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When Content Marketers Are Not OK

Everywhere I look, I see signs that marketers are struggling. In a single quarter this year, we at Fenwick, a content studio, had 10 different client points of contact quit their jobs due to “burnout and mysterious work-life circumstances,” says our strategist, Donnique Williams, who’s been investigating the matter.

The rapid pace of change in our industry is nothing new. But the stress of continually trying to keep up can ruin your team members’ focus and wreck their ability to be creative. And for some workers, constantly feeling overwhelmed and undersupported can manifest as serious physical ailments that rewrite their life stories.

For example, six months into her pregnancy, Josie (a pseudonym) started feeling unwell. Her obstetrician diagnosed her with a condition that presented a 30% mortality rate. She was quickly admitted to the hospital and advised to remain there until the baby was due. But after a few weeks of in-patient care, she gave birth prematurely. The doctors said it was caused by work stress. Josie works in content marketing.

As a leader, you can help. You can look for early warning signs, rebalance responsibilities, and create a space where your team members can truly thrive – or, at the very least, survive the conditions beyond your control.

Welcome to the ‘do more with loss’ era

Many people, very likely including members of your content team, are not OK. They may carry the lingering stress and strain from the past three years. Not to mention anxiety about ongoing waves of layoffs: Companies have laid off nearly a half-million workers this year, which has affected 27% of marketing departments, according to a Chief Marketer Pulse survey.

Some have been laid off more than once this year. That includes Nia Balbo, Ashley Dyment, and Jeremy Hunt, who posted on LinkedIn to express shock and voice their marketing job-search struggles.

Everywhere you look, “people are carrying unprocessed grief, both personal and professional,” says Ty Canning, a San Francisco Bay Area psychologist I spoke with. “That results in lower motivation and performance, and higher stress.”

That stress can manifest in ways that range from merely frustrating to life-threatening. And no matter where your team members fall on this spectrum, their marketing work will likely suffer.

For starters, stress has been proven to sap people’s focus and creativity. Stressed people can hold fewer simultaneous ideas, are worse at solving problems, and are more prone to error.

They can also become so anxious about falling behind at work that they don’t advocate for their well-being and risk becoming sick or hospitalized. For example, when Josie first learned she was expecting a baby, she didn’t tell her bosses because she feared they wouldn’t be supportive. She was working seven-day weeks, and the pressure was immense. But waiting to seek help only worsened her condition.

Waiting also hurt Dominika Stankiewicz, a content marketer who says she developed a mysterious full-body rash that only receded when she quit her job. A half-dozen others I spoke to reported ailments ranging from work-related stress-triggered autoimmune disorders to, in one case, an abnormal heart rhythm.

Stress can be contagious

How do you tell when personal stress starts to spill into the workplace? One way is to listen for sardonic memes, jokes, and gallows humor, which may be signs of unprocessed grief. You can also look for cynical content pitches and copy, people “boasting” of poor sleep, or a rise in careless errors, missed deadlines, and overlooked tasks.

If you notice these signals, you can provide support before it affects the quality of their content work – or spreads to their coworkers.

Provide outlets for frustration

Creating a safe space where they can voice their concerns is a decisive first step. Consider holding a human resources-facilitated forum or encouraging them to come to you (or speak with HR) privately if they’re uncomfortable revealing personal details in front of others.

Your next best line of defense is to encourage them to take a break from their work to refresh their creative energies – and not just a few minutes here and there. In any given week, the percentage of workers taking a vacation has fallen by almost half since 1980 – from 3.3% to 1.7% – according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Managers can play a role in reversing that trend.

“Keep track of your team’s vacations so you can say, ‘I haven’t seen you take a week off in a while,’” says Kristin Hillery, head of brand and content at design software startup Voiceflow. “And practice it. People must know it’s OK to care for themselves, which starts with you demonstrating those healthy habits yourself,” Kristin says.

“Marketers must know it’s OK to care for themselves, which starts with you modeling healthy habits.”

Other options include offering mental health days or occasional half-days on Fridays. Create an “out-of-office” coverage plan to ease fears of falling further behind and affirm that no one will be penalized for exercising these benefits.

Too much change can be disruptive

As content marketing shapeshifts before our eyes, you’re dealing with a lot – and are likely keeping your team informed at every step. But when too many changes flow through, the work environment can become toxic. Adapting to frequent strategic pivots and new directives disrupts your team’s collaborative rhythm and causes lingering stress.

“In my organization, there is so much pressure and fear being felt at the top, and they aren’t doing much filtering,” says a senior content marketer who asked to remain anonymous. “That chaos has trickled down. Everyone feels it.”

Shield your team from change fatigue

Think of yourself as the shield that protects your team from all this change. Absorb the worry so they can stay focused. If you must heap new concerns upon your employees’ plates, point out existing concerns they can let go of. Otherwise, their focus can narrow to box-checking mode and creativity becomes nearly impossible.

When leaders fail to properly manage a high volume of organizational change, creativity and work quality aren’t the only things that can suffer. Dominika’s backstory exemplifies this.

“We had a manager who was pretty much Ted Lasso. Everything was fantastic –­ up to the point where they left,” says Dominika. “Then all hell broke loose. We lost our guiding light. There was no more vision – just pressure from all sides to keep up and increase performance.”

Dominika takes pride in her work ethic and says she “was in denial about how bad it was for a long time.” But then she developed a whole-body allergy to metals, makeup, foods like citrus and chocolate, and more. Her body constantly itched, and her skin became unbearably sensitive.

One month after she quit that job, all her symptoms subsided. One year later, they have not returned.

Create whitespace in your team’s calendars

How will you know if you are overexposing employees to ever-increasing demands? Look at their calendars. If there is zero white space, that’s a bad sign. If you see people working long hours and eating lunch at their desks but still falling short of their responsibilities, they may need shielding.

“The greatest gift a content leader can give her team is focus,” says Sonja Jacob, director of content marketing at athenahealth. “Whether that comes via the goals you set for the work, the space to do it in, or both, the recipe for success on content teams is narrowing the aperture on what qualifies as ‘work.’ It will allow your team to focus on – and deliver – what’s critical to success.”

“Narrowing the aperture on what qualifies as ‘work’ will allow your team to focus on what’s critical to success.”

Help your team members write down and rank all their responsibilities. If their workloads seem too heavy, suggest they pause the bottom third. Encourage them to manage their capacity and respond to additional requests with reminders of what’s already on their plate. For example, “If I’m to start this new thing, what old thing should I stop?”

Process bloat and micromanagement add to people’s stress  

As content’s role in driving business success grows, departments outside of marketing feel the need to be involved in content creation. While they have good intentions, their involvement can make processes needlessly complex – often to the point of becoming bloated.

The content review process is one area where this often happens. Every team wants to weigh in with their feedback – but they often fail to consider the impact of their input, especially when it comes in after the production deadline or doesn’t align with the content’s strategic purpose. The result is a too-many-cooks scenario that weighs down your team’s workflow without adding value to their work.

Pare the process

When more teams and steps get added to the workflow without proper governance, you risk missing deadlines and producing content that’s already outdated by the time it’s published.  

Look for ways to cut unnecessary steps without disenfranchising your clients or cross-team collaborators. For example, our team has advised clients to request one page of upfront guidance from their legal or PR teams, instead of conducting reviews on every article. Their lawyers and PR associates were happy with the change (it’s less work for them), and their articles now take one-third less time to produce.

There are other ways to clear the roadblocks in your writers’ way. Use project management tools to replace administrative tasks with automation rules. Set limits on the number of reviews – and reviewers. Document your review process and editorial guidelines and share them with reviewers to ensure everyone is working off the same rubric.

Cultivate trust and autonomy

Content quality and timeliness can suffer when leaders insist on micromanaging their team’s work – asking for continual updates, check-ins, and process additions. So can team morale and workplace culture.

“I feel like our new leadership is in such a panic that it seems they want us to sacrifice quality for speed,” says the aforementioned senior content marketer. “But then we get reprimanded if something goes out wrong.” They describe its impact on the workplace culture as “intense micromanagement, hidden behind the guise of ‘transparency.’”

Constantly hovering over your team can convey you don’t trust their judgment or capabilities. A healthier approach is to empower them to solve problems on their own.

Provide clear goals, coach them on what’s required to achieve them, and let them come to you when (and only when) they need backup. You can also experiment with fewer meetings and asynchronous updates.

Giving up some control gives your team more agency over their work. According to Deloitte, that can lead to a high-trust environment where employees are 260% more motivated to work, are absent 41% less, and are 50% less likely to look for another job.

“It’s like kitesurfing,” says the senior content marketer. “The more you want control of the board, the more you have to relax. Your instinct is to tense up, but you actually have to let go.”

“The more you want control of the board, the more you have to relax and let go.”

Help your team survive – and thrive

Today’s content teams have plenty of cause to feel overworked, undersupported, and simply burned out. But they don’t have to suffer in silence or without hope of relief.

You can’t control everything that happens in their work and personal lives. But as their leader, you can take actions that will help them manage the stress before it turns toxic. Encourage them to rest, shield them from overmuch change, and reduce unnecessary tasks to lighten their load.

Chris Gillespie

Chris Gillespie

Chris co-founded Fenwick, a studio for uncommonly clear writing and design. He's into journalism, history, biographies, and poetry, and would never say no to "type two" outdoors fun. Try his team's three free writing tiny courses or join his newsletter, Longview, for twice-monthly writing wisdom.Follow Chris on Twitter @cgillespie317.