Exclusive Interview – Josh Krichefski, Global COO & EMEA CEO of MediaCom
Josh Krichefski has arguably been the most outspoken and progressive leader in the advertising and media industry when it comes to workplace mental health. For a high-performance, demanding sector which has a reputation for being quite high-stress, MediaCom—under Krichefski’s leadership—is doing things differently to build a culture and an approach to work that puts the wellbeing of staff front and centre.
Just back in his home office after a week-long holiday in Suffolk, England, Josh took time out of his busy morning for our conversation—a testament to the priority he places on speaking out about mental health. He shared how MediaCom is building a culture of care around mental health and wellbeing support for staff and what that’s looked like during COVID-19; his views on how the advertising and media sector is responding to this agenda and his belief that there should be mandated public reporting on mental health of staff (as previously reported on by Make a Difference News).
The media/advertising industry is known to be quite demanding and stressful and one that can be challenging for the mental health of workers. Having made a career working in the media/advertising industry, what can you say about the nature of the industry and why it can result in work-related mental health problems?
Any business, which requires high performance and everything that comes with that can drive stress related illness and anxiety and can lead to mental health issues. Working in advertising and media agencies is a service business so you are servicing clients.
What that can mean is that you are at their beck and call. Not that you should be but sometimes people do operate in that way. That can create an always on culture. And because of technology, that means that we can literally be contacted twenty-four-seven. And it means that there is no time for people to switch off, there’s no break between work. There is really no downtime.
All of those things I think can drive higher levels of stress and anxiety in people. Advertising is not necessarily unique in that way. I think many different industry sectors are the same. I think it’s a bit of a societal issue, if I’m honest.
What are your thoughts about it being a societal issue?
Mental health issues have been a societal issue for some time, and it’s been magnified by what’s happened with COVID-19. I think if that doesn’t get discussed, then the impact that it can have on people’s mental health won’t be recognised. Then we have real problems. The good news is it’s being discussed and when you look at the public narrative around mental health now versus a year ago—definitely two years ago—much more is definitely being discussed. I think it’s becoming much more normalised.
You’re quite a pioneering CEO in the media industry as an outspoken advocate for making staff wellbeing and mental health a priority. What was the impetus for you to make this agenda front and centre at MediaCom?
When I took over as CEO, I’d already decided that I wanted to have a wellbeing agenda. The first thing I wanted to do was to have an impact on people’s work/life balance. So, I said to everybody I wanted them to be able to work flexibly. I wanted people to understand that they can work for the hours that they want to work, wherever they want to work and as long as it works with that team and the agree how they make it work together.
And it was also partly due to my own experience. I’ve spoken openly about the fact that I personally struggle with sleep and insomnia, due to anxiety. Which is always very work related. It happens when I’ve got loads going on. I often wake up in the middle of night and can’t get back to sleep and I’ll ruminate about work related things, like decisions I made. Or I try and plan things well into the future, rather than just being present.
Was that difficult for you to share openly about your personal experience?
Yes absolutely. I remember the first time I said it at work and thinking beforehand, ‘Am I being too open?’, ‘Is this going to undermine my stature, my profile?’, ‘Are people going to think I’m weak?’, ‘Does it make me any less of a man?’.
I realised actually, the answer is no. And that it’s really important for leaders to be open and honest about it with themselves.
I think showing our own vulnerability to people is how to normalise things and that’s how you make people feel like, ‘Well if he struggles with that and he’s alright then maybe it’s not so weird that I struggle as well’. Not to feel like everyone else in the world is fine right now and you’re struggling is quite an important thing.
I talk quite a lot on panels in businesses and have spoken on podcasts. I will often be called upon to talk on the subject across different industries, not just necessarily in the advertising sector. It’s such a priority for me. Something I’m very passionate about. I’ve even spoken to clients about mental health.
What are some of the agency’s initiatives which you’d say have been most impactful to break stigma around mental health and which have helped make MediaCom a mentally well workplace?
We use mental health allies, which are self-selected people/volunteers. They are like Mental Health First Aiders but we don’t really like the term Mental Health First Aiders because it sort of sounds like you’re trying to fix something, or plaster over something, which isn’t really what they’re there to do. They’re there to have open conversations with people.
They are trained to, first of all, understand different elements of mental health. Like understanding the difference between a proper mental health issue, versus a bad day at work. But probably most importantly, understanding how to be able to open questions for people so that they can really talk about their experiences.
Allies are very well celebrated within the agency. In our atrium there is a massive vinyl that’s got the names and the phone extension numbers of all the different mental health allies so if you’re feeling down or you have something going on and you want to talk to somebody, but you don’t want to talk to a manager or you don’t want to talk to HR, you might prefer to talk with a stranger who works within MediaCom.
The rule is that they put down whatever they’re doing and they come to you, whether you go for coffee or for a walk together, or whatever. And those mental health allies are front and centre whenever we do any kind of events within the agency and they can be identified because they’ve got green lanyards for security purposes.
And actually, these guys really are the driving force behind different initiatives that we do around mental health in the agency. So, although I was the figurehead of launching our mental health agenda, and I supported it, it really is an initiative driven by the mental health allies, for everybody.
Is breaking stigma around mental health a focus within MediaCom?
Yes, we have about 200 people who’ve completed mental health awareness training now. All new starters do the training. It’s something that’s really important to us and something that we can integrate into the culture of the business. I actually had the mental health training myself.
But the most powerful thing that really helped break stigma and changed the conversation in the business was when we launched this initiative called my mental health story, which was people writing a story, their own story or mental health experience and sending out an email to the whole company.
It now happens every year, but we also now do it for Pride and we do it for Black History Month. With the first one on mental health, it really broke down barriers; it made people feel it’s okay not to be okay and people offered a lot of support. Many said, ‘I just respect you so much for doing that’ or ‘You know, God, I had a similar experience to you’. It really opened up a dialogue. It actually changed the culture overnight.
During COVID-19, have there been any specific MediaCom support initiatives which you think have helped workers get through the increased stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic and lockdown?
Yes, absolutely. Through COVID-19 there’ve been check-ins twice a week with mental health allies. People just dial in from wherever they are.
We’ve encouraged everyone to look after themselves, their team members, their partners and their kids. We’ve offered guides to line managers on remote working with practical tips to help manage their teams.
We’ve also done continual weekly and monthly town halls as a place that people can share, a place to make people feel connected. We made them very open so that people can ask questions to the senior teams.
There are also private task groups to help people with personal finance and we’ve also offered virtual toolkits to help working parents or carers, or to help adjust to remote working.
And we do virtual mindfulness meditation sessions on quite a regular basis.
In terms of the industry as a whole, have you had involvement with other leaders to help raise the profile of mental health/to share the support practices which have benefited your workforce?
I think other leaders are following the agenda and some of my industry peers have asked us to tell them more about what we’ve done, because they’d like to do the same. Same with media owner companies as well, not just the agencies. I think our work has definitely focused the mind for some of our competitors.
How well would you say the media/advertising sector as a whole is coming together to address mental health amongst workers? What more would you like to see happen? Nationally and Internationally?
I think, as an industry we’ve done some stuff. I don’t think we’ve done enough. The problem is there’s just so much to be done. There are so many changes to make.
But organisations like the non-profit NABS, who support wellbeing across the whole sector in the UK are doing great things. They’re getting more and more calls around mental health and are doing a lot of resilience training and support for companies in the sector.
Have you collaborated with leaders in any other sectors or tried to influence mental health awareness within the WPP family of companies globally?
Since my job isn’t just in the UK anymore, I’m quite interested in what we do across borders. So, we created a single source on our Intranet for all of our European employees to access useful information on mental health. We’ve also created a Coronavirus toolkit and included information on how to best work from home for all the different markets in different languages.
We’re starting to do more within the WPP group, such as pulling together Employee Resource Groups in the different agencies. But I think we can all do more.
There are so many good important causes that people want to lean into, to change for the better. For example, Black Lives Matter. It’s really important as an industry to maintain that momentum. We need to keep up the momentum on other things like diversity and inclusion as well.
What advice would you give to other leaders looking to support the mental health of their staff?
It’s not something that can happen overnight, but there are three things that I think need to happen to create lasting change in workplaces around mental health:
First of all, businesses must take this opportunity to drive cultural change. There is a place for things like wellbeing apps and other support services, but I think that’s exactly what they are–support for mental health. But they don’t do anything to change the way it’s actually handled within the business.
You see lots of great stuff like yoga lessons happening but alongside that, businesses have got to invest time, and where possible money, in training for everybody. Including senior leaders and line managers to ensure that they’ve got good knowledge of mental health and they’re able to help their teams.
Second, if COVID-19 teaches us anything, it’s that we really need authentic leadership. We as leaders need to be open and honest, showing empathy. Whether you’re a political leader, or one who just likes to get things done, the leaders people really gravitate to are the ones who stand up and speak openly about mental health, not as a mandate but because it’s something that they really believe in.
Quite immature attitudes and phrases still exist out there about leadership, like ‘sink or swim’ or ‘work hard, play hard’. And those are often seen as positives. But actually, it couldn’t be further from the truth. I think that empathy, honesty, sensitivity are really important characteristics for a leader.
Third, we need to hold ourselves to account. Some organisations are doing great things. Others aren’t. I’d probably go so far as to say that government needs to take responsibility for ensuring that businesses are doing that.
What I think was brilliant was in April 2018 more than 250 UK employers had to publicly report their gender pay gap figures, and that’s been a positive step. And I think the same should happen with mental health to protect the health and happiness of employees.
I would like for there to be an annual reporting from all businesses to ensure that it’s happening. And I think that will shine a light on really good work that’s been done. I know that this can’t happen overnight, but it’d be good to have a goal to have it debated link in the UK Parliament. Probably not next year, but for the year after, in 2022.
Being a CEO and Global COO of one of the world’s largest media agencies surely comes with a lot of pressure and stress. Are there any tips you can share with other leaders on how you manage your own mental health and wellbeing?
I really try not to look at email or phone calls after seven o’clock at night.
I also try to meditate and I generally try and practice mindfulness.
I set boundaries for myself when working from home and I think it’s really important to model this behaviour to staff.
Trying to keep your day structured with time for calls, working time and then setting break time. It’s like they say on aeroplanes, put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you try to help others.
What advice can you offer to other leaders on making it through the next phase of supporting staff through COVID-19?
I think the conversation around mental health is actually a chance and an opportunity to think differently on ways of working and how we motivate our teams. People are making more personal connections now in the ‘new normal’. It’s been an opportunity to get to get to know your team members much better, on a personal level.
It’s about asking someone how they’re doing and, not accepting busy as an answer. Actually, really wanting to understand how people are doing.
For example, I was on a call the other day with the Head of the Institute of Directors in Scotland. He told me what they do is that they give themselves a score out of 10 how they’re feeling. I thought, I actually really like that. It’s quite a nice shortcut to people saying how they really are.
What are you most proud of in your life to date, both as personally and professionally?
I’m proud that I found myself in the situation that I have. I’m very proud of that. And when I look at my kids, I never look at them and think “you know, you’re so much like me.” On the contrary, whenever they think or do something brilliant, I’m always blown away by how different they are from me in all the good things that they do.
The truth is that both personally and professionally, it’s never really about anything that I’ve done. It’s always about stuff that people around me have accomplished. I’m just blown away by people around me. I think at work I’m just so blessed with amazing people to work with, and I’m really proud of that.
Managing mental health of staff through COVID-19 will be a core topic discussed at our global digital events this October, including Make a Difference Summit US in Association with Mind Share Partners on 15 October, 2020 and Mad World Summit UK on 8 October, 2020.
About the author
Heather Kelly is the founder of Aura Wellbeing, a consultancy providing workplace wellness strategy, coaching and training services to employers. She’s also Content Director for Make a Difference Summit US and Online Editor for Make a Difference News. Heather led the development and operation of the Workplace Wellbeing Index, during her time working for the UK’s largest mental health charity, Mind. In her earlier career she worked as a photographer, a journalist and a senior manager in the insurance industry. She’s passionate about inspiring more empathy and awareness in workplaces toward normalising mental health and in her spare time Heather teaches photography to teens as part of a charity projects in London and Spain, she’s an avid runner and experimental chef for recipes promoting healthy minds.