a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’

(l-r) Ian Ellito, Dave McCaughan, Mike Wilson, Ian Perrin

(l-r) Dave McCaughan, Ian Ellito, Mike Wilson, Ian Perrin

Havas Media Australia CEO Mike Wilson warned that there is a culture that celebrates overwork in the advertising and media industry, in which long-hours have become the norm in a “self-fulfilling prophecy”.

“Habit is a problem. Things are done a certain way because that’s how they’ve always been or that’s how people in charge were trained. ‘I went through it, so you should’ seems a difficult impulse to resist.”

Wilson was joined by agency heads Ian Perrin of ZenithOptimedia Australia and McCann Worldgroup’s Hong Kong MD Dave McCaughan at the Mumbrella360 conference to discuss the “cult of overwork” in the marketing industry.

Wilson also said he was conscious of a tendency among industry leaders to “hide behind clichés”.

“You’ll hear people say ‘we work hard, we play hard’, or ‘we enter the Employer of the Year awards’, as if that’s somehow going to make everyone feel great that they’ve been operating on two hours sleep for the last week.”

“If a person pulling all-nighters is less productive than a well-rested substitute, it’s still cheaper to pay one person to work 100 hours than it is to pay two people to work 50 hours each – it’s basic economics.”

The panel highlighted the role that technology has played in affecting work-life balance outside of work hours.

Moderator Ian Elliot of Salmat described technology as a “frenemy”, adding: “It works both for us and against us. We need to work a lot harder at making technology better for us to alleviate the burden.”

Perrin said the key issue for him was encouraging employees to “leave work at work”.

“A lot of people don’t work any more than they used to do five or ten years ago, but they are now more connected. So when they used to leave the office at five-thirty, six, seven or ten – depending if they’re pitching or not – the reality of mobile phones and iPads now means that you are absolutely in contact throughout the day.”

McCaughan has extensive experience working throughout Asia where hours are often considerably longer, and said that the technology problem is the same across countries.

He said: “The dynamics are the same everywhere. Work is getting more difficult because we’re on a 24-hour linker. You can’t force people to switch off their phones or their email or blogs – I wish we could. You can’t kick people out.”

The panel was joined by Tony Bradford of the Centre for Corporate Health, who highlighted the importance of interpersonal skills in managing work-related stress and productivity.

“One of the things we’re seeing in this growing epidemic of workplace psychological injury is people under pressure who are lacking the basic work-life skills.”

Bradford said that these skills include basic communication skills like assertiveness, as well as managing expectations, setting boundaries and saying no.

Perrin agreed that work-life skills were underdeveloped across the industry: We focus so much on the craft and so much on delivering things at the right time that we forget about broader skills of managing clients and time better, which are seen as softer less valuable skills in agency land – but they’re actually more important.”

Jack Fisher

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