Mental health beyond the month of May.

July 19, 2023

Kat Gordon

Kat Gordon is a Creative Director turned social change entrepreneur who has been named "Visionary of the Year" by Advertising Age and one of "30 Most Creative Women in Advertising" by Business Insider. 12 years ago, she launched The 3% Movement to spotlight the enormous underrepresentation of women in creative leadership. Through the movement's events, research and culture consulting, female creative directors now account for 29% of the industry. Kat lives in Napa Valley where she coaches creative leaders and hosts creative retreats. She has two young adult sons and a Black Lab named Trixie.

One of my favorite things from running The 3% Conference was finding speakers who were defying the odds about culture change. People who don’t have unlimited budgets or access to the highest reigns of power but are making shit happen in big ways. Like the physics-defying flight of bumblebees.

For those who attended 3%, you might remember the high school boys from NYC who started a feminist club at their all-boys high school. Or a panel we hosted called “Tell Me It Can’t Be Done and I’ll Do it Twice and Take Pictures.”

Essentially, culture keepers don’t wait for permission. They just do.

A great example of this spirit is Amy Small and her team at Media Cause. Read on to get inspired by what they’ve done to address mental health.

Tell us about the award Media Cause recently won – what is it and what does it signify?

Earlier this June, Media Cause won the 2023 "Best New Workplace Approach to Mental Wellbeing" Award from This Can Happen Global, recognizing our “Wholebeing” employee mental health and wellbeing initiative. The award is given annually to a workplace that’s explicitly recognized the importance of addressing mental wellbeing, and within the past 18 months, has taken first steps to change its culture.

Being honored among an incredible group of shortlisted entries, and winning an award like this in the company of so many major global organizations, is a huge achievement for Media Cause. We’re not part of a big holding company with deep resources and pockets to fund massive programs—we’re a completely independent agency that works almost solely with nonprofits. And I actually think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to make so much progress with our team’s mental health and wellbeing over the last year or so.

From a business standpoint, Wholebeing has had a huge impact on our recruiting efforts, and our talent retention efforts, too. In addition to the This Can Happen Global Award, we also received Bell Seal Certification from MHA (Mental Health America) earlier this year, which helps us show our clients, and prospective new team members, that we’re genuinely dedicated to the wellbeing of our people.

To me, all of this signifies an incredible first step toward making our agency, and hopefully the broader industry, more focused on the health and happiness of the humans who are doing the work, and not just the outputs of the work itself. It feels like a no-brainer that people who feel supported and cared for by their company are going to be more inspired and successful, but I don’t think the corporate world has fully realized that yet. There’s still more work to do.

Your "Wholebeing" program has four pillars that represent mental and emotional health. What are they and how did you decide upon them?

The four pillars of Wholebeing are:

  • Wholemind: mental and emotional health
  • Wholebody: physical health
  • Wholeheart: spiritual, social, and community health
  • Wholeliving: family and financial health

When we were first designing the program, we didn’t want it to feel like an “add-on”—something that we were developing just to check a box, because mental health was a trendy topic of conversation in the industry. Jillian Ingram, our VP of Operations, and I took a holistic look at everything we were already offering our employees, from benefits and perks to resources and paid leave policies, and said, “OK, how does all of this fit together into something more comprehensive? Where are there gaps? And, where do we need to add more support to make this really reflective of what our team needs?”

We pulled a lot of data and insights from our last engagement survey, as well as individual conversations with folks across the agency, to get a better sense of what we needed to build. One of the biggest things we found (which came as a surprise to no one) was that the total disappearance of work/life boundaries during the pandemic had left people feeling overworked, anxious, disconnected, and isolated. We knew that mental and emotional health support would need to be one part of the picture, but we also knew that just making sure everyone had access to our EAP, running monthly roundtable discussions, offering a virtual learning platform, and officially adding mental health days to our benefits wouldn't be enough.

That’s where we started branching out. People couldn’t go to the gym, and were using more fitness apps and programs at home, so we added support for that—a $200 monthly Wholebeing stipend that could be used for anything related to physical health, from classes and subscriptions, to buying home gym equipment. Folks also couldn’t take part in a lot of the soul-nurturing social engagements that help provide a sense of community and belonging—things like playing in an amateur softball league, or going to painting classes, or volunteering at a local nonprofit. So we expanded the stipend to also cover the costs of getting more involved in the activities that really helped them bring work and life back into balance. Many of those activities were virtual initially, but now, team members are using their stipend for things like taking plant-based cooking classes, or a membership to the local art museum.

From a financial perspective, we all know that the last few years have not been easy. Money is always a major stressor, so we’ve recently started bringing in more resources there, too, like financial wellness programs, planning tools, access to advisors, and the ability to use the Wholebeing stipend for things to help with overall family life, like covering a babysitter for a night-out so that parents can have some time to reconnect.

In addition to all of this, we restructured a lot of the agency's overall benefits and policies to be more comprehensive. We expanded our parental leave and added new provisions for foster and adoptive parents; launched new ERGs and internal culture committees; established “Meeting-Free Fridays” and new communications guidelines to help keep work from spilling into family time; added profit sharing; and now allow our team members to travel and work from anywhere in the world, which has been especially appreciated, considering how many businesses are tightening their return-to-office policies right now.

Given your background as a creative leader -- not an HR leader -- how do you see creativity as connected to these pillars?

One of the hardest things about being a creative in this industry is not having the time and space to let your mind wander. Creativity needs breathing room. It needs rest. It needs exploration, and awe, and curiosity. When you’re constantly up against deadlines and performance pressure, not to mention the fact that everything you do is being judged by your team or your client, it’s hard to find the air sometimes. It’s hard to separate who you are from what you create. That’s why so many creatives struggle with burnout. The demands just aren’t sustainable.

I’ve been in that burnout situation at least twice in my 20-year career, and it’s a hell of a place to come back from. So having that lived experience is one piece, I think, that informs how I approach mental health and overall wellbeing.

Another piece is being able to see how everything is interconnected. There’s still a tendency for companies to think of wellbeing, productivity, engagement, and DEBI efforts as separate pieces of the puzzle. They’re treated as individual goals, with their own surveys and metrics. But they’re really just different ways of looking at the same thing: how happy and fulfilled are your people? If your culture isn’t giving them a sense of belonging, they’re not going to be motivated to do their best work. If they don’t feel like they have agency over their hours or schedule, or even their career paths, they’re going to be disengaged. If they feel like they don’t have the time or space to take care of themselves—physically and emotionally—they’re not going to have the capacity to be creative or innovative. It’s all one, big, “A Beautiful Mind”-style constellation of needs and opportunities.

You've hosted some monthly roundtables for your people that have addressed topics not often spoken about in the workplace. Tell us about one or two of them and why you decided to create a space for these conversations.

We’ve had some really incredible discussions around heavy topics like understanding stress, managing difficult emotions, empathy, intersectional identities, and mental health inequity. We’ve had some lighter ones, too, teaching different meditation practices, or exploring what we can learn about ourselves and each other through the Enneagram. But some of the most powerful ones have actually been the roundtables where there was no set agenda, and intentionally let the folks in the group bring their voices to the forefront.

One of these instances wasn’t even in a formal roundtable, but instead, part of our bi-weekly all-hands meeting. During May, which was Mental Health Awareness Month, we set aside a chunk of time for anyone who wanted to share their mental health journeys to have the mic. Two members of our team decided to speak, and shared their incredibly personal stories of challenges, setbacks, discoveries, and progress. It’s hard to describe how it felt, witnessing them show-up from such a vulnerable and generous place. It was like a gift of connection, of this super-rare professional intimacy that I’ve never really experienced before, at least not in a large group setting. Equally as beautiful, though, was the acceptance and compassion that each of them received after they shared their stories. So many colleagues raised their virtual hands to say things like, “Thank you for sharing that with us. How can we support you? What can we do better?” There was no sympathy there—all empathy. It was incredible to be part of. So many people on the team expressed their gratitude for creating such a safe space, and I’m hopeful that more people will be inspired to share their own stories in the future,

Another amazing discussion happened just a few weeks ago, in mid-June, when our LGBTQIA+ Employee Resource Group took the lead for our monthly roundtable. There were a few prompts and topics planned, but once folks settled into the conversation, everything really just flowed organically. A few people shared how much the experience of their hometown Pride parades had changed over the last ten or twenty years. Back then, they felt like they were part of a small, outsider community celebrating in defiance. But this year, even with all of the hate rhetoric and legislation happening, they felt like they were supported by an incredible mosaic of friends and allies, and that the Queer community was just “the community.” Like the borders and separation had been erased. A couple of other folks talked about how they find and cultivate Queer joy in their everyday lives—both at work and at home—and how much the ability to show up fully as themselves really means. There was definitely an acknowledgement of the privilege that’s required to make that level of “showing up” possible, in part because of the social and professional worlds we’re in. And actually, that might have been the most moving part. As a group, we didn’t ignore talking about the uncomfortable stuff. We brought it to the forefront, and then started thinking about ways to share what we’ve been doing at Media Cause to help cultivate that sense of safety and belonging within other agencies, and communities, around us. 

What most surprised you about this journey of creating the Wholebeing program? Anything you would do differently?

One of the most surprising parts was how difficult it was, at first, to make the case for a financial investment in externally-led programming and resources. I had incredible support for the initiative in general—Media Cause has always been a very employee-centered agency. But when I started putting together the strategy and roadmap back in late 2021, there were only a handful of companies out there providing the kind of comprehensive support I was looking for (the landscape has changed dramatically since then). 

I wanted to bring in resources like self-guided mental health platforms, or in-depth manager trainings on how to spot signs and symptoms of challenges early-on, and help individuals make the changes they needed to get back to a healthier place. Because employee mental health wasn’t a booming niche industry yet, everything was more expensive, and as a small independent agency that only works with nonprofits, we don’t have the same kind of training budgets that you’d find in other places. I had to build a really solid case for investing, which took a lot of research into the impact of employee mental health challenges on company profitability and retention, as well as what approaches were being proven most effective in other workplaces. I read more studies, and spoke to more clinicians and program creators, than I can count. 

It was frustrating while I was in the thick of it, but in hindsight, I actually think that the level of research and justification I needed to do led to us building a better initiative overall. Personally, it’s made me so much more educated and aware of all of the different facets of mental health and wellbeing, including how it’s all interconnected: mental health, engagement, performance, DEBI, and company culture. The more I Iearn, the more I keep wanting to learn. This is where my heart is.

As for what I would do differently…even though we asked our team for a lot of input into what challenges they were facing, I think if I had a do-over, I’d ask for more input on what support would be most helpful for them, too. I know that sort of goes against the “don’t fall in love with the solution, fall in love with the problem” approach to strategy, but sometimes having an idea of where folks’ heads are (pun intended) helps spur the ideation process in some unexpected directions, too. We’re encouraging a lot more suggestions from the team now, as we continue evolving Wholebeing, and it’s been a great way to work.

You're an inspiration! How can 3% Community readers learn more about your team and progress around mental health?

Aw, thank you! This is such a necessary and meaningful space to be in, and it’s been really energizing to explore a whole different side of agency life. I think it’s honestly been the antidote to my own burnout. I have a renewed sense of meaning, connection, and fulfillment because I’m constantly learning and being challenged, and as cheesy as it sounds, giving back to my team. It’s been wonderful.

For anyone who’s interested in going down this path for themselves, or who wants to learn more about what we’re doing at Media Cause, a great place to start is the case study for the This Can Happen awards. It’s a high level overview of our Wholebeing program so far, and has some data from recent surveys to show the progressive impact. The DEI page on our agency website also has a lot of great information about how we’re approaching culture holistically, though we’re in the process of making some updates to include more about the mental health and wellbeing aspect of things.

Another way to follow along with what we’re doing at Media Cause is through content. I’ve been incredibly honored to be invited to speak in a variety of different forums recently:

  • A few months back, I talked with Kendra Rainey about empathetic leadership, and creating a kind agency, on an EA Live broadcast.
  • Our VP of Operations, Jillian Ingram, and I co-authored an AdWeek Voice feature on How to Be Mindful of Employee Burnout During Tough Times.
  • Kasey Taylor, founder of The Scooty Fund (a mental health nonprofit) invited me to talk with her on their “Scoot” podcast about my own journey, the critical role that leadership plays in supporting a healthy organizational culture, and the importance of practicing self-compassion and non-judgement.
  • I led a session at the NTEN Annual Conference last year (their mission is to empower people to use technology equitably for social change) about Moving Workplace Mental Health Care Beyond an “Employee Perk.”
  • And this September, I’ll be speaking at the Mindful Leader Summit in Washington, DC about “Breaking through the Busyness: Integrating Wellbeing into Productivity-driven Cultures.” If you’re planning on being there, please let me know so we can connect! My email is

You can also check out some of the partners and organizations we’ve connected with to see if they might be a good fit for your agency’s initiatives:

     This Can Happen Global
     The Mind Solution
     Workplace Mental Health Institute
     Yes Wellbeing Works
     Mental Health First Aid
     Coa Emotional Fitness
     BEAM: Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective
     OpenPath Collective
     Empathy Lab
     Center for Compassionate Leadership
     Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute
     Creative Reaction Lab
     Mindful Online Learning
     Mindful Leader

This Can Happen. Awards: Media Cause - Winner for Best New Workplace Approach to Mental Wellbeing


After digesting all this, hopefully you’re left with a feeling of, “if they can do that, surely we can do this…” Doing something is always, always better than doing nothing.

Until next time, remember that culture is the new creativity.