OPINION18 November 2021

Are we putting profits before people?

Opinion People UK Wellbeing

We need a drastic and total reset of how our industry operates when it comes to workloads and working patterns, argues Stephanie Rowley.


Did you know that, according to the findings of the Mental Wellbeing in UK Research survey recently conducted by Opinium and the Market Research Society (MRS), 87% of researchers surveyed reported that they had experienced poor mental health in the last year; 70% of researchers have experienced stress in the last 12 months and 45% have experienced exhaustion or burnout?

And the top sources of this stress? Heavy workloads ( 57%) and impending deadlines ( 51%).

I’m sure the irony of the fact that having too much to do is impacting people’s mental health, and having too much to do is the reason people can’t do anything about it, is not lost on you.

These figures, combined with my observations as a coach and my own time in working in insights, have led me to the belief that workloads, the demands placed on researchers, project managers and ops teams, and the sheer intensity and pace of work within the sector is getting out of hand.

I believe the human side of the industry is at breaking point, with overwhelming workloads and extremely challenging deadlines at the heart of it.

I know there’s an issue right now with hiring and businesses are really struggling to recruit. But it’s not the sole reason for the problem, and resourcing is not the whole answer. The same applies to the pandemic – it would be crazy to deny that hasn’t added a significant layer of challenge. But these problems have existed for quite some time, pre-Covid-19 and pre-recruitment challenges; I would argue that these factors have simply flushed out something that’s been lurking there all along.

Automation has brought many benefits, but also huge pressure; real people are competing against algorithms that are quicker and cheaper. Transactional relationships between clients and agencies have never really gone away – all too often, the unspoken ‘chain of command’ plays out where the client asks, and the agency delivers, regardless of the workload implications for the agency team.

Yes, businesses have to survive financially. But have we reached a point where revenue and profits trump wellbeing? Sadly, in too many cases, I believe that we have.

I believe that too many businesses are shying away from responsibility and accountability for the wellbeing of the people who work so hard to make their businesses successful. Maybe not consciously, but certainly through a lack of proactivity in creating working cultures and workload management practices which prevent burnout and overwhelm. After all, choosing to do nothing is still a choice.

Protecting people from burnout costs money, whether that’s in increasing the headcount of the team, enabling people to work shorter weeks or work more flexibly, or sometimes simply saying no – or not now – to work that carries an unreasonable deadline.

I believe that poor leadership and management has resulted in a situation where stress, anxiety, overwhelm, exhaustion and burnout have become par for the course. Where people are expected to take on more and more work until they simply can’t handle it anymore. Where people are left unsupported by their employers (and offering a sympathetic ‘yes I know it’s hard right now, we’re all feeling it’ pat on the back does not count as support – it just normalises the problem).

I believe that ultimately, the industry prioritises profits over people.

Is that how the industry really wants to define itself? Why not be known as a sector that puts people before profits? One that creates working practices that genuinely allow people to do good work and remain healthy and happy at the same time. Research and insights is full of professional, dedicated, intelligent, tenacious, creative, ethical, passionate people – why not become an sector that celebrates them and allows them space to flourish, think creatively, and deliver amazing work – while not breaking themselves in the process?

And so, here’s my plea. Research, insights and analytics professionals everywhere, agency and client side alike – let’s unite, take action and create change. Let’s start putting people before profits. Let’s start saying no, when the cost to people’s wellbeing is too high. Let’s transform our ways of working. A reset, a restart, a recalibration – whatever you call it, it’s the right thing to do, it has to happen and it can happen, if everyone is bold enough to unite and say, for once and for all, ‘enough is enough’.

 Stephanie Rowley is an ex-researcher and executive coach focused on the research and insights sector.