EXCLUSIVE - The benefits flowing to agency staff to fight lockdown fatigue

By Chris Pash and Maha Obeid | 15 September 2021
Cookie decoration kit appreciated by The Works creative project leader Rosie Carey's kids.

The advertising and media industry has created a flow of extra benefits, activities and gifts to help staff fight lockdown fatigue.

The focus is on mental health, to dislodge the home as an office, creating breaks from the relentless round of video calls, and giving staff time to rebalance, to move focus away from meeting calendars.  

AdNews has already reported about the impact of lockdown burnout on pitches with some agencies walking away from opportunities to protect staff from the health impact of overwork.

Many are offering paid days off, not just a few hours to get vaccinated but as a way to regroup over extra long weekends or afternoons with a solid out of office in place.

And there is no shortage of physical gits landing on working from home doorsteps aimed at wellbeing and work-life balance.

These include Uber Eats, gelato, cash for charities, home office allowances, cookie decoration kits, life coaching, mindfulness, vitamins, craft activities, yoga, flowers, cupcakes, locally-made pasta, wine and beers, virtual walks, games with prizes, themed meals, hampers and cocktail making classes. 

Havas Australia & New Zealand chief people officer Thierry Lalchere says team morale and wellbeing are a priority for the Havas Village Australia (Host/Havas, Havas Media, Red Havas and One Green Bean) long before COVID.

“We’ve certainly recognised the increased burden that lockdown will inevitably be placing on our people, and we’ve implemented both new strategies alongside existing ones across all of our agencies to ensure we are doing everything we can to take care of them,” says Lalchere.

Ogilvy encourages everyone to unplug at lunchtime every Friday and spend the afternoon with quality “me time” with vouchers including Mecca, Dan Murphy’s, Bunnings and Uber Eats. Events include a celebrity chef hosting a gourmet burger making session 

“The absolute collision of home and work life has put different stress and challenges on everyone, so the biggest gift we can give at the moment is empathy and understanding,” says Leigh Bignell, managing partner, Ogilvy. 

“With this in mind, we’ve asked our team to do just three simple things, ‘Be kind to yourself; Be kind to others; and Be a bit silly and have some fun’.      

“And, to break the monotony, we’ve overhauled our all-agency internal meetings to put fun and silly-business back centre-stage. Shared laughter goes a long way in making everyone feel connected.”

M&C Saatchi CEO Justin Graham: “While there is a lot of ‘stuff' going on, the key message for our team is to stick together, look forward and find some fun in it all. 

“For all the programs, it's actually about the daily chats between M&Cers that is helping with the fatigue.”

WPP marketing implementation agency Hogarth Australia says that initiatives aside, trust is integral to taking care of staff.

“This intense and dislocated new reality we’re working in requires a much more intimate connection with our teammates, managers and reports. Way more intimate than the days of water cooler moments. Trust is more critical than ever, and a show of vulnerability goes a long way to opening up lines of communication, and in turn, being able to spot potential warning signs of struggle,” Hogarth Australia COO Chloe Lane says.

Switch Digital CEO Lee Stephens: “Lockdown fatigue is a real issue for our teams and clients in Sydney and Melbourne. 

“We sent a care pack to all Melbourne staff and clients who are doing it really tough. We also keep the rituals happening that we did at the office, especially Bottoms Up Thursday where we share a beer and a chat. I won’t lie, they are a little awkward via Zoom. 

“The most important difference we made is asking staff to focus on the tasks, not the time. 

“The kitchen bench is no place to spend 8 hours a day. We also communicate, communicate, communicate over the phone every day.”

TBWA\Sydney MD Nitsa Lotus: “Lockdowns place additional pressures on people so since the beginning of the pandemic we have placed an even greater emphasis on the health and wellbeing of our staff." 

A roundup of some of the benefits:

Publicis created a care-package menu tailored to people’s different needs and interests during lockdown, whether that be for fitness, parents, or general self-care 

Chief talent officer Pauly Grant says most agency brands are having a lunch hiatus, implementing no meetings after 5pm, and many are having a Summer Fridays early finish time. 

Performics Mercerbell: UberEats voucher to enjoy a free RU OK Day lunch. Log off emails, take a break and enjoy the meal. They’re also encouraging a walk & talk session - which invites staff to set aside a 45-minute slot to get outside and connect with a friend, family member, or colleague.

Starcom: Hey You vouchers to enjoy coffee, tea or cake. They also host online team activities like Trivia, to keep staff engaged.

Publicis Sapient: $100 Perkbox vouchers to enjoy a treat. 

Herd MSL: A big emphasis on self-care with a checklist as a reminder of ways to look after yourself.

Leo Burnett: Care packages sent to everyone’s homes as a surprise.

Zenith: Blocked out a time in everyone’s calendar to connect with a colleague, friend, or family member.

Spark Foundry: A cash gift, allowing staff to go out and expense a coffee and morning tea with someone in their house or lockdown bubble.

OMD Australia, Martin Cowie, Chief People Officer: “OMD has always been focused on the wellbeing of our people, especially over the last two years as our nation goes in and out of lockdown. There are many initiatives that we have put in place to help OMDers through tough times. From exec breakfasts across the nation, where each OMDer gets to connect and check in with a member of the executive team, in a small group, over an Uber eats delivered brekkie. Through to our Summer half days which have been extended into Spring, giving OMDers a half day off per month through Spring and Summer to focus on their wellbeing. Other tailored gestures include care packages for our people, for example at the start of the most recent lockdown in Sydney, OMDers in LGA’s of concern were sent games and mindful activities, along with comfort food and snacks. Our People Pulse surveys provide a weekly check in on the health of the agency. OMDers tell us how they are feeling mentally, what their workloads are like and are asked what we can do to help. The survey is reviewed each week by the national exec so we can identify any concerns or pressures that our people are feeling and look at ways to rectify. These are just a few ways we are focusing on the mental health and wellbeing of OMDers, outside of our EAP service, mental health first aiders and regular wellbeing activities that are activated by the OMD Voice committee.”

M&C Saatchi is gifting staff a wellbeing day off in October in alignment with the long weekend to give everyone an extended break. 

The number of counselling sessions that staff can access through our employee assistance program has been uncapped. 

And lockdown lunches - to virtually bring people together from across the group who wouldn't have had a reason to connect in the past year - have been introduced. 

M&C Saatchi has daily meeting free hours so that the whole group can switch off at the same time and not worry about emails and calls coming through.

And then there are Wellness Wednesdays with activities such as yoga, meditation and workouts. Agency leaders are running team events including group virtual walks, games sessions with prizes, themed meals, cocktail making classes, quizzes and sending around team merch. 

One of the most popular team gifts was delivery of a healthy fruit & veg box. 

TBWA\Sydney has partnered with Fly By Fun to host virtual workshops every Tuesday and Thursday during the school holidays. Activities included cartoon creation, a science class on slime, origami and a magic show.

The agency also made contactless deliveries of desks, chairs and monitors to employees who lacked a suitable working from home set up to ensure everyone was set up as best as possible. 

Since the start of August all staff have been given Friday afternoons off to rest and recharge, a break from the relentlessness of zoom calls and helps our staff with maintaining balance and mental health.

Care packages include hampers of fresh fruit and vegetables from Harris Farm. 

Comedians and drag artists have been hired to entertain via Zoom 

Mediabrands: Mental health prioritised, including mental health first aid training, confidential 30 minute virtual wellbeing coach service provided by Select Wellness. Free access to the Headspace app for all employees

Doona Days – 5 half days off (to be used across August and September) to support shutting off and taking care of yourself/wellbeing. 

Financial incentive to book a stay-cation and challenge themselves to get into something new/rest

Initiative: Mental Fitness days – 12 days to be used for employee’s mental fitness/mental health.

Orion (barter division) - Rest for Success (Orion Only) - a shift in how and when we work at Orion that focuses on mapping individuals’ peak performance periods, and the prioritisation of rest and play

Magna  - Care packages to all people to support self-care practices on Doona Days. Designed to help break the monotony and give them something to do on their day off.

GroupM: "Across our agencies, Mindshare, MediaCom, Wavemaker and Essence are supporting their people with different initiatives but across the board we have focused on flexibility and support for our people personally, and professionally. Small things like giving people time back in their dairies from meetings, dedicated ‘no meetings’ hours over lunchtime, baking competitions, trivia and art sessions for teams to connect. Small gestures to bring joy have included care packs and vouchers for things like UberEats. For wellbeing there are yoga and meditation sessions, we’re supporting our teams to participate in the STEPtember challenge to keep moving, we offered additional day of leave around RU OK day, plus additional leave to support vaccinations. Our leadership teams are also  doing Mental Health First Aid training to better support their people longterm.

"We know that it’s particularly tough for parents who are also homeschooling their children, so to support we hosted a parenting session with Maggie Dent offering advice and reassurance, and each week in September we are hosting Fun & Games sessions with StarDust kids entertainers to help people keep their little ones entertained. MediaCom has also offered its people access to a free tutoring service to help in this area. We also launched an ongoing support platform for everyone which includes. Families Hub with resources, information and coaching."

Melbourne media agency Hatched, balancing profit and purpose, has encouraged staff  to give to charity.

The agency allocated $25,000, split across its five teams. Each team presented back to the whole agency on their chosen charity.

“We did this to remind ourselves we are still fortunate, and we need to help others who aren't in the same position we are,” managing director Jack Byrne says.

Akcelo, a brand experience and innovation company, held a virtual Ski Week in August after the team’s New Zealand snow trip to Queenstown was cancelled because of COVID.

Akcelo planned workday and après-ski activities, complemented by Ski Week boxes, which included schnapps, sent to staff.

Havas Village AU: Strategies include: Supporting work-life balance and well being – we have always operated core hours of 10am-4pm to support flexible working, but during lockdown, we also have a ‘distraction free hour’ between 12.30-1.30pm each day (no meetings/calls/texts etc) to enable people to take some time away from the screen. We encourage all meetings to be less than 30 minutes, and we have established etiquette around being ‘video off’ – we also offer free access to a mindfulness app, optional mediation and yoga sessions and training on resilience and motivation, amongst other things. 

Active International Australia and Involved Media group managing director, Sarah Keith: “It’s been really important for us to support our staff, keep their spirits up, keep them connected with each other, and to have some fun.

“We’ve had a coordinated and constant program running since late June, including social events, wellness information and activities, ‘surprise and delight’ gifts for staff, and things to actively encourage some screen-free time.

“The program has included a ‘cheese therapy box’ that was sent to all staff; weekly yoga and meditation classes; a So You Think You Can Dance competition; and celebrations for Christmas in July, the Tokyo Olympics, Pawgust (dog walking in August), NAIDOC Week and Pride Month, all of which have included singing, quizzes, recorded events and short films.”

iProspect: "Everyone is responding differently to lockdown and it changes day to day and week to week. At iProspect Sydney we’ve been really focused on providing support to our employees that encourages mental, physical and emotional well-being zoom and appeals to different interests and offers different ways to connect with their colleagues.

"To address the issue of home/work boundaries blurring and virtual meeting overload, we have created some no meeting zones 2 times per day and we finish work early on Fridays at 3pm every week. We have a personal trainer who runs virtual group training sessions twice a week for the team to support physical health and movement. We’ve sent our teams wellness themed care packages and uber eats vouchers to ease some of that pressure of meal planning. And importantly, we’ve hosted a range of virtual social events including trivia nights, music bingo, escape rooms, Netflix watch partiers, Cork & Canvas inspired art evenings and cooking classes that celebrate and share our cultural diversity and backgrounds."

The Royals has poured resources into its Wellbeing Assistance Program, which includes access to 24/7 365-day counselling with expert psychologists, an online wellness resource centre and professional and personal support sessions.

“There’s been a 200% usage increase in the last 12 months for the counselling services,” says The Royals head of people & culture, Kristy Camarillo.

The Royals also developed a structured connection program for weekly group, project team, and one-on-one engagements (work and social) to keep everyone engaged, motivated and happy.

Half Dome recognised the stress in the industry and introduced Thrive Days nearly two years ago.

“Our industry can be a bit stressful at times, so we provide everyone in our team with five extra days of paid annual leave which are for a recharge and reset (e.g. after a pitch, big client presentation, peak activity period),” Half Dome head of people and culture, Lisa Lie says.

Indago Digital looked beyond care packages to measures focusing on personal wellbeing and company culture.

“From a financial perspective we provided an allowance for home office equipment and this month the team received a bonus equivalent to 10% of company pre-tax profits,” Indago Digital managing director, Gary Nissim says.

Lionize CEO, Mikey Taylor: “We’ve been doing Zooms that aren’t anything to do with work. One of our clients is Young Henry’s - so we sent beers to everyone’s house, arranged a brewer’s talk, and did home beer-tasting. We had a lesson on making spicy pork sliders with Nestlé Professional. And we had one of the Pet Circle Vets answer peculiar questions about our cats, dogs, chickens and even fish! We’re trying to do things with our clients which are fun. One thing that unites everybody in our industry is people do like having a laugh.” 

The Hallway: Since the start of last year's lockdown and again with the current one, The Hallway holds the 9am News, a daily check-in with the entire team to talk about what's going on and just generally make sure everyone is doing OK.

Gifts have included bottles of wine and last month all Hallwinians received a Deliveroo voucher so the whole team could get together, virtually of course, and share lunch together and generally decompress in what can be a difficult time for everyone.

The Works, part of Capgemini: "We sent cookie decoration kits to all our parents to keep their little ones entertained while homeschooling. Plus snack boxes to all staff for big meetings and UberEats voucher for lunch/dinner. 

“We’ve dressed up for our Monday morning WIPs to make them more fun. We’ve done virtual events such as a quiz, lockdown Olympics and hold Friday Wine time each week for the agency to join for a virtual drink.”

Yahoo: “We've placed a huge focus on mental wellbeing and providing resources to our people. Many of us took part in Yahoo News' 30-day 'What's Up?' challenge

“Our Real Talk series (an internal webinar series where we hear from external speakers on pressing and current societal issues) continues with a focus on mental wellbeing, equipping our team members with resources on how to manage burnout

“We provide access to life coaching and mindfulness coaching

“Running bi-monthly mental health training sessions for employees and managers

“Team leaders are undertaking their mental health first aid training qualification.”

Pivotus managing director, Michael Petersen: “For Pivotus, we created a Health Leave program in July whereby any staff member, regardless of their tenure, role or country, can have up to four hours per day off work with full out of office mandated, for as many days or weeks as they need while their home is in hard lockdown.

“We've also just launched expense cards for all staff around the world, with fixed amounts to be drawn down and then refreshed every month to be spent on lunch delivered to home or the printer cartridges staff are now responsible for, or trinkets to spruce up the home office or vitamins or a yoga mat. This WFH thing is no longer a hobby, it's a way of life and giving up on the one-off 'food hampers' and fluff to something predictable and ongoing was really important through this wave of lockdowns and beyond.

“Out of 25 staff we've had two take it up and one in Sydney still utilising the program. The cost to the business is a little bit of extra stress and pressure, but the messages from staff acknowledging that they were just having a conversation with their spouse on Sunday night about whether to prioritise their kid’s health or their income, has many more positive benefits.”

The Media Store chief operating officer Jacquie Alley: “The Media Store has always gifted its people personalised surprise and delight rewards to recognise individuals beyond the formal award programs. During COVID this has been even more important than ever, to demonstrate to our people we care and want to support their mental health. From self-care packs, virtual yoga, flowers, cupcakes, locally-made cannoli, UberEats - receiving a delivery at their front door or inbox - has had a significant impact to their sense of belonging and value.”

Kaimera CEO Nick Behr: “To help combat screen-fatigue and death by video, we gave all Kaimerians a mental health day by completely closing the office for the day. We have additionally done: mindfulness sessions, birthday gifts, Friday lunches on us, etc.”

Innocean Australia CEO Jasmin Bedir: “Like any other agency we have set up plenty of online entertainment, online meditation sessions, competitions with prizes and we’ve even couriered champagne to people’s home addresses after delivering a pitch. But, we’ve come increasingly to the realisation that the biggest gift of all, is more time away from screens.

“We’re giving all employees an hour a day called “sunshine hour”. Every day 1.30 to 2.30pm is blocked in the diaries and it’s an additional hour of time and not to be mistaken with a lunch break. It’s an additional hour as we’ve noted that home schooling and never-ending work calls start to take a mental toll.

“This has been so greatly received by our staff that we have decided to have an entire sunshine day every couple of months.”

Co.gency Group, managing director Jon Bonwick: “All our staff received a Providore gift voucher for them and their partner/buddy to order dinner. Each staff member then had to give the group an update of the meal and rate it.

“The beauty of being independent is that as a business owner you can do things like this on the spur of the moment.

“I felt that two weeks ago when some announcements of lockdown extensions and a few staff living in LGAs of concern, they needed something to look forward to.

“It was all about creating something for the staff to look forward to but also engage with the rest of the staff by giving a dissertation on the restaurant/food.

“It has been received really well and was a small cost to put a smile back on their faces.”

Equality Media general manager Jacqui Keleher: “At Equality we have been really focused on ensuring our team feels supported holistically with added focus whilst in lockdown working from home. We have wanted to ensure everyone has been able to personalise what appeals to them when covering the important topics of wellness, mental and physical health. This has come in the form of team get togethers, treating yo’self and little surprises sent to their homes along the way to brighten their day!

“Some of the initiatives we have done include a wellness allowance – to pursue/do something to promote wellbeing of their choice. A series of #SupportLocal initiatives during each lockdown to pay it forward by supporting one of their favourite local business along with random surprise and delight gifts sent to their homes! Weekly ‘wine downs’ where we get together as a team, have a drink and do some fun activities together.”

Principals CEO Tom Brigstocke: “We’ve adapted some of our activities to suit the current lockdown, like our Brandquet lunch get-together – once a monthly catch up at each of our three studios in Sydney, Melbourne or Auckland, now done by sending everyone an UberEats voucher.

“On birthdays, instead of sharing a cake in the studio, we send a tub of Messina gelato to enjoy at home. And we’ve added a few extra things to keep spirits up, for example sending everyone Aesop hand sanitiser and gifting an extra two days’ personal leave to help with COVID vaccinations.”

Little Colossus, the parent company for MOOD tea, has been bundling off tea packages to ad execs and giving the profits to funding youth mental health programs.

"Our MOOD Care packages have been a great way for companies to stay connected with their staff and show their support for both their team and for the mental health of young Australians," Little Colossus GM Jenni Haward says.

Carat and dentsu X: Introduction of Mindfulness hour, implemented on July 14. One hour everyday away from the screen. Every day 12-1pm will be a no meeting zone, no urgent requests, no excuses, no meetings, no calls, absolutely nothing. The chance for staff to reclaim an hour every day, go for a walk, listen to a podcast, read the paper, play frisbee with their furry friends and get away from their screens. As a one-off on Thursday,  September 9, we’ve rebranded R U OK hour (in line with R U OK day), and all made a pledge to check in on someone we care about

New Starters:  For all new joiners starting remotely we sent them a box of healthy snacks from Australian start up; Snacks with Bite to top up their at home snack drawer

Stepping Challenge: We launched an eight week stepping challenge (hoping that would see us through the lock down period!) encouraging our teams to get outside and keep active. A stepper of the week is awarded weekly, with the overall winning team having dinner on Carat (once we get back to the office), and crowning an overall winner at the end of the eight weeks with an apple watch.

Carat Flourish BTYB Acast. A five part webinar series to help us all flourish in partnership with Acast and their awesome podcast talent. Five sessions of content that aim to help people personally grow and learn, from a Pilates class with Do You F*king Mind’s Alex Fernandez, productivity tips with Dr Amantha Imber, housing market advice from Property Investory and everything we need to know about the state of Australian Politics and culture from the DailyAus. Five weeks of online webinars full of tips and practical advice on Politics, Fitness, Property, Productivity and Culture

15 Min Dial In. A short and sharp all staff weekly update. 15 mins on new starters, leavers, training, agency initiatives and recognition

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