Marketing Mix: MARKETING FOCUS: Can you handle it? - This week, leading psychologist Dr David Lewis will tell the Marketing Society Annual conference that marketing is one of the most highly stressed professions. Here, he explains why

Marketing has the dubious honour of being in the top flight of the most stressful white-collar jobs, not far behind the nerve-jangling occupations of inner-city teachers, air traffic controllers and NHS medical staff.

Marketing has the dubious honour of being in the top flight of the

most stressful white-collar jobs, not far behind the nerve-jangling

occupations of inner-city teachers, air traffic controllers and NHS

medical staff.

In a recent study, 67% of people in marketing and advertising reported

that excessively high stress was a regular part of their working lives;

46% said they often felt crushed by chronic stress; while 34% were

suffering so much stress they were seriously thinking of quitting their


There is a serious risk that soaring levels of stress in marketing are

undermining performance and threatening health.

These are not periodic spells of intense activity where everybody works

around the clock until a crucial project is done and dusted. Such panics

are part and parcel of any job and, even when frequent, need not cause

stress problems.

The real cause for concern is chronic stress. That unending pressure to

perform at a high level which can eventually result in Burn Out Stress

Syndrome, or Boss - a condition in which the individual has become so

mentally and physically exhausted that he, or she, is no longer able to

function effectively.

In marketing you find people who are, for the most part, deeply

dedicated to their jobs and to being personally and professionally

successful. Unfortunately, they work in a profession where it is far

harder for them to remain in control of events, which threatens their

goals and creates insecurity.

Beyond your control

One such factor is the intensely competitive nature of marketing,

especially in the FMCG sector. Striving to stay ahead in a game where

you are consistently up against competitors striving to out-innovate,

out-price and out-target you results in a huge number of


This is compounded by the fact that marketers have to risk vast sums of

company money on campaigns or product launches which may or may not

prove successful.

Lack of job security makes matters worse and presents another major

challenge to an employee’s sense of control. The ’rotating door’ policy

employed by many companies - whereby marketing directors live or die by

the success of their last campaign - is reminiscent of the way football

clubs dump their managers.

Companies which find marketing’s input into the business hard to measure

are quick to point the finger when things go wrong.

The amount of stress in any job is directly related to the amount of

control employees have over events. The less their control the greater

their stress.

A study of stress in the Civil Service, for example, found

middle-ranking employees suffered far more seriously than those higher

up the pecking order.

But stress is also related to the importance we attach to a successful

outcome. If someone genuinely does not care whether they succeed or

fail, their stress remains low. The more passionately we care about

achieving our goals the greater the stress when anything happens to put

that success in jeopardy.

Culture shock

Research has shown that the most stressful organisations to work in are

those which combine highly competitive cultures with demands for total

dedication and a low to zero tolerance for failure. Which, for many,

perfectly describes the corporate culture found in a large number of

marketing departments.

When asked to list the attributes necessary for success in the marketing

profession, 83% of employers gave ’total commitment’ as their number one

qualification, while 75% said having a ’highly competitive nature’ was

essential for climbing the corporate ladder.

Time pressures turn up the heat. There are only 168 hours in a week but

many marketing professionals have said they must fit in at least 268

hours of work simply to stay on top of the job.

Under this kind of assault, something has to got give and that something

is all too often sleep, regular meals, leisure activities, a social life

and being with the family. Such disruptions quickly lead to fatigue,

depression and a breakdown in relationships, which only adds to the


The final ingredient in the psycho-toxic mixture is the bosses and

clients from hell. Almost everybody has them, and is made anxious and

exhausted by having to deal with them. I call these unreasonable,

bullying individuals who take pride in handing out stress Typhoid


The original Typhoid Mary was an ice-cream seller in New York’s Central

Park. She didn’t suffer from the typhoid herself, she was a carrier who

gave it to anyone who bought her ices.

Some managers see such behaviour as a way of getting things done and of

keeping people on their toes.

They scapegoat, throw their weight around and come down heavily on

subordinates who make even the slightest mistake. Sam Chisholm, abrasive

former chief executive of BSkyB is said to have had a sign on his desk,

which read: ’To err is human; to forgive is not my policy.’

If stress levels in marketing are consistently high, and appear to be

increasing, then maybe the old saying ’If you can’t stand the heat get

out of the kitchen’ is applicable. Perhaps marketing is no place for

wimps and weaklings, and increasing stress is part of an evolutionary

process, weeding out those unfit for the job and leaving being a

superior breed of resistant marketers able to cope with anything and

everything life flings at them.

However tempting such a view may be, there are excellent reasons for

rejecting it.

Setting altruism aside for the moment, the first reason is that if you

command the kind of ship which makes the HMS Bounty seem like a pleasure

cruiser you could be in for an unpleasant legal surprise.

While all responsible employers accept the need to protect the physical

health of their workers, a landmark case - Walker versus Northumberland

County Council has shown this duty of care extends to safeguarding their

psychological well-being.

Because the case has such important implications for high-stress

marketing organisations, the main points are worth considering here.

Mr Walker worked for the council as an area social services officer from

1970 until December 1987. As the population rose during the period of Mr

Walker’s employment, so too did his workload.

At the end of November 1986, Mr Walker suffered a nervous breakdown due

to stress, with mental exhaustion, acute anxiety, sleeplessness,

irritability, and an inability to cope. He had no previous history of

mental disorder.

Courting disaster

He returned to work in March 1987 on a promise of additional help and

more staff. Within a month this support had been withdrawn. As workloads

increased between March and July 1987, Mr Walker again began to

experience serious stress symptoms.

In late September, he had a second breakdown, which forced him to

abandon his lifelong career. The court awarded him substantial


To avoid such litigation, employers must adopt all ’reasonable measures’

to safeguard employees against needless stress. This means identifying

activities and tasks likely to produce work-related stress and take

steps to reduce or eliminate the risk.

They must also train managers to recognise stress-related problems and

put in place some system by which employees with such problems can seek

help within their work place.

Finally, they should produce policy guidelines on the ways in which

stress problems can be referred to appropriate experts and any

recommended remedial actions put into practice.

What you cannot do is get your workforce all stressed up and then give

them nowhere to go.

The second reason to take stress seriously is that around 40% of

absences from work can be blamed on stress-related illnesses.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, an estimated 19 million

people suffer from stress-related health problems in the UK, resulting

in an annual loss of around 1.7 million working days at a cost to

industry of pounds 3.5bn.

Stress is implicated in heart and circulation diseases, as well as

causing damage to the immune system, our body’s natural defence

mechanism against attack by bacteria and viruses. The more stressed we

become the more likely we are to catch any bug that’s doing the


Indeed, many of my patients have told me that one sure sign they are

getting too stressed is when they start going down with more colds, flu

or sore throats. The physical tension produced by stress can lead to

back problems and nagging headaches.

Danger signals

In fairness, most marketing employers already recognise the danger. In

our survey, 64% of them rated stress as their company’s number one

health threat.

But just recognising the danger is not enough. As with the legal

implications, risks to health will only be reduced by taking practical

steps to eliminate unnecessary stress. Often such measures are simple

and inexpensive. Such as providing a telephone-free office in which to

work on reports, projects or presentations that require a period of

intense and interruption-free concentration.

One of the unfortunate effects of stress is to make people more cynical,

intolerant, impatient and generally bloody-minded to work with.

They can become ’empty suits’ - physically present but mentally


Because they find it so hard to concentrate, deadlines may be missed and

mistakes made. By causing delays to others, they create a knock-on

effect which increases stress throughout the entire organisation. Their

negative, self-defeating attitudes damage morale and undermine


Offering people who have reached this stressed-out state a couple of

days off to sort themselves out is about as helpful as proffering a

Band-Aid to treat a major haemorrhage.

What such burned-out cases need is counselling and a lengthy break from

work - both expensive and avoidable options.

Far better to reduce or eliminate the sources of such problems than deal

with their full consequences.

As the Chinese sage Lao Zi remarked: ’The biggest problem in the world

could have been easily solved when it was small.’


Answer the questions by choosing one of the responses below and scoring


Response                 Score

Does Not Apply               0

Never                        1

Rarely                       2

Sometimes                    3

Rather Often                 4

Nearly All The Time          5

How Often Do You ...

- Find yourself without sufficient authority to meet all the

responsibilities placed on you?

- Have difficulty, through no fault of your own, in doing your job


- Find it impossible to meet all the demands made on you during a normal

working day?

- Find yourself unable to satisfy the conflicting demands of various

people in your life?

- Not really know how your performance is evaluated?

- Fail to influence a superior’s decisions or actions when these affect


- Feel uncertain what colleagues or superiors expect of you?

- Find it impossible to do your job as well as you would like?

- Feel unclear about opportunities for promotion or advancement?

How To Score

Total your score. Ignoring questions answered ’Does Not Apply’, divide

the total by the number of relevant questions. Compare the result with

the average for your job on the chart below.

Example: Total score = 30. Two questions did not apply. Stress score:

30/8 = 3.75

Stress chart

Occupation                       Stress levels

                          Normal     Moderate   High

Professional, technical      2.0        2.5 +   3.5+

Managerial                   1.8        2.3 +   3.3+


- The marketing sector has the highest proportion of employers (16%) and

employees (18%) who rate competition as a source of stress.

- Two-thirds of employees believe there is a link between stress and

technology in the workplace.

- Time pressure is the biggest cause of stress in marketing, IT, finance

and manufacturing; 83% of employers and employees say it is the biggest

cause of stress.

Source: David Lewis Consultancy.


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