It was sometime in the second half of 2020. I was working out of my shed, as was the custom in the newly minted covid times, answering questions in an online Q&A for Never Not Creative.
‘My boss keeps texting me after 9pm. How can I get them to stop?’ ‘I feel like I’m doing two people’s jobs. How do I avoid burnout?’ ‘The deadlines I’m given are so unreasonable but no one seems to say anything. Who can I talk to?’ ‘I feel lucky to have a job but I also feel like I’m about to have a breakdown. What should I do?’
These sorts of questions weren’t uncommon before the chaos of covid. But they now came with an added dimension of existential doom.
Why were we all doing this to ourselves? Surely this way of working had to stop.
And pretty soon it was my turn.
Despite having over fifteen years in the industry and fully knowing what to expect, six weeks back from parental leave I felt completely burned out. Sure, I had to add home schooling and baby rearing to my workload. But, more than ever, that workload was relentless and unforgiving. It was completely unsustainable.
I was confronted with the stark reality that my value had little to do with my sparkling creativity, superior wit and fabulous leadership. It was simply about productivity.
My time was up. And I became one of the many women over 40 with kids who are made redundant from creative agencies.
Which is why I’m closely watching the case being brought against Independent Federal MP, Monique Ryan, by her former chief of staff, Sally Rugg. Rugg is alleging Ryan and the commonwealth knowingly and systemically breached labour standards with the demands they placed on her time, often expecting her to work weekends and 70 hour work weeks.
It’s a case that could have ramifications for other industries, like film production or advertising, for which punishingly long hours are considered par for the course.
If Rugg wins her case then why couldn’t the same argument be mounted against employers in creative industries renown for long hours – like film production, media companies and, of course, advertising agencies? How could it not be considered a knowing and systemic breach of labour standards to expect people to repeatedly work weekends on pitches or late nights compiling award entries?
The tired arguments about doing it for the creative good, or the camaraderie or ‘the win’ just wouldn’t pass muster.
People do it because the system demands it of them and they are afraid of what might happen if they say no.
While some creative businesses are changing the way they work — with more flexible hours, four day working weeks or job sharing senior roles — the culture of long hours is so endemic it is not enough to hope for self-regulation.
The system needs an overhaul.
Hopefully a legal challenge like Rugg’s represents a first step.
If so, it will be a good thing. Because people’s output will be valued for its quality not its volume. (Creative leaders might finally realise it is unnecessary to force their young charges to have six ideas on the table at all times when only one or two will do. Imagine that!)
Moreover, creative agencies will never achieve the diversity they desperately need as long as this culture of long hours maintains its grip. Simply because it locks out too many people. Not just people in caring roles but people with disabilities, neurodivergent people, people who do volunteer work, people who have faith or community commitments.
All the kinds of people who bring incredible lived experience, knowledge, creativity, energy and enthusiasm to work. Without having to do it around the clock.