Creative Leaders on Stress in the Workplace

We talked to three of this year’s CR Creative Leaders 50 – Anna Higgs of Ink Factory, Ken Kirton of Hato and Resh Sidhu of Framestore – about how they manage stress, in themselves and colleagues, within the workplace

Image by sorbetto, courtesy of iStock

Recently CR ran an article by Tanya Livesey about ‘why stress and creativity do not go well together’. The piece received a huge response from our readers so we decided to explore the subject further by talking to three of our Creative Leaders 50 about their own responses to stress, how it affects their work, and what methods they have found to manage it.

Anna Higgs, Head of Story Worlds and Marketing at The Ink Factory

CR: Can you name some situations where you’ve felt particularly under stress in the workplace, and where you’ve felt that this has impacted on your work?

AH: My first couple of jobs were on the surface polar opposite worlds – management consultancy on one end and public arts funding on the other – but both shared some really toxic cultural patterns that are breeding grounds for stress. Poor communication, rigid hierarchies, long working hours and the glorification of ‘busy’. All around, you could see people that really cared deeply about their work and rightly felt it to be important, but with the way that structures around them functioned, they were left feeling disempowered and stressed.

CR: How did you resolve this?

AH: Long story short, I don’t work in either realm any more! As many people do, I learnt about what I needed through negative experience. But fortunately for me this happened quite early on in my career and so I was able to draw quite clear lessons from that about the ways in which I want to work, which are all about getting the best out of me and my teams.

That learning is a continual process too – I change, my teams change and the landscape around us all is always evolving, so it’s important to have ways of managing that. I have an amazing coach I see once a month that helps me focus in on these issues, and I build in ‘routines’ with all my team members and key colleagues to ensure communication is always central.

Over and above those pieces of process, I work a four-day week. I started this as a working pattern when I had my son, and even though now I could very easily go back to ‘full time’, I find that I’m way more creative and effective than I’ve ever been. Just that different rhythm to a week means that when I am at work I am more focused and therefore have more headspace to consider, process and calculate myriad things. I believe really firmly that this gives me better perspective on what I do, so I don’t think I’ll ever revert back to a ‘normal’ working week!

CR: Have there been situations where you’ve noticed that your team has been under stress and pressure and you’ve been required to step in?

AH: Yes, it can regularly happen with teams but in my experience if you have open, safe and regular channels of communication set up within and for your teams you can try to pick stress up early rather than at a breaking point. For me, good leadership isn’t managing these issues when they burst up, but putting in place proactive, flexible structures that work to avoid creating the stress in the first place. So for me that’s finding out how each individual best works and trying to create a dynamic that supports them at the same time as ensuring the team as a whole can deliver.

CR: What did you do or what advice did you offer?

AH: Usually it’s about helping them take a step back – from something as simple as a walk around the block, to a proper chunk of time off. Then it is about properly listening to the person and unpicking what happened. How did the pressure build? What are the coping mechanisms the person has? How can we develop new ways of working that keep them in touch with their desire to get things done, but don’t generate stress?

Effective solutions are as varied as the individuals in your team but I find coaching chats, time out and even more formal training can really help. As soon as the person feels supported and heard, you’re on your way.

CR: Do you think stress can ever be a positive thing for creativity?

AH: NO. Feeling stress seems to have got tied up with the idea of caring about your job and that’s hugely dangerous. I think being passionate and engaged in what you do is a vital thing for creativity. As a creative leader you have to support your team in ways that enable them to feel and stay that way. That’s about more than just clear goals and a shared vision – it is about stretching them, building resilience and recognising them when they contribute so they can continue to grow. For me personally, it’s also about sharing as much as possible – being honest when you feel pressure and opening up the ways in which you think around challenges can help your team understand what you’re asking of them. Over time if you share problem-solving, you can build a team that’s attuned to each other both practically and more emotionally too.

image by erhul1979, courtesy of iStock

Ken Kirton, Creative Director and Co-founder at Hato

CR: Can you name some situations where you’ve felt particularly under stress in the workplace, where you’ve felt it has impacted on your work?

KK: When a lot of projects share a similar timeline there are moments when they all require immediate attention from a single member of the team. This can be extremely challenging and for myself especially can seriously effect my work process and put me in a stressed setting.

As soon as I feel this coming on I try to remove myself instantly from the project or the tasks, think rationally and remember that I’m not in an industry that is life or death, we are creating something positive and people have come to us to work with us collaboratively. We are all in it together.

Then I try to communicate my position to the team around me, and begin to tackle each task one by one. It doesn’t always work so smoothly but as with anything the more experience you have the easier it is! When I first graduated and while I was studying I would be physically sick from worry of the binding of a book or a widow on a page. I’ve learnt there’s more to design and creativity than this!

When none of the above works I’ll speak with my co-founder Jackson. He helps puts things into perspective and we often find a way of moving forward together.

CR: Have there been situations where you’ve noticed that your team has been under stress and pressure and you’ve been required to step in?

KK: As I mentioned before sometimes projects can get overwhelming. Sometimes timeframes and deadlines seem like they can’t be overcome. I’m aware that we ask a lot from our team members, we wish for them to reach their full potential in all the work we undertake. However, Hato is very much so based on a family environment, so I do genuinely believe that the team feels comfortable enough to raise with Jackson or I if they are feeling an unhealthy amount of stress. In this case we tell them to take the time that they need to rest or to take part in activities that will help them feel positive and motivated again.

At the end of the day we are all here to work together and Hato’s ethos is based around collaborative design. It would never work if we weren’t here for each other as a team.

Image by sorbetto, courtesy of iStock

Resh Sidhu, Creative Director, Framestore

CR: Can you name some situations where you’ve felt particularly under stress in the workplace, and where you’ve felt that this has impacted on your work?

RS: Working in the creative industry will always come with an element of stress and degree of pressure, it’s the nature of the work. The type of stress and pressure I’ve encountered has always varied depending on my role, the work, the people and the culture of the company.

I can never forget the stress and tension once created by an Executive Creative Director, and to this day it is a constant reminder of how not to behave and treat creative people. His behaviour was known throughout the agency, and many creatives would cringe at the thought of working with him. He was notorious for swooping into creative review meetings and completely changing the creative, ripping the ideas and creative work to shreds and giving non-specific feedback. This would leave me and the creative team in a complete spin, deflated and quite frankly exhausted.

His behaviour created an environment of fear, not creativity, and he added no support or help to the team as his feedback was so general. What this ultimately meant is the impact on the creative team was toxic, work suffered and it was not enjoyable.

CR: Have there been situations where you’ve noticed that your team has been under stress and pressure and you’ve been required to step in?

RS: The scenario above was the whole team being affected by one ECD and we ultimately all worked together to try to overcome it. Having a team and colleagues that can sympathise with each other and the unnecessary stress put on them by leadership can, in fact, lift a lot of the weight and stress.

A different example is where I was Creative Director on a project and we had a very small but capable team pulled together to work on it with me. A team meeting that included a senior business lead left us all a little fearful of the expectations, the deadline (one week) and the sheer amount of work that lay ahead. I remember after the meeting, rather than the team feeling excited and energised, everyone was unsure, nervous and stressing out. Here I stepped in and took control, I wanted to ensure the process was enjoyable and that we as a team would be confident with the end result – I did not want it to feel stressed, as I believe that’s not when the best work happens.

What I did was very quickly map out a clear plan on how we were going to get to our end goal and delegate the tasks to each team member to ensure we get there. I also said to the team, ‘this will be hard work, a few late nights but we will do it together and we will enjoy the process’. The team felt at ease, excited and with a clear plan ahead – we didn’t have the creative idea or the answers but we were no longer stressed about that because we had a plan.

CR: Do you think stress can ever be a positive thing for creativity?

RS: No, it is not. Stress is never a positive thing for any field. Pressure, on the other hand, is healthy as it keeps you on your toes, but they are two different things. The pressure of a deadline can help you stay focused and make decisions. Pressure to be innovative and come up with new ideas can push you out of your comfort zone, where you find new ways of thinking.

Stress is often caused by other people and their inability to handle a situation so they take it out on you or other members of the team. Stress can be part of the culture in the workplace where people feel they have to be aggressive or cut-throat with each other to get ahead. What we must never forget is we are all human, and we should treat people with respect.

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