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Great expectations

Laura Capell-Abra, founder of Stress Matters, talks to Martin Fullard about the leading causes of stress among event managers.

In 2019, a survey conducted by Stress Matters revealed that 63% of event professionals referenced a high workload as the leading cause of stress in their lives. Perhaps this won’t come as a surprise; event manager is regularly cited as the fifth most stressful job in the UK, among the likes of police officer, the armed forces, firefighter and, of course, journalists. The question is: does the events industry really look after its people?

Everyone will have had their own personal experiences, but event management is a deadline-driven job, and anything that combines deadlines with client expectation can have a greater emotional toll on even the hardest of souls than they may otherwise expect. Laura Capell-Abra set up Stress Matters in 2018 after realising many event professionals were experiencing similar levels of burn-out to what she had felt earlier in her career.

“I experienced burn-out in my mid-twenties while working at an agency,” Capell-Abra says. “There was a dawning moment when I was laying out a budget and wrote down five job titles, and it hit me that I was going to have to do every one of those jobs. It hit me just how overworked I had been, and that I’d been bottling it all up. “It resulted in a mini-breakdown and lead me into counselling. Before too long I returned to work, starting at a new company, which was the right thing to do, but I never forgot that experience.

“I never forgot that the industry can be tough sometimes. I thought it might be me, and that I might be too ambitious and pushed myself too hard.”

It is something that many event managers will no doubt relate to. Time and again, they find themselves victim to a stealth creep of responsibility which, by the time they have realised it, is often too late to do much about it. Often, it requires a company culture overhaul, but even then the creep of added pressures don’t subside. This suggests a wider look at the industry is in order. “When I was MD at Sledge, I had a couple of colleagues take time off for stress, which brought on yet another realisation,” she says. “I thought I’d created a great work hard-play hard environment, and yet here we had two people taking time out with stress. So, I started to think more widely about the industry as a whole.

Forty-two per cent reveal that another cause of stress is unrealistic deadlines, which is perhaps due to a lack of understanding on the client’s part as to what is involved.

However, 44% of respondents revealed that office politics was a leading cause of stress.

People power

What sort of person does it take to be an event manager, and is the idea that the role can be done without stress a myth? “I used to assume it might be the case that it took a certain ‘type’ of person to be an event manager, but these days I’m not so sure,” she adds. “It takes someone who can put boundaries up by themselves and can push themselves to a certain limit, but if you’re after a straightforward eight-hour day where you clock off at 5pm then maybe it isn’t for you.”

Most event managers demonstrate great resolve, but Capell-Abra alludes to the fact that, in a sense, an event is as stressful as you make it.

“You need to be tough to a point. But I don’t think the industry is inevitably stressful. It’s deadline driven and often high pressured, and we are never going to remove that, there’s always going to be a deadline. But the deadlines don’t have to be stressful. It’s the expectations on the individuals ahead of that deadline that causes the problems. It’s high pressure but doesn’t have to be overly stressful.”

Capell-Abra says client expectation is something that event managers will always have on their minds. “We aim to please, but everyone must always keep the client at the front of their minds. The deadlines and high demands are the two biggest drivers of stress,” she says.

“Of course, a client is paying for your services, so they have the right to demand to ensure their investment in you yields the desired results.

“The background of stress is based on our level of control. In one sense we are totally in control because we’re running an event, but the reality is that often it isn’t true. There are so many moving parts in every event, and so many people supporting it, that you can’t really control it all. In a sense you’re hoping and praying they do the job they are supposed to do.

“You have all this going on, on top of the client expectation, and the deadlines. It can inhibit the sense of control.”

Capell-Abra has been helping event managers get a handle on their stress levels for a number of years, but while there is no cure for demanding clients and tight deadlines, it is time to at least be open about how we can support each other as an industry.