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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
In fairness, most marketing employers already recognise the danger. In
our survey, 64% of them rated stress as their company’s number one
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.’
CHECKING YOUR STRESS LEVEL
Answer the questions by choosing one of the responses below and scoring
Does Not Apply 0
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
- 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
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.