Burnout spans across industries, but some are more at risk than others. Data suggests agency burnout is widespread.
Globally, the Marketing and Advertising industry—including marketing, ad, web design, digital, and other agencies—experiences a burnout rate of 69.6%. Another survey found that 52% of marketers fear burning out.
Hefty price tag aside, burnout leads to talent shortages, poor work-life balance, and employee health problems. That’s not to mention increased absenteeism, reduced agency performance, and poor work-life balance across teams.
So, working with a handful of industry experts, we’ve looked into how we can un-bake burnout from the agency culture cake.
Dear agencies: A foreword from us with love
We hope you read our foreword. We’ve included it because agency burnout is a nuanced and sensitive issue. So we’d like to establish what this piece isn’t, and what it is.
But, if you’re short on time, feel free to skip to the sections you’re most interested in below.
TL;DR: We come in peace.
What this isn’t: A hit piece about agency life
Everyone we engaged with during our research spoke about how their time with an agency had positively impacted them. That includes providing purpose, lots of learning opportunities, or accelerating their career trajectory.
That said, the concept of agency burnout was unanimous. If someone hadn’t experienced burnout firsthand, they’d witnessed it in their colleagues, and could name the causes.
What this is: A guide for agencies
We intend to give you as many actionable insights as possible to help you prevent agency burnout (as an employee or as an employer).
To achieve this, we gathered real thoughts from real people who’ve experienced or witnessed burnout in an agency setting.
Our expert roll call
From the C Suite to Project Managers, you’ll find valuable insights about team burnout from the following collaborators:
- Lauren Bennett, a former CEO of a content marketing agency
- Umar Faizan, SEO Consultant and the founder of link-building agency, Growth Winner
- Andrew Ganesh, who has over a decade’s experience working in an agency setting, including at the director level (and has recently launched his new venture, neshworks)
- Zoe Ashbridge, who has over eight years of experience in digital marketing, and is a former Project Manager for leading agencies
- Ankit Chauhan, an SEO Manager and digital marketing expert
- Meredith Lawlor, Resource Guru’s very own People Ops Guru, who has over 10 years of experience as a people and recruitment leader, working with creative, digital, and marketing professionals
What we’ll be covering:
So, let’s dive in.
What is burnout?
General burnout definition
Burnout is a state of mental, physical, and emotional distress caused by prolonged pressure. Long-term exposure to stress in everyday life can cause burnout. For example, unexpected life events like a sudden bereavement or redundancy could trigger stress, and then lead to burnout.
Some symptoms of burnout include extreme fatigue, feelings of being overwhelmed, and catching more colds than usual.
Work burnout definition
Simultaneously or separately, you might be under prolonged stress at work. That can cause a specific type of burnout—work burnout (also known as job burnout, employee burnout, or team burnout).
With work burnout, you’ll probably experience similar symptoms to general burnout, as well as a reduced sense of accomplishment at work.
Signs of agency burnout (as an organization)
It could be a sign of agency burnout if you’re experiencing any of the following as an organization.
Reduced agency performance
You may spot members of your team lacking focus, experiencing fatigue, or feeling a loss of purpose. These symptoms put people at a higher risk of reduced job performance. For example, they might be more prone to making mistakes or missing critical project deadlines, which impacts your agency’s performance.
Low employee retention
On an individual level, a symptom of burnout is high job turnover. On an organizational level, low employee retention indicates burnout within your agency.
It’s natural, even for happy and healthy employees to progress or move on. But if it’s common for your agency staff to move on quickly, you may have a burnout problem.
Burnout isn’t just a feeling. Physical symptoms like headaches, fatigue, and muscle aches may occur. Burnout’s also an independent risk factor for infections, which puts your people at higher risk of catching cold and flu illnesses.
Check for burnout if your agency team takes multiple sick days or unplanned leave.
Poor work-life balance
Working late and putting in additional hours is sometimes unavoidable in agency life.
You could have a project that needs an extra push to get it over the line. Maybe a deliverable hit a roadblock and took up more of your team’s time than planned, which delayed another project. Or, you’re working on a big pitch.
Things happen, and agency life, by its very nature, can be changeable. But when you or your team always burn the candle at both ends, it’s a fast track to burnout.
What poor agency work-life balance looks like:
- Canceling leave to meet deadlines
- Skipping lunch every day
- Working evenings and weekends
- Not having time or energy for a life outside of work
Signs of agency burnout (as an employee)
Whether you’re C Suite or entry-level at your agency, here’s how job burnout may manifest itself in work and life.
How burnout manifests at work:
- Lack of creativity. Where your brain overflowed with ideas, you’ve now encountered the dreaded creative block. You feel like you’ve short-circuited your creativity and can’t get it running again. This can feel devastating if you’re in a role or environment that relies on creativity.
- Disconnected from your work. No matter how hard you try, you can’t get into your work, and tasks seem to stack up. Then, one rare day, you somehow overcome the mental high tide to achieve something noteworthy. Well, it just doesn’t feel satisfying.
- Agency successes don’t excite you anymore. You used to feel excited about landing new clients, getting next-level campaign results, and submitting high-quality deliverables. Now it all feels a little pointless.
- You keep getting sick. Your baseline energy level is exhaustion. You keep getting headaches and body aches. To top it off, whenever there’s a cold or flu illness, you catch it, and it never seems to shift. You don’t want to call in sick to work, but you’re already exhausted, now this?
- You avoid socializing at work. No one seems as overworked as you. You can’t help but resent your coworkers and maybe even the higher-ups. So even if you could muster up the physical energy for pizza Friday, it’s hard to find the mental energy.
How burnout manifests at home:
- Everything feels overwhelming. Cooking, cleaning—even those simple tasks that usually take five minutes, feel daunting.
- Extreme fatigue. Emotionally, physically, on a cellular level, it feels like you’re completely drained.
- You can’t switch off. You could be speaking to friends, washing the dishes, exercising; it doesn’t matter—you can’t switch off intrusive thoughts.
- Your sleep’s broken up. It takes you an age to fall asleep, and you wake up throughout the night when you finally do. You might even reach for your phone to scroll through socials or check emails. You know that’s not great for sleep, but you need a distraction.
- You struggle to do anything outside of work. You’re mentally, physically, emotionally, heck, even spiritually drained. There’s little left in the tank to do anything else after work.
10 reasons why agency burnout can happen
From old-school culture and managing client expectations, to high employee turnover, we dive deep into the reasons behind agency burnout.
1. Old-school agency culture
Agency life has always seemed exciting, fast-paced, and dynamic. Plus, historically, it’s provided a rare space for creative people to do—mostly—creatively satisfying work that pays the bills.
Alongside those largely positive hangovers from the past comes the hustle and grind prevalent in old-school agency culture. With tight deadlines, high pressure, and changeability comes late nights, working lunches, and sacrificing downtime to meet client demands. That creates a breeding ground for employee burnout.
Suddenly the out-of-balance life of a 1960s Madison Avenue ad exec doesn’t look so slick. And it certainly doesn’t translate to the day-to-day reality of running a sustainable agency fit for our times.
2. High employee turnover
A shortage of skilled professionals is a crucial challenge for agencies in 2023. 29% of agencies report a three to six-month timeline when filling advertised vacancies.
High employee turnover from dissatisfied employees or regular reorganizations can leave critical gaps in your agency team. Then, it can take months to backfill these roles, especially at the higher levels (managers or directors).
During that time, team members have to step into the role and responsibilities of another person, adding even more scope to their work. Even if this is a temporary measure, it can create a chain reaction of people leaving.
Next thing, you’re onboarding an entirely new team, and the remaining staff must find time to train them. That adds further stress to your team’s plate—perpetuating the burnout cycle.
3. Linking productivity to agency revenue
Hours worked don’t always equal tasks achieved or quality ensured. But measuring hours worked is a dependable yardstick for agencies working with billable hours.
If this is your setup, tracking billable hours is necessary. However, if your team needs to account for their time constantly, this can cause burnout.
The unhealthy link between productivity and revenue places anyone managing budgets (Middle Managers, Project Managers, CEOs) at risk. Given that Middle Managers report 43% levels of burnout (more than any other worker group), this is an area to watch.
Insights from a CEO:
Lauren spoke to us about her experience with burnout.
“For me, it was the immediate link between my productivity and the agency’s revenue. I felt like every decision I had to make about whether or not to say yes to a client or prospect would be visible on the bottom line (not entirely true but also not entirely false).”
Lauren explained that this direct link between productivity and revenue saw her tracking her hours every day. Then judging herself “based on those hours.”
Lauren enjoyed her role and is proud of everything she achieved. But warns that emphasizing a link between productivity and revenue is a burnout risk “for any agency working with billable hours.”
Lauren’s advice to other agency leaders is “not to fear over-hiring. As a small agency, we were laser-focused on ‘lean’ ways of working (another burnout risk, for sure!), and yet we always found that every new hire unlocked new levels of productivity and profitability for the business.”
4. Sales for the sake of sales
To turn a profit as an agency, you need to retain clients, onboard new ones, and keep a healthy sales pipeline.
Of course, the logic is sound. More sales equals more revenue, and more revenue means profit.
But chasing the sales dragon can set the tone for misaligning your service offer with client needs. That creates a high-pressure environment, with employee well-being coming second to (often unattainable) client satisfaction.
Insights from a Project Manager:
Zoe discussed burnout from a PM’s perspective, and how the agency setting, in general, may cause burnout.
“Firstly, for me, I was a project manager which means everyone is relying on you. You’re the central contact for everything, so that can be quite tough,” Zoe explained.
More generally, Zoe spoke about agencies having “more overheads” and the importance of “keeping a decent sales pipeline” for agency survival.
Because of this genuine need, agencies may “fall into the trap of getting sales for the sake of getting sales.” But, you might not be working with the right client fit, “leading to demoralizing work and the wrong type of customer.”
Equally, “being responsible for wages and overheads is a big deal. And sometimes you simply need cash flow.”
Agency life accelerated the trajectory of Zoe’s career, and every time she worked at an agency, she “learned a lot.” But, Zoe warned if agencies don’t get the “delicate balance” between sales and ill-fitting projects, burnout can happen.
5. Misaligned values
If your values as an individual are misaligned with the business, you could experience burnout. When you value something your company doesn’t (or vice versa), keeping your motivation levels up is challenging. Value misalignment also applies to agency and client relationships.
6. Intense workloads (with poor planning)
Yes, agency survival can depend on keeping a constant pipeline of work. But when that work’s overflowing, it can overburden your existing resources while leaving little room for scheduled downtime.
Downtime helps creative work (often the backbone of agency deliverables) and encourages productivity. It’s also essential for employee well-being. Not scheduling downtime into your project timelines may contribute to burnout.
Insights from an SEO Manager:
Ankit spoke of the volume of work in relation to agency timelines.
“Agency life is usually spread out in weeks. For example, planning for the month in the first week, execution in the second week, analysis in the third, reporting in the fourth.”
Because of the volume and speed at which work often needs to be delivered, it can feel like “the time is just flying so quickly.” Then it’s challenging to get a “feeling of fulfillment,” no matter how much you work.
Part of that could be the nature of the work itself. “Work is always overflowing in my head as SEO is not a to-do list,” says Ankit.
Ankit reflects that working at an agency “has helped me improve my communication skills dealing with different kinds of clients.”
It’s also given him “a broad view of different industries and niches.” But the most productive agency environment for this is one where workloads are managed and good project planning is put in place.
7. Limited resources, tools, and processes
Depending on where you’re at in your agency’s growth journey, you may have limited resources. Resources, in this context, could be your people—every team member’s wearing more than one hat.
You might also have limited or inefficient processes or tools—you’re still using spreadsheets when a project forecasting tool is needed.
Over time, these limitations hinder productivity and can cause agency burnout.
Insights from a Founder:
Umar spoke to this point, telling us that “some agencies operate with limited resources (budgets and human resources), meaning employees have to wear multiple hats. Then in the starting phase (having less than 10 employees), the founder wears nearly all hats. HR, Marketing, Lead Gen, Sales, etc.”
“Agencies with inefficient processes or tools can hinder productivity (and as a result exacerbate stress levels for employees),” reflected Umar. So, improving your processes and technology can help reduce stress and therefore prevent work burnout.
Changeability and agency life often go hand in hand. For example, you could deal with multiple clients, projects, and campaigns. Then, for some projects, clients may change their requirements frequently.
That means agency staff must quickly adapt and adjust their work, which is mentally draining. Then there’s frequent reorganization. Regular changes in team structures or roles can create instability. That instability adds to stress and burnout.
9. Not managing client expectations
Even for dream clients, establishing boundaries and managing expectations can be tricky. It’s easy to say “yes” to an unrealistic project timeline because you don’t want to lose a client.
Of course, caring about client relationships is essential. But team bandwidth can quickly spread thin if you don’t set limits and manage client expectations. Then, the workload and late nights pile up fast—a recipe for burnout.
Insights from a Digital Marketing Director:
Andrew highlighted the common struggle “to manage client expectations,” which differs from, say, managing expectations as a freelancer. Because “in the agency, you don’t really have control.”
And this is more so if “you’re part of the specialist’s team and not part of the accounts team that is on the front lines with the client.” That disconnect between “teams on timelines and what can be delivered” can stress the working dynamic.
Andrew reiterated that there are many “good things about working at agencies.” And that’s reflected in his staying in the industry for over 10 years. But, managing client expectations successfully can help you maintain a long and happy agency career.
10. A toxic work environment
A toxic work environment that promotes or doesn’t fix poor communication and conflict management can increase stress levels and intensify burnout symptoms.
Disconnection between client-facing roles and other team members can lead to poor internal working relationships and micromanaging. These factors make people feel like they don’t have control over their workload. That can create resentment, which contributes to burnout.
10 tips to prevent burnout before it starts (as an agency)
Here’s how to prevent agency burnout to keep your team happy, healthy, and performing at their best.
1. Shift from an old-school mindset (foster a positive work environment)
Unhealthy competition, rugged individualism, and rock-bottom work-life balance standards make great TV. But these outdated expectations don’t chalk up to the realities of running an agency today.
The crux? Like the Mad Men of yesteryear, you can welcome agency life’s dynamism, excitement, and changeability. But that shouldn’t come at the expense of your employees’ well-being.
2. Create a strong teamwork culture
Don Draper drinking alone in his sleek office while his subconscious chews over a challenge isn’t the only way to fix a problem.
Letting ideas marinate in your subconscious can produce creative solutions to complex problems, and downtime should be encouraged. But so too should a “strong teamwork culture with open communication and open feedback,” says Meredith.
To build trust across your agency and encourage the cross-pollination of ideas:
- Facilitate space for teamwork
- Let your team know it’s okay to reach out to others. Be that their line manager or someone from a different department
3. Check-in often
If you’re an agency project, ops, or resource manager, Meredith recommends checking in with your employees often. She tells us to:
- Work on your relationships at work so your team is open to providing you with honest feedback on how things are going with the project. Swooping in only when there is a problem is not going to help build trust
- Once you’ve built that trust, ask them how they feel and listen intently to them
- If the feedback is minor, you can then make any reasonable adjustments to eliminate any stressors
- However, if you suspect there is a bigger issue, you should encourage that person to reach out to their line manager (if that’s not you) and potentially discuss it with someone from the People/HR team. It’s important to escalate these issues when necessary so they’re documented and followed up on
Not only will these check-ins help you mitigate agency burnout. They’ll foster a positive work environment that makes your agency a place where people want to stay. And that goes a long way to preventing high staff turnover, which can cause burnout.
4. Build work-life balance into your agency culture
Overtime in an agency setting is sometimes unavoidable, but it shouldn’t be a consistent theme. Break away from an unhealthy hustle culture that burns out your team. Instead, embrace work-life balance throughout your agency.
Do this by encouraging employees to:
- Take all their annual leave
- Always take a lunch break when working a full day
- Take regular breaks throughout the day
- Switch off all work-related correspondence when not working. Stop checking Slack and emails after the work day is over, or when you’re on a day off
- If your team works from home, encourage them to create boundaries between work life and home life. If you have the budget, provide tech (say a laptop). Then your employees won’t have to rely on personal devices for work
5. Improve your processes
Getting your agency to work like a well-oiled (yet flexible) machine can reduce burnout and employee turnover.
According to former agency Director Andrew, “having good processes and clearly defined operations goes a long way, but if those are lacking, it’s going to cause high turnover.”
One area to focus on here could be your agency resource planning processes.
A strategic resource planning, scheduling, and optimization process (based on capacity and skills) helps you better align people with projects. Aside from mitigating burnout, it’ll help your agency:
- Boost team performance
- Reduce employee turnover
- Improve client satisfaction
- Encourage growth
A capacity planning process helps you distribute workload across the agency to meet project needs. But, you should do so in a way that doesn’t overbook resources and cause burnout within the team.
When employees feel like they have to be “on” all the time, it increases the chance of burnout. So for the best team performance and the least chance of burnout, keep resource utilization rates between 70% and 80%.
That means no team member is booked at more than 80% of their capacity, which:
- Leaves wriggle room for last-minute project issues
- Builds downtime into their schedule
- Accounts for hours working on admin (meetings and emails) and less intense work
6. Improve team visibility (including at the leadership level)
Research shows that “people who believe their leaders are transparent feel nearly four times as high a sense of belonging with their teams.” They also “report more than six times as high satisfaction with their work environment.”
That sense of belonging and work environment satisfaction makes burnout less likely.
Plus, visibility creates feelings of connection between employees and transparency between teams or departments. It also prevents micromanaging (which can cause distrust and fuel burnout) because everyone can access the necessary information.
To improve visibility, use a resource management tool with calendar integrations. Here’s why:
- Even if you’re in remote settings or different time zones, your team’s schedules, locations, and capacity will be visible in one place
- Your managers won’t have to over-question teammates about their schedules
- You’ll create transparency between teams and departments to plan workload better. Plus, you’ll encourage more harmonious internal relationships
- Employees can track their hours. Then you can account for billable hours where needed without the burden falling on your team. You don’t want to promote an unhealthy link between productivity and revenue. That’s a recipe for burnout.
7. Set realistic goals and timelines
Make sure that your goals and timelines are rooted in reality. That way, you can better manage client expectations in a way that sees you hitting deadlines without burning out your team.
When you have realistic goals and deadlines, you can plan team workload with well-being top of mind. Remember to account for that 70-80% utilization rate, and make sure your expectations align with your team’s skills and capacity.
Pro tip: Set regular check-ins with your team to reassess workload throughout the entire project life cycle.
8. Stick to your boundaries
Once you’ve set realistic goals (accounting for skills, available capacity, and wiggle room for error), stick to them. You can also reiterate any boundaries related to work-life balance. Reminding your team to take breaks and have lunch away from their desk, for example.
After setting a boundary with a client (like a realistic timeline that protects your team), try to stick to it. But if you desperately need to bring a milestone forward, reassess and re-allocate workload where needed.
Pro tip: If you’re in a leadership position, your team will rely on you to hold the line. If you don’t want to overburden, double-book or stress out your team, invest in a workload management tool with clash management. That’ll keep overbookings (that can cause burnout) at bay.
9. Create a culture of recognition
When employees feel their hard work and achievements go unnoticed, it leads to feelings of frustration. Then if recognition isn’t consistent throughout the organization, it’s another thing that can contribute to burnout.
People Ops Guru Meredith, recommends “consistently recognizing and appreciating your team’s accomplishments and hard work.”
You could do this by:
- Introducing a formal recognition program, or baking this into your weekly team updates
- Encouraging a culture where shout-outs and recognition don’t just come from leadership or project leaders
- Making it easy for peers to recognize each other in more casual ways, such as on Slack or in more informal meetings
10. Invest in resource management software
Even with limited resources, try to use your budget to keep agency burnout at bay. For example, invest in agency resource management software that helps you and your team:
- Improve processes (ditch the spreadsheets and easily align people with projects)
- Keep at an optimum utilization rate (get automated warnings when you over allocate a resource)
- Improve visibility (get a visual overview of project timelines, plus team schedules and workloads in one place)
- Track billable hours (protect your profit margins without your team feeling like hours worked define them)
- Make overtime the exception, not the rule (clash management helps you resolve overallocation issues on the fly and keep workloads realistic)
- Create watertight team schedules (root your timelines and workloads in reality so you hit every deadline without burning out your team)
3 ways to prevent burnout before it starts (as an agency employee)
Your agency can and should do its best to prevent employee burnout. But we also have a responsibility as individuals to take action over the things we do that may contribute to burnout.
1. Create value alignment
“If your agency doesn’t align fully (or very closely) with your values, you’ll burn out,” said Zoe. And, “if you can find an agency who does work you really believe in,” burnout is less likely.
Zoe recommends asking your agency:
- What projects do they sell mostly?
- How do they measure success?
- How do they choose their customers?
Meredith mirrors this point. “Make sure you get a good understanding of your company’s values before signing on. If you’re already on board, check in to see if those values have changed since joining. That’s because “if your priorities aren’t in sync, and no one seems open to change, you may need to look for a different company that aligns with the values you strongly hold.”
Meredith recommends asking yourself the following questions:
- How does my boss make decisions?
- What’s deprioritized? What’s prioritized?
2. Focus on the things you can control
Agency life pro: It’s changeable, so you’ll never be bored.
Agency life con: It’s changeable, so you must roll with the punches.
No two days are the same in an agency. That means it’s essential to focus on things you can control as an individual. This includes:
- Your notifications on Slack and email
- Taking a lunch break and breaks throughout the day
- Switching off from emails and Slack on your days off
- Being transparent about your limits. Let your line manager know if your workload is over or under-allocated
- Asking for check-ins with your manager to regularly reassess your workload
3. Set boundaries
Setting and sticking to boundaries can create work-life balance and safeguard you from burnout.
For example, boundaries can help you separate work from your day-to-day life if you work from home. That might be creating a dedicated workspace to physically separate your work stuff from your home stuff.
Then, whether you work flexibly (on-site or remotely from home), we recommend setting specific hours. Keeping to fixed hours will help you transition to home life once the work day’s over.
How you can reduce agency burnout if it’s happened
If working at your agency is the direct cause of someone’s burnout, it’s critical to put a support plan in place before things escalate. But even if work isn’t the direct cause of a team member’s burnout, they may still require extra support while recovering.
As an organization:
Meredith, our People Ops Guru, recommends that agency employers do the following to reduce burnout:
- Provide flexible work arrangements. Allow employees to work when they feel most productive and effective
- Encourage your team to take all of their annual leave. Yes, really. We mean it. ALL of it!
- Offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and Wellness Programs. Consider providing free mental health resources, mindfulness classes, free or subsidized gym memberships, or health app subscriptions. If you’re starting from scratch, you should ask your employees what they’d value and what they’d like to be addressed
- Recognize and appreciate your team. Shout about their accomplishments and recognize their hard work
- Foster a positive work environment with open feedback. Focus on creating a strong teamwork culture where agency staff feels supported—whether feeling their best or worst. Creating frequent feedback loops (positive or negative) can boost our motivation
- Set clear expectations from the start. Provide a rough project outline with critical milestones and client expectations so people feel more in control of their work. Then, establish what both success and failure look like against each project task
- Be sure to check in with your employees often. How’s your team feeling? Listen to them and make any reasonable adjustments to eliminate any stressors
As an individual:
For agency staff experiencing burnout, Meredith recommends:
- Asking for help if you’re struggling. If you recognize burnout symptoms, reach out to someone you feel safe with. This may be your colleagues, friends, line manager, People/HR team, or a professional
- Knowing your limits. Get comfortable with saying no if you don’t have the capacity to handle the request
- Taking regular breaks. Always take a lunch break and breaks throughout the day. Get outside and get some steps in. A change in environment can help you switch off. This is especially important if you’re working remotely. Can someone check in on you to make sure you’re taking breaks? This could be someone at work, a roommate, your family, or your partner (or your smart watch!)
- Taking time off seriously. When you’re on a day off or on leave, take it seriously. Switch off from emails and Slack
- Prioritizing self-care. Make time for activities that make you happy and recharged. Hobbies, exercise, socializing with friends can work wonders
The bottom line on agency burnout
Agency burnout can cause lower engagement. Disengaged employees are less productive and can cost you up to 18% of their annual salary. Burnout’s also one of the biggest causes of high staff turnover—a key issue for agencies today.
Many things—including the nature of agency life—can contribute to burnout. But intense workloads (with minimal planning), high employee turnover, and poor systems and processes are common causes of agency burnout.
Burnout doesn’t have to be part of the agency life package. Investing in a resource management tool with clash management, calendar integrations, and automated utilization rates can help you create happy and healthy agency teams.
Sign up to Resource Guru for free, to see how this tool can help you reduce agency burnout.
“Resource Guru brings a lot of confidence to the team. But on top of that, it generates trust from our clients.”
– Julián Mercado, Managing Director, Wunderman Thompson