How are you?
A question rarely asked for fear of the answer. It is August 2020 in Mexico City. My spouse and I recently bought our first home and it is in a woody area. Its name translates into the Desert of the Lions, a name befitting my family; my toddler’s name also means Lion.
Mornings since the start of the pandemic have new smells and rituals. The air is crisper and cleaner than where we used to live, which may account for heightened levels of lucidity. At least I would like to think so. I am surrounded by nature and I am getting my first real taste of being a full-time mother, partner, homemaker and VP for Isobar Mexico. My new settings have provided a space for reflection, and somehow there is time. Correction, having to stay put is pandemic-induced.
Mornings since the start of the pandemic have new smells and rituals
Amid the diversity of changes spurred on by the pandemic, I have thought about two that are specific and crucial for me: the way we work and the way we feel as we work. Both permeated by states of anxiety. Whether it’s dealing with the coworker that refuses to believe the virus exists or reaching out to the colleague who lost a loved one to COVID-19; anxiety builds. Nights are the toughest for yours truly. I know it’s not just me; we share these fears and losses. Among the results are the inabilities to process information and finish tasks that are otherwise a walk in the park. I’m riddled with questions.
Photo by Anshul Dabral
I appreciate the privilege and responsibility my position within the Dentsu Group holds. Seeing my own mental health affected by the pandemic has led to more questions, I hope the right ones, especially when it comes to my team. I need to ask the right questions, strike the right tone. My goal is to be supportive; my fear is to be perceived as invasive. The question is the thing.
I know the right questions and their answers will provide a way forward in the quest to look after my team’s mental health. This matter is important to everyone. My personal experience is that of a woman in a position of privilege, and I will share that with you in these lines. However, I am acutely aware that I would not serve my team properly if I do not empathize with their multiplicity of experiences. We are all in the same boat, yet the experiences are diverse in nature, according to gender, age and socioeconomic status.
Asking the Right Questions
The switch from working face-to-face every day to interacting behind a device has revealed our capacity to take charge and make use of all our human tools to inspire people, to stay motivated, organized and healthy.
It’s quantum leaps for Mexico’s standards of home office culture. Shockwaves have permeated the way we relate. My team was sent home. Each person’s context is different, some live alone, others have partners, some have children and dogs, and/or care for their elderly. Nobody is asking the right questions!
Some creatives feel uncomfortable because expressing their needs could be judged adversely.
How are people at agencies doing? The hours and workloads have increased threefold. We are pitching like crazy; some clients have put us on hold, some agencies have had to lay people off. I now realize the privilege that working for Isobar includes the fact we have not had any lay-offs. My team is tired but inspired, but not all teams in this industry feel this way. Some creatives feel uncomfortable because expressing their needs could be judged adversely. Leadership in companies should be questioning this state of affairs.
From my standpoint and experience, these situations reveal a very important fact: the extraordinary amount of time and resources women must invest in order to take care of everything, all the while not complaining. It’s a standard, and we must live-up to the challenge at hand.
Photo by Alloys Iteba
The burden of inequality
I cannot omit the stigmas women are subjected to and how our feelings are brushed aside, attributed to hormonal cycles. I have observed how different men’s contributions stem from the way women care for our home lives and work lives, with the objective of keeping them functional and operational. We are carrying out more than three roles at a time, in the same living space, as mothers, wives, daughters, nannies, teachers, and full-time professionals, leaving very little breathing room, if any. This situation is not new; it is just that now you have a front row seat, thanks to Zoom.
There is an expected division between our home lives and work lives, which in practice does not make sense. This, added to the pervasive rape culture and structural violence women face on a daily basis, has taken its toll on mental health. Women have long promoted and demanded solutions through diverse movements that make visible the multiplicity of situations that are obstacles to living and working well.
The root of the problem must be met with solutions including education and equal and fair salaries, to name a few. We must stop ignoring the demands made on women to succeed sans error, to produce results, ignoring their roles as mothers, all on lower salaries than our male counterparts.
The right type of leadership is part of that equation: a woman that receives fair pay; who achieves leadership positions; who is heard and believed when she reports abuse and misconduct; a woman whose ideas are received, analyzed and not countered with an attempt of minimization, is a woman who will be a great leader. A person who will effect change.
Photo by See Design Studio
I have had an interesting pandemic experience, rich in challenges in every sense. I thought I knew my family, but reality poured over me like a bucket of ice water. Now that I have truly spent time with my son, I realize that my presence translates into his improved development, his achieving his ideal weight because he eats better, his feelings seem to be sorted and well because he is with his parents and he learns better.
I am exhausted, I have gone grey, but I am happy. My relationship with my spouse has been a challenge; we both work in advertising and have high-ranking positions. Time together is limited, but communication has confirmed our love is real and we take each other in, as best we can. We are very stressed over the fear of getting sick, the risk our parents run, as they are senior citizens and caring about our son’s household environment. We work a lot and have lost weight, but it is clear we must stay strong for our family and for our teams.
I thought I knew my family, but reality poured over me like a bucket of ice water
These are just some of the faces of the mental health crisis seen in agencies. I have seen junior creatives forced to move back to parental homes, which in many cases are close quarters. Some resigned and relocated back to their hometowns because they could not bear the solitude of lockdown. Could we have done something to avoid that?
Many stopped sleeping, overcome with fear and started drinking. How many didn’t increase their alcohol and drug intake? How can I ask these questions preemptively all the while remembering not to judge? I mean, on what authority?
I need to remind myself that burdens are different. Do I have the right tools to be supportive and point my team in the right direction?
Photo by: AKQA
Being leaders in COVID times
Mental health is an issue that is silenced and seldom expressed; as people are ignored, pointed out or punished for expressing their thoughts, needs and feelings. We as leaders need to do the opposite of judging and castigating. We must see the person, their present needs, and look beyond a missed deadline; it is a sign something is wrong.
Pandemic working is new to all, how could we be ready to evaluate performance under these conditions? Leadership needs to be sensitive to collaborators' social and financial context. What would you do if you found out someone on your team has been diagnosed with clinical depression and cannot leave his/her house?
We as leaders must do the opposite of judging and castigating. We must look beyond a missed deadline.
I believe this is part of our responsibility when working with human resources. Agencies could and should play a role in providing outlets and solutions. Is it not that what the Human Resources Department is for? Now imagine that you, as the owner, CEO or VP, are diagnosed with panic attacks. What would you do? Learning to ask the right questions and listen is the first step. People are working harder, longer hours, more days, and nobody is tuning into their mental health needs.
As the pandemic continues its course, life goes on for some. It certainly has changed. Our clients still need us, and we are in the same position. I appreciate their level of exigence. The task at hand includes keeping our mental health front and center. We cannot break down. No, we cannot. Too much is on the line. Our teams depend on daily decisions and they churn out the results that make our work visible.
People are our most valuable resource; we are dependent on our team’s ability to instill trust in our clients. Our mental health needs existed pre – pandemic. I wonder if prevalence is a mere matter of the pandemic or if it is actually a matter of visibility? Whichever the answer is, we must center on informed actions to support our teams, and ourselves.
Photo by Isobar
What to do?
As the leader of a creative team, I have started to implement diverse strategies to promote mental health. We talk about how we feel, I share information about where they can find psychological support, and I have set up meditation and yoga classes. Weekly briefs include self-care activities including taking a walk, starting their own business or getting their hair styled differently; activities that can get their minds off work and allow them to blow off steam.
I have also implemented surveys as an additional line of communication. My objective is for my team to feel supported by Isobar. I constantly ask myself how I can improve to ensure they feel supported. Our industry needs to grasp that there are basic needs and conditions that must be fulfilled, not only to be well, but to do a better job.
Mental health is still an issue that makes people around it uncomfortable, it is misunderstood and not accepted, and generally not shared for fear of being judged. Collaborators deal with this on a daily basis. Work environments should include a program for collaborators to release these burdens. Our people, our teams are our lifeline. If a collaborator requires support, companies should offer it. It is good common sense. The pandemic has revealed these types of situations, and companies will have to react or endure the consequences.
After all is said and done, the big questions remain: How are you? How am I? I am aware that I too am collaborator, and a woman, and then I act.