Stop pretending: The advertising industry is stressed, depressed and anxious

Chris Pash
By Chris Pash | 7 July 2020

A major study reports little change in the state of mental health in the media industry in 18 months:

  • People are still anxious and depressed.
  • Many have poor self-esteem.
  • A good night’s sleep is elusive.
  • Workplace programs such as yoga, healthy food and mindfulness don’t help much.
  • 50% say they are drinking more during lockdown.
  • But we’ve become more accepting of mental illness.

The level of stress, depression and anxiety in the media, marketing and creative industry hasn’t changed much in 18 months, according to the latest research backed by UnLtd, the social purpose organisation.

Many see a disconnect between public statements supporting mental health and the effectiveness of the workplace initiatives.

Companies are pretending to care, they say. Glossy posters, yoga classes, mental health first aid officers and mindfulness initiatives just don't cut it. They want genuine leaders with empathy.

The findings of a follow up to a landmark study in 2018 shows 56% of respondents displaying mild to severe symptoms of depression, exactly the same as the first survey.

With anxiety, 52% have mild to severe symptoms compared to 55% in 2018.

One in five (20%) show signs of severe or extremely severe levels of stress. More than half (54%) have mild to severe levels.

The Mentally Healthy research, conducted by Everymind, Never Not Creative and UnLtd and supported by the Mentally-Healthy Change Group, measures depression, anxiety and stress as well as the attitudes to mental health in the workplace.

It is a follow-up study to the Mentally Healthy 2018 study. This time more than 1,500 employees across the media, marketing and creative industry participated in the survey during February and March this year.

Comments during the latest survey:

“My manager regularly makes fun of mental illness.”

 “Staff-up organisations so employees are less stressed and potentially have time to participate in the health and wellbeing programs companies ‘pretend’ to provide.”


mental 2020
Another study of more than 560 people was conducted in May to measure the impact of COVID-19.

This pulse study showed, at least in the short-term, that COVID-19 had only a minor impact on mental health, with a slight increase in depression (58% versus 56%) and a minor decrease in anxiety (46% versus 52%) compared to the February results.

More research will be needed to explore longer-term impacts of the pandemic.

The 2020 results show a positive improvement in stigma around mental health. Almost a quarter (24%) of respondents would now disclose if they had been diagnosed with depression.

But 22% believed others would not be treated poorly if they disclosed a mental illness at their workplace.

At a workplace level, there was a clear difference between the perceived priority of mental health in their workplaces versus the perceived effectiveness of the workplace initiatives.

Whereas 23% of respondents perceived that mental health was a high priority in their workplace, only 6% felt their organisation was highly effective in addressing mental health.

A key focus of the study was to identify initiatives seen as effective and useful in improving wellbeing in the workplace.

The areas that were perceived as most important for improving mental health in the workplace were empathetic, educated leaders who lead by example; appropriate structure and resources; flexible working conditions and clear objectives.

At the other end, motivational posters, yoga, healthy food and mindfulness initiatives were listed as least important.

More than half (54%) of respondents showed mild to severe levels of stress, with 20% showing signs of severe or extremely severe levels of stress, with no significant difference in the COVID-19 study.

The biggest stressors were consistent with the 2018 findings with the top three being the pressure of our own expectations, pressure from others and multiple responsibilities.

The study also showed that many are struggling with low quality of sleep and poor self-esteem with over half of respondents reporting bad quality of sleep and only 38% ranking their self-esteem as high.

In terms of coping, most respondents showed preference for healthy coping methods. However, 45% were consuming alcohol at risky or harmful levels.

The COVID-19 pulse study further identified an increase in drinking with over 50% stating their alcohol consumption had increased during the lockdowns.

At the same time, many positive coping methods also increased during the pandemic with 47% of respondents increasing their exercise and 79% increasing talking to friends and family over video chats.

Nina Nyman, CMO of UnLtd and co-chair of Mentally Healthy Change Group, says the results around stigma are encouraging.

“It’s great to see the stigma numbers improving," she says.

"The 2018 results identified high levels of stigma in our industry and a lot of the projects that the Mentally Healthy Change Group have been working on have focused on smashing the stigma and encouraging people to speak up when they need help. Whilst the depression and anxiety levels remained high, it seems that we are getting better at talking about our mental health and seeking help.”

Andy Wright, founder of Never Not Creative and co-chair of the Mentally Healthy Change Group, says leadership is the key in tackling mental health in the workplace.

“The results show clear feedback on where people believe organisations should focus their efforts and it all starts with empathetic, educated leaders who lead by example," he says.

"In an industry that has a relentless focus on the work, we need to start educating on what an intense focus on people looks like.

"It’s something that just isn’t taught enough and I know it’s something I was never taught. We’re products of our environment. We need to focus on this before investing in yoga lessons and mindfulness programs, if we want to improve things significantly.”

The mental health and wellbeing of Australians in every workplace setting is a shared responsibility according to Associate Professor Carmel Loughland, acting director of Everymind, the Institute which conducted the research.

“Make no mistake, this has been a tough time for many and we know people are struggling, especially those within the media, marketing and creative industry," says Loughland.

"We are dedicated to learning more, listening and exploring through research how and in what way we can support communities and individuals. We are determined to ensure the specific needs of those who make important contributions to the community such as individuals who work in media, marketing and creative industries are not only heard but addressed.”

If you or someone you care about needs support, contact:

  • Lifeline 13 11 14
  • Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
  • MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78
  • Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

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