Four ways to prevent agency burnout

Colin Mitchell • June 5, 2019

You’re living the dream. You work for yourself. You make the money and you’ve cut out the middleman. You have your first clients. You’ve made your first hire. Profits are rolling in, and your staff is working diligently. Your dreams have come true and you can proudly call yourself the CEO of a strong, young agency.

Fast forward six months. Your agency has expanded and you’ve made some serious gains. You’ve been promoting your business, and the leads are rolling in. You’ve been featured in the local newspaper, had podcast interviews, hired more staff, and upgraded your office space. On paper things are looking really good as you pop a bottle of bubbly for your six month anniversary. But all is not well in paradise.

You hate going to work. Everybody around you annoys you and the job you’re doing is monotonous and pointless. You’re tired all the time and find it impossible to concentrate on your work. Sometimes your head hurts, sometimes you’re not hungry at all, and you’re not sleeping well when you get home. You notice that your co-workers aren’t getting along with one another the way they used to, and your agency is suffering. Simply enough, you’re all burning out.

Don’t let burnout get the better of you. There are ways to turn the ship around.

No heroics

Relax. There’s no need to run for the lifeboats and abandon ship. Use the opportunity to take a big step back and ask why you’re running into the problems you’re experiencing. You’re not alone. You have a whole team for a reason. Sit down with your leadership team – maybe even your whole staff – to talk about how everybody’s feeling and why.

Don’t work all weekend to try and get something done just because there’s a close deadline. That will ultimately hinder more than help your team and it won’t do you any favours. Your boss doesn’t need a hero, just someone who‘s consistent and dependable. Spending a whole weekend to work on that project doesn’t always help everyone.

It’s better to take a step back and take a look at the bigger picture. Businesses are like an analogue clock – they have lots of moving parts and cogs that fit with other pieces. Each has a specific role that works in tandem with the rest. If one part is too big, too small, or missing, the system doesn’t operate at 100%. Take a step back and observe the bigger picture. A study from the University of Illinois gave six recommendations on how to mitigate burnout and stress:

  1. Talk less and listen more;
  2. Give clear expectations;
  3. Have more informal interaction with staff;
  4. Assign tasks to staff based on skills rather than office politics;
  5. Give more rights to staff; (e.g., give staff more opportunities to make a decision for certain tasks) and
  6. Respect people with greater expertise. You’re not expected to have all of the answers.
Don’t make a habit of overtime

As an agency owner, there’s always more work on your plate, and it’s normal to take your work home with you. It’s another thing to take that to extremes and start working before the building even opens. Working overtime once or twice isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps you missed out on some work or a project is taking just a bit longer than you thought. But working overtime every single day and taking little to no time for yourself will come back to bite you.

Making a habit of overtime will actually make you less productive in the long run. Missing out on sleep and working outside of normal working hours has detrimental effects on your health. There’s a correlation between mental health and the number of hours agency professionals are working per week – a survey from Digiday noted that 40 percent of people who work between 50-59 hours a week said they were worried about their mental health, compared to 27% of those surveyed who work between 40-49 hours a week.

Alienation from your work and your colleagues will result from continued overtime. Good team players don’t show up to work tired from too much overtime. One 2018 study showed that people who worked lots of overtime or pushed themselves to their professional limit also tended to view their career prospects less positively and lacked a sense of job security. The employees in question felt their hard work wasn’t even noticed.

Overtime can also damage your personal health. Businesses are increasingly aware of the effects that technology can have on your personal life; businesses like Anagram have policies that prohibit employees from emailing or using Slack in the evenings and on weekends. The right to disconnect is now even part of French law as businesses across the world experiment with the idea.

Use your overhead time wisely

Overhead time is the time you don’t bill. It can be water cooler conversations, non-client-specific meetings, or vacations. It’s all of the little things that add up throughout the day that make up office life. The reality is sometimes you’ll end up spending your time scrolling through Facebook or flipping through Instagram, sitting through HR meetings, 1-on-1’s with your colleagues, and doctors’ appointments. Sometimes your commitments will reduce your productivity and your utilization. Needless to say, your time will never be 100% billable, but there are ways you can effectively use your overhead time.

Invest in training as a business. Encouraging lifelong learning in your business can help build a stronger team. Whether it’s honing your skills at a graphic design workshop, networking with other professionals established in their field, or even team building activities, training takes a lot of forms. At Volta in Halifax, Lunch and Learns give the opportunity for established startups to take the time to discuss their journeys with other companies. This gives small businesses access to more established businesses and the ability to learn from each others’ successes and failures.

Recharging is as important as using your overhead time productively. Exercise is some of the best medicine available, with even a short walk around the block helping make you feel better and more productive. According to a Harvard study, if your employees are feeling physically healthy they’re far more likely to contribute productively. Some businesses subsidize gym memberships, go on group runs, or help run yoga classes to encourage the healthy body healthy mind mentality.

Remember to have fun

In the midst of the hustle having fun can often be lost but it’s the most important aspect of the business. When you and your employees stop having fun, the burnout will set in and you’ll grow to resent your work.

Take vacations when you need it. Accounting firm Ernst & Young did a study of its employees and found that for each additional 10 hours of vacation employees took, their year-end performance ratings from supervisors (on a scale of one to five) improved by 8 percent. Frequent vacationers were also significantly less likely to leave the firm with policies of unlimited vacation becoming more popular in Canada and the United States.  

Work off site. Maybe you just relocate to the coffee shop down the street or to a public library, but working off site can get your productive and creative juices flowing. Interruptions to the workplace cost an average of $588 billion per year. Getting out of the office with your team can help bring you together and stimulate new ideas.

Celebrate the little things. Often we get so wrapped up in the chase for the big picture that we forget to take stock of how far we’ve come. Celebrating your first sale, a major subscription milestone, or a new partnership are all solid places to stop and reflect on how far you’ve come.

Avoiding burnout can be as simple as checking in with yourself and understanding why you’re in business. Practicing self-care and taking stock of how far your business has come will make all the difference and keep burnout at bay.

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