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Design Agencies Share Advice On Supporting Well-Being During Mental Health Month

by The Dieline on 05/29/2019 | 8 Minute Read

As Mental Health Month comes to a close this month in the USA, Dieline wanted to speak to a wide array of design and branding agencies about what initiatives they run to support mental health in the workplace and what they are doing to raise awareness for this issue.

We all know the design industry can be stressful at times, so what steps are agencies taking to reduce stress in the workplace? These days many agencies recognize how important it is to empower their employees to be happy at work, but what are the benefits of this? And if you spot an employee on the brink of burnout, what should you do?

We spoke to some of the folks at Vault49, Echo, Here Design, Ragged Edge, and Straight Forward Design on what agencies can do to create a supportive community and help prevent designer burnout.

What initiatives do you offer to support mental health in the workplace?

Jonathan Kenyon, Executive Creative Director and Co-Founder, Vault49: Vault49 has a designated Mental Wellbeing team who are tasked to organize events, share information, foster conversation and encourage us to look after ourselves and give back to the community through volunteer work. We also have an open culture around taking a Mental Health Day so you can go back to feeling like you. Another way we support mental health in the workplace is through our quarterly newsletters that curate articles thought leaders and other inspirational content relating to mental wellbeing.

Mike Foster, Founder and Creative Director, Straight Forward Design: We don’t want people to come in early or work late. We believe that a relentless working culture is ultimately damaging for business, so we avoid it. No-one will be as effective or productive after they’ve already worked a full day, and it’s important that people go and experience the things outside work hours that enrich their lives. Ultimately, the business and our clients gain from this. And we have mindfulness sessions with wellness training company Hapitvate a few times a year to ensure people have the tools they need to manage their own mental wellbeing.

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Nick Dormon, Founding Partner and Strategy Director, Echo: Yoga has been a positive part of the business over the years, with two of our team members being trained instructors, and we’ve had masseurs in the office for head and shoulder massages to aid relaxation. We’ve prioritized a central location to reduce stressful commutes and ensure there are sufficient spots nearby to take a break. We run social events and charity events, pencil in regular reviews to help employees with progress and support. We also regularly have dogs in the office – with varying results!

Lisa Cobley, Head of People and Culture, Ragged Edge: We have recently rolled out a well-being program that strives to create and sustain an infectiously positive and healthy working environment. It’s important to note this was unforced and no one told us to do it, rather it was created through our passion. We recognized the impact of mental health in the creative industry, and we wanted to do something about it. The program gets people to continuously think and assess their own mental fitness and well-being, addressing our overall health—body, mind and soul. This can range from offering workshops and talks based on hobbies and interests like life drawing or food to make sure everyone feels supported.

As an agency, are you doing anything specific for Mental Health Month?

Kenyon, Vault49: We have a week of wellness coming up that will feature an event a day. Without giving too much away, there will be yoga mornings, smoothies, and random acts of kindness involved. We’re also giving dedicated studio time for designers to create mental health visuals for social media posts and creating the space and context for the teams to talk about what mental health means for each of them. We’re hoping the Instagram series will help to raise awareness and challenge the stigma around speaking up. We’re also organizing team volunteer events.

How do you aim to reduce stress in the workplace?

Kenyon, Vault49: In the creative industry, it’s difficult. However, we encourage employees to find time away from their desk to get the headspace needed from them to feel good, whether that’s a walk around the block, a trip to the museum, or sketching in the park. It’s important everyone has space and the tools to look after themselves.

Foster, Straight Forward Design: We choose to work in a very open and connected way where everyone is looking out for each other. Support is always there to reduce the potential for stressful situations. We are all aware of the projects that are live in the studio, so no-one goes under the radar without support.

Wicksteed, Here Design: We used to have meditation sessions before the day began, which we found meant you started the day in a very zen place.  It was rather an amazing experience starting the day together so quietly and companionably, but not everyone did it, so you came out into an office with other people in different moods which could be jarring. Now we do Yoga sessions, morning and evening. We have all different types, and one of our employees teaches us for half the sessions, which makes it even more special.

Dormon, Echo: The first thing is mentoring. At Echo, we take a mindful approach to management, rather than operate a strict chain of command, and listening is an important part of the process. The environment is essential, and simple changes have an impact. Quality seating, lighting, uncluttered desks, good proximity to people, and a choice of meeting and workspaces all help. It’s good to switch seating plans around to offset routine and encourage different ideas to be shared. At Echo, we are one team, and different disciplines work collaboratively and support each other. Regular holidays are also very much encouraged. We get them all booked in early on to avoid cramming them in over Christmas or rolling over. It’s essential for well-being to decompress throughout the year. Being open about the business and plans also helps alleviate unnecessary worry and encourages collaboration and trust.

Cobley, Ragged Edge: Stress in the creative industry is inevitable. No matter how experienced or laid back a person is, the pressures of creating brilliant ideas under intensive deadlines is bound to make for a stressful environment. And the solution can’t just be relaxation pods and free massages. They definitely help, but we can’t solely rely on them. They’re quick, simple fixes made to cure symptoms, but not deal with the cause. At Ragged Edge, we want to put effort into managing both. So on top of the quicker fixes, it’s a balance between managing the needs of our clients and the needs of our team. We strive to make sure everyone feels a real connection with the work we do, and the impact it has out in the world. This involves creating an environment where people feel heard, where ideas and collaboration happen organically and where people are motivated by the variety of work we do.

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How important is it to ensure that your employees are happy at work, and why?

Kenyon, Vault49: It’s impossible to measure happiness, but we strive for employees to feel satisfied with a sense of accomplishment. Burnout in the creative industry is real, and we want to avoid that at all costs. To us, it’s necessary because joy and productivity create a healthy cycle, and we want everyone to feel like they are able to give their best.

Foster, Straight Forward Design: We believe that all people, whether that’s our employees, our clients, or our partners, should feel fulfilled by the work they do. Feeling positive about your job and work life will lead to better outcomes, it’s as simple as that.

Wicksteed, Here Design: Our ambition is to create a space where everyone can flourish equally. So, you try and conceive of an environment that enables creativity to flourish. For us, that means a place of psychological and emotional safety where we can all experiment, play, and be imaginative without fear of reprimand. As a company that employs creative people, creativity is the thing that drives both individuals and the collective, so it’s a sort of virtuous circle: great work, fulfilled creatives, and everyone’s happy.”

Dormon, Echo: Being creatively fulfilled and challenged at work is critical so that boredom doesn’t set in. A certain amount of ‘good’ stress comes with creating great design. Talented creatives will put their heart and soul into the work, which can leave them vulnerable to performance pressure and criticism. If the work is exciting, stress can often come alongside, and it’s all about striking a balance. Our clients can determine our workload, and it’s not always in our control. Creativity isn’t linear, and the process isn’t always predictable, and it’s important to realize everyone responds to stress differently.

Cobley, Ragged Edge: We care a lot. Our people are the most important thing. Without them, there wouldn’t be a Ragged Edge. So it’s crucial we nurture an internal culture that supports them. When people commit so much of their time and effort to a job, we have a duty of care for their happiness and wellbeing.

What should you do if you notice that a designer is burning out?

Kenyon, Vault49: We are a close-knit team, so we keep an eye out for one another, but the workshops we create are also designed to facilitate self-identifying potential burn out. As a studio, we try to rotate designers on projects, so they hit a good workload balance that simultaneously enables them to be challenged and grow in their role.

Foster, Straight Forward Design: We hope never to see a designer burning out at Straight Forward. We believe that prevention is better than a cure. So, we keep to our hours – we don’t start early and finish late because it’s essential that people have lives outside of work. It’s vital that everyone has variety in their work and training and is supported to ensure they enjoy a healthy and long career.

Dormon, Echo: Well, steps should be in place to ensure this doesn’t happen to begin with, but if it did we’d get a plan in place. Could their situation change? Would a different project or switch of teams help? What about reduced hours? Can we help signpost to other services and be on hand to help throughout the process? No one should work late if it's avoidable, and there’s a team to share the load. Any overtime is balanced with time in lieu wherever possible. The benefit of a smaller business is the feeling that we’re all in it together.

Cobley, Ragged Edge: I've observed what may help one person with burn-out may not help another. It’s a process that involves a real understanding of the people in the studio and who you work with. Solutions that have worked in the past include:

  • Time away from their desk. We’ve got a discount deal with a local coffee shop, and even just 10 minutes out of the studio can help.
  • Walking meetings and fresh air are great for ideas and mental wellbeing, so win-win.
  • Talking about anything but work, and never underestimate the power of laughter in the studio.
  • Recognition that everyone is different, the studio is an energetic place, and some people might need quiet in their day.

We also have members of the team who have trained in Mental Health First Aid, so I would recommend having someone to rely on in the workplace.” 

Images by Vault49.