Why this PR firm doesn’t overwork staff (even though it easily could), loves employing working mums & believes we should all stop giving our opinions & listen

Victoria Usher Ginger May

Ginger May is bucking the severe stress, anxiety and burnout trend currently engulfing the marketing communications industry (see this article for full stats), which is one reason why the PR firm won a Make a Difference Award; a Highly Commended for the employer making the most difference to employee mental and wellbeing over the past year, in the category for companies with less than 500 staff.

Having experienced the overwork culture of big-agency PR in London, CEO and Founder Victoria Usher was determined to create a different, more positive experience for employees when she set up her own B2B technology specialist PR firm. She especially wanted to do this with working mums in mind, too, after her negative experience of being devalued and edged out by employers when she herself had children.

We spoke to her about how she’s bucked this stress trend and why she believes it’s morally the right thing to do for leaders in this industry to look after the wellbeing of their employees, despite its work-hard-play-hard history.

Why is mental health such a struggle in PR and media?

There’s a ‘work hard play hard’ mentality in advertising and it’s been passed down the line. But just because it’s always happened, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

There’s another reason which is a personal passion of mine: the fact that if you overwork people as an employer, you can commercially benefit from unpaid labour.

Ah, tell me more about that! Don’t you think that if you overwork people they are no longer productive?

There’s an element of unproductiveness, but I actually believe it’s more about anxiety.

Through overwork, people spiral into this anxiety where they then need to try harder and, eventually, they might burn out. But some employers, frankly, don’t care because they’ve got their pound of flesh by this time and that problem can be passed onto somebody else.

We have people joining us from bigger London firms and they’ve been working on average three hours more than their agreed 9am-5.30pm hours every day. That’s a significant amount of extra hours to an employer across the week.

And, if several employees are doing this, then you’re essentially getting one employee free like a supermarket ‘buy five get one free’ offer.

So, if you can get away with this in your industry, getting a buy-five-get-one-free deal, why don’t you do it? Why do you prioritise mental health?

Because it’s the morally sound thing to do. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I knew I was working people until 8.30pm every night, especially if I’m not doing that myself.

When I set up this business I always put mental health balance at the centre of it.

I came from an agency background where it was culturally ingrained that there should be ‘bums on seats’ until 8.30pm and people didn’t leave the building before then. I used to think to myself that this wasn’t the best way to manage people and I didn’t think the company was getting our best work. Instead of being focused, people strung their work out across the whole of the day.

What we’ve done here is create a culture where people work ‘normal’ hours but when they are at work, there’s an understanding they will do their best to be super productive.

Join our growing network of employers
Receive Make A Difference News straight to your inbox

On our part, there’s the understanding that we are not going to keep people working too late and, instead, they go home and relax in the evening without the pressure of things like checking emails.

You also employ quite a lot of working mums. Tell me about that and why that works for you.

Well, I had two terrible work experiences with both my kids. Think pregnant-then-screwed!

And I’m still hearing women say this is happening to them, which is incredible really, in this day and age.

You assume legislation is going to protect you but then the reality hits: there are loopholes that employers can get around if they want you out. They know, at the end of the day, you’re never going to choose a job over your child. They also see you as no longer reliable, when you become a mum, because you need more flexibility.

Talk to any mums in our business and they’ll tell you we give them the flexibility they need to make their job work.

I don’t need to know the hours they work, I just need to know the work is getting done well.

What about if you have an employer reading this who is wary of employing mums. What would you say to that reader?

That it’s such an archaic view to have – but unfortunately one still shared by many people.

When a mum finds an employer who works around them, they are the most loyal, hardest working employees in existence!

And – let’s be honest – the barriers to employing them are not massive. They just need a bit of flexibility which allows them to be a mum and have a career.

Also, while I’m talking about mums, this is also relevant to working dads too.

With working parents in general, I find the more you are flexible with them, the more they are flexible with you, in terms of picking up work when they can and going out of their way to accommodate you.

I take your point about dads. But, as the figures still show, the vast majority of childcare is still undertaken by mums. So what have you learnt about the benefits to business of supporting mums’ wellbeing in particular?

As I’ve said, the loyalty is unbelievable, and the focus to get the most done in the shortest time. But you also tend to get longevity of service, they tend to have more experience and you can give them autonomy, which works for them, and works for us.

Generally speaking, when you empower people, they step up to the plate.

What are your tips for getting this loyalty from employees?

Let them tell you what they need, don’t tell them what you need. Set a topline skeleton of the deliverables necessary, and set some boundaries.

Basically, give them as broad parameters as possible and let them come up with the plan. I bet, if you do, you’ll find they’ll move heaven and earth to make the flexibility work.

Oh, and don’t clock watch.

Ah, but many employers do clock watch.

You don’t need to. What you need is some high level metrics around outcomes that you monitor. It doesn’t matter how or when they get those done. They just need to get them done.

You’re a creative business that relies on ideas. How do you give employees flexibility but also ensure that people have face to face contact which is important in creativity?

For full time workers, it’s broadly three days in the office and two from home. Although we have exceptions to that on an individual basis. It has to be on a case by case basis and people have to have a sense they are crafting their jobs.

That said when it comes to creativity, I 100% agree about the value of face to face contact – for me it’s about the connections more than anything else.

When everyone is in the office for a brainstorm, for example, what we found is that there’s huge value in the ‘overheard’ more informal conversations. So, you might have people chatting about a pitch they’re doing, and another person overhearing and interjecting that they once worked on a similar pitch and have some ideas… They connect in spontaneous ways you couldn’t possibly have imagined in a more planned way.

Are there any other benefits you’ve discovered of having people in the office together?

Yes, it helps younger employees learn the office etiquette, so much of which is non verbal, which you don’t pick up on via a screen or telephone call.

How do you measure success in your business?

Retention of clients and staff, client satisfaction and staff wellness, which we measure through surveys.

Obviously growth, but we cap our growth so we don’t put too much pressure on staff. There’s a lot of pitching in our industry, which puts a lot of pressure on the business and PR is an industry associated with high churn.

There’s also this idea that you need this high churn of staff so a company is “dynamic” – but we believe there are ways to get dynamism with staff who stay longterm, such as bringing in freelancers with new perspectives to work on projects, or mixing up teams.

Besides, clients hate turnover of staff. Getting a new member of staff on board every six months is stressful for them.

What are your top tips for managing creative people and avoiding burnout?

It sounds basic but it’s so true: it’s about talking to individuals in open, honest conversations and finding out where they are at.

Often, it’s not just work that is stressing people out, and there may be personal events that are hidden that are affecting them. I make clear that ‘I just need to know if you’re OK because, if I can see that something is wrong, I’m going to assume it’s something to do with work, unless you tell me otherwise’.

Nine times out of ten it’s a personal reason. If I know about it, I can support them better. If they talk to us early enough, we can ensure they don’t feel overwhelmed with work exacerbating the situation.

The problem is, many people have had poor experiences where they have felt judged for talking about how their personal life is affecting them. There’s this old idea that they have to ‘be professional’ and not let their personal life affect work.

But we can’t separate our personal self from our work self, we have to expect that life will get in the way sometimes. So we try and create a culture where you are not judged on this. If anything, you are judged on not being open when you are struggling.

How do you prevent people feeling judged?

Open ended questions are good. But it is difficult. I think trust and that sense of not being judged develops over time.

Also, employers must follow up on what they say they’re going to do.

And listen. Most people just don’t listen enough.

I genuinely think the world would be a better place if people just stopped giving their opinions for a moment and listened to others.

You might also like:


Sponsored by The Watercooler


Sign up to receive Make A Difference's fortnightly round up of features, news, reports, case studies, practical tools and more for employers who want to make a difference to work culture, mental health and wellbeing.