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Covid: One year on 5 Apr 2021 -

My imposter syndrome and self doubt: It took a pandemic to humanise our industry

By Claire Fenner, MD and Partner - Atomic 212° + Marketing Academy Scholar, 2021

Claire Fenner “found the courage” recently to share with her entire agency team her struggles with imposter syndrome, anxiety and self doubt. It’s the first of many open and honest conversations she says are now culturally locked-in at Atomic 212 in a bid to humanise and normalise how we can help ourselves and our people. The 'new normal', she says, must become a better normal.

Imposters and doubters

I recently found the courage to share with our whole agency my experience of imposter syndrome, which plagued me for a large part of my career and took a long time to overcome despite my professional achievements. I talked about my experience, with self doubt and anxiety and also shared a book, The Imposter Cure by Dr Jessamy Hibberd, that might help those who are struggling with similar feelings.

I had an immediate positive response from a number of people in the team and I hope that, in sharing some of my experience, I’ve helped at least someone in our agency in a small way. This is the first of many open, honest conversations I intend to have with our team. I hope that this will help to humanise the industry we work in and normalise conversations about mental health, so that it can truly become a people-centric industry.

The most important shift for me from Covid is that it took a global pandemic to humanise our people-centric industry. 

Like many others, the agency business was suddenly forced into the confines of the personal home environment. Meetings were held in makeshift offices in bedrooms, dining rooms and living rooms across the country. It was such a simple shift that humanised everyone more than ever before and made me look at clients, suppliers and colleagues differently, even if we already had a strong working relationship prior to lockdown.

At the same time we were all facing a shared threat, common challenges and an experience unlike any we’d shared previously. While the experience united us, it also emphasised the urgent need to find more effective ways to support the mental wellbeing of our people, as we all felt the onset of Zoom fatigue and the impact of isolation on our mental wellbeing.

There are a long list of initiatives that agencies have instigated over the last few years to help support the mental wellbeing of our people. Despite best intentions, some of these are relatively superficial initiatives that simply aren’t powerful enough.

Claire Fenner, MD and Partner, Atomic 212°

Long shadows and mental health

For me, the pandemic has challenged my views on how we manage mental wellbeing in our agency and across the industry at large, specifically highlighting the role I can play as a leader, in supporting the mental wellbeing of our people. 

Mental health issues have long cast a shadow over my life, whether through my personal mental health challenges or those of my close family members, close friends and colleagues. I consider myself someone who has quite a lot of awareness of mental health conditions, and I have over recent years sought ways to support mental wellbeing initiatives within our agency. However, I acknowledge that these initiatives weren’t having enough of an impact and I haven’t been doing enough personally as a leader. 

For an industry driven almost entirely by its people, we really haven’t been good enough at looking after our people. 

Agencies have been talking about the importance of mental wellbeing for a number of years but despite these efforts the industry still has a significantly higher prevalence of mental health issues than the Australian population.  The 2020 Mentally Healthy survey reported that 52% of respondents from our industry experience mild to severe symptoms of anxiety and 56% experience mild to severe symptoms of depression. These stats haven’t improved since 2018; we’re simply not doing enough to reduce the prevalence of mental health issues in our industry. 

Disappointingly, but unfortunately not surprising, only 6% of respondents in the Mentally Healthy survey believe their company is addressing mental health highly effectively.  Marginally more positively, 68% of respondents believe that their employer is starting to take mental health seriously.

Why so long?

Why has it taken us this long to do enough to make our people believe we are starting to take mental health seriously? There are a long list of initiatives that agencies have instigated over the last few years to help support the mental wellbeing of our people, including many within my own agency. Despite the best intentions, some of these are relatively superficial initiatives that simply aren’t powerful enough to overcome the stigma and norms within professional culture that still inhibit people sharing their mental health experiences in the workplace and prevent some people seeking help when they need it. 

The most powerful learning I can take from our shared experience in 2020 is that despite all of our efforts, we need to do more. What I can do as a leader is share my own personal experiences, leading by example to make people more comfortable sharing their own experience and hopefully helping support someone (or hopefully many) to seek help, who wouldn’t have before.


Sharing too much?

The best way we can reduce the stigma and normalise conversations about mental health conditions is to have more open conversations in our teams. This is a lesson that I’ve continued to learn in degrees over the last couple of years.  As a leader, it has always felt like a delicate balance, to not share too much, but still share enough to make a difference. The reality is that this hesitance I felt was my own self-stigma and perceived stigma. Ultimately it’s better to share than to not.

Hence my recent experience sharing with the entire Atomic team my experience of imposter syndrome. So, in a year filled with learnings, the three biggest personal and professional learnings I’ve taken from the last 12 months are:

  1. Strength in vulnerability as a leader

We need to do more to model vulnerability as leaders in this industry. The more we share our experiences, the more we encourage open dialogue about mental health, helping to reduce stigma.

  1. Power of positivity

While it sounds a bit trite, I believe that the positive perspective I tried to apply to every experience in 2020, including the 100+ day lockdown in Melbourne, helped me come out of Covid feeling mentally stronger than ever. However, I can only talk about my personal experience and I acknowledge that I was relatively fortunate in my circumstances compared to those of other people, so I don’t mean to diminish the struggles many people have faced in the last 12 months.

  1. The value of the pause button

We, the human race, needed to slow down. We’d become so addicted to the busyness that is characteristic of the modern way of life; too often we were going through the motions and immune to the impact it was having on our lives, our relationships and the broader community. It was incredible to see the positive impact of lockdown overnight, with families reconnecting and spending quality time together, which they otherwise may not have had time for in their busy week.  I am always looking for ways to continue to slow down as I re-establish my new normal.


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