Inaugural SEO Mental Health Survey: 2021

Welcome to the inaugural SEO burnout and mental health survey! A few months ago, I posted this survey on LinkedIn, Twitter, and a few other places – I’ve been absolutely blown away by the responses.

This survey was born out of ongoing conversations with colleagues, friends and acquaintances in the SEO space. On good days, everyone felt tired, but the same theme seemed to emerge: are things supposed to be so hard?

People of the SEO community have always been known by their openness, kindness and willingness to share for the benefit of the community. The above question came into even sharper focus this year as we increasingly saw respected role models depart from their character in fits of unexpected vitriol on “SEO Twitter”.

World Mental Health Day was a call to action for me. Is the SEO community burned out? Is it dealing with anxiety or depression? I believe these responses give us valuable insight to the question.

Table of Contents

The survey is reported out by section, in order the questions were presented in the survey. Within each section, the results of each question are shown by graph and brief description. Occassionally I’ll add some detailed thoughts to a question, if productive.

The end of each section shares summary thoughts, culminating in an overall analysis in the “Closing Thoughts & Action” section at the end. Feel free to use the jump links throughout the readout for ease of navigation- this is a long article.

About the Survey

This anonymous, 30 question survey was answered by more than 80 people and offers a slice into the temperature of the SEO community.

The demographics were purposefully broad and non-identifiable.

The questions on burnout, anxiety and depression were based on a range of online inventories on the respective topics.

Aggregate Demographics

(Don’t worry, we move to charts after this list for data 🙂 )

Overall, we have a somewhat-balanced representation of gender. Our tenure sees a lot of maturing, mid-career SEO leaders with 4+ experience, and a surprising (to me) number of seasoned respondents with more than 10 years experience. I suppose that reaction speaks to my own shock of being in SEO for almost 10 years…

Our respondents were strongly weighted to the agency work, and a location in North America, respectively.

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Burnout

The burnout section of the survey featured nine questions that asked about emotions, energy and workload, among other topics. We’ll cover each question and its total results, but first, a high-level look at burnout among SEOs.

Burnout may be both serious and prevalent among SEO’s: On average, 57% of respondents answered “Often” or “Very Often” to questions regarding burnout.

On average, over half of all respondents responded “Often” or “Very Often” to the burnout questions. Let’s examine each of the burnout questions to look for more details and themes.

Jump to a question or scroll through in order:

Burnout Question 1: I feel like I have little or no physical or emotional energy at work.

Regarding physical and emotional energy: respondents indicated fatigue was at the least, an occasional if not constant presence. More than one in three respondents felt little or no energy at work “Very Often”. If representational of the larger population, most SEOs are operating with little to no “fuel” in the tank.

This first chart gives us a few themes to consider through the data:

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Burnout Question 2: I struggle with apathy or negative thoughts toward my job.

The second question asked about a lack of excitement or negative thoughts toward the job (SEO). Bear in mind that overall, almost two thirds of the respondents have worked in SEO for 4-10 years. This question saw an even distribution across “Sometimes”, “Often” and “Very Often”.

Two thirds of respondents struggling with apathy or negative thoughts carries both internal and external consequences, affecting the person, the team and the industry.

Internally, apathy or negative thoughts could easily take a toll on the individual. Externally, experienced SEOs who are in management roles may unintentionally be modelling this to peers and direct reports.

It’s not a stretch (and we may see support for that) that apathy could be tied to the suppressing emotions and eventually depression.

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Burnout Question 3: I feel unappreciated by my teammates at work.

This was one of the first “bright” spots in the survey: the first question where we saw respondents answer “Not at All” or “Rarely”. Visualizing a bell curve, this question showed a rare, relatively even distribution of answers. Of course, we want to find ways we can better support each other within our teams.

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Burnout Question 4: I feel like I don’t have someone trusted at work to talk to.

With similarities to the prior question involving teammates, it’s a relief to see a larger percentage of respondents answer to “Not at All” or “Rarely”.

Yet, to see almost half the respondents lack trusted counsel is a call-to-action for leaders and managers of teams. Emotionally safe team environments must be a “price of admission” in our industry, not a nice-to-have, or occasional outcome. Look for more on this in our closing thoughts and action.

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Burnout Question 5: I feel I’m not achieving as much as I should.

When asked about personal achievement, respondents shifted their responses back to the initial distribution we saw in the first questions. Over half the respondents indicated their achievements fall short of their expectations “Often” or more.

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Burnout Question 6: I feel like I don’t have enough time to do a quality job with my work.

As led by popular online inventories, the first questions on burnout related internally to the individual and then to their team. The next questions which round out the burnout inventory focus more narrowly to the relationship with work itself.

42% of respondents indicated they felt like they didn’t have enough time to do a quality job with they work, “Often” or “Very Often”.

This stretch of questions show us that SEOs may have an unhealthy relationship with work.

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Burnout Question 7: I feel like I have more work than time or ability to do.

Zooming out slightly from doing quality work, this question asks whether or not the respondents have enough time for their workload. This offers us a glimpse into burnout among SEOs at the ground level. Here, we see that all respondents feel they have more work than time.

3 out of 4 respondents indicated they had more work than time or ability to do.

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Burnout Question 8: I feel a pressure to succeed that interferes with my happiness.

This one is tough- every respondent across all tenures and work settings indicated they feel some kind of pressure to succeed that interferes with their happiness. Almost 75% responded with “Often” or “Very Often”. Unfortunately, this may be the start of a fitting segue towards questions on anxiety and depression.

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Burnout Question 9: I feel I’m at the wrong company or in the wrong career field.

I’m hoping someone from the community can track this down, or jog my memory. I believe Barry Schwartz or someone else conducted a Twitter poll a couple of years ago that asked something similar. Over half the respondents feel that “Often” or “Very Often” they’re in the wrong career field.

This is a difficult insight within itself, and in the context of this survey. 2020 and 2021 have seen the tightest job market for SEOs as far as I’ve ever seen. If every other SEO is thinking about leaving their company, we could see detriment to the development of individuals and teams due to a lack of continuity.

If every other SEO is thinking about leaving the industry entirely, it could be difficult to maintain the quality and reputation of our practice over time if these feelings turn to action.

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Key Takeaways on Burnout

Starting us off, I wanted to include the World Health Organization’s definition of burnout as an occupational phenomenon.

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

– feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

– increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and

– reduced professional efficacy

Let’s compare this with key data points from the survey so far:

If these responses are representative of the total SEO population, we are experiencing a silent crisis in our industry.

In my opinion, the distribution of responses to every question raised red flags for SEO practitioners. The respondents indicate they:

We might conclude that the combination of distance from teammates and chronic overwork have led many SEOs to assign their personal identity and value in their work based on how much time they spend working. Thus, with so many respondents appearing to have difficult work environments, there are struggles with happiness and purpose for SEOs.

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Anxiety

The anxiety section of the survey featured seven questions that touched on worry, nervousness and fear at work.

Stress and anxiety appear to be prolific among SEOs. On average, 65% of respondents answered “Often” or “Very Often” to questions regarding anxiety.

If you’d like to jump to a specific question, here’s the list of jump links:

Anxiety Question 1: I feel anxious, nervous, or on-edge about work.

Questions on anxiety continued a theme from burnout: there were often no responses for “Not at All” or “Rarely”. 1 in 3 respondents feel anxious, nervous, or on-edge about work “Very Often”.

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Anxiety Question 2: I have been unable to stop or manage worrying about work.

In addition to the experience of widespread anxiety, respondents appear to have difficulty managing anxiety, with almost 8 out of 10 respondents reporting that they’re unable to stop or manage worrying about work “Often” or “Very Often”.

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Anxiety Question 3: I am worrying too much, about too many different things at work.

When asked to gauge their perceptions about their worry, 63% of respondents felt they were worrying too much, about too many different things “Often” or “Very Often”. This appears to be a logical extension of un-managed worry in the previous question.

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Anxiety Question 4: I have trouble staying relaxed at work.

On a personal note, I feel confident that this is question both relatable and widely accurate. The seemingly endless onslaught of Teams, Webex, and Zoom are certainly understandable in addition everyday work.

Here, we saw an even distribution of respondents between “Sometimes”, “Often” and “Very Often”.

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Anxiety Question 5: I am so restless at work, that it is hard to sit still.

I’m going to take a minute to dissect this question, because it’s seemed less intuitive as a diagnostic vs. the other questions so far. The Calm Clinic offers an interesting perspective on restlessness and anxiety:

A Faulty System

For some people, the fight or flight system can be faulty. Sometimes, the fight or flight response misfires, or is activated when there is no actual danger. This often occurs in people who have past trauma or have experienced long periods of intense stress (although for some people, anxiety may be genetic or have no easily apparent cause).

This trauma or periods of heightened stress cause the body to be conditioned to experience fight or flight mode – where their stress response is essentially stuck in the “on” position.

This means the nervous system can go into overdrive during mundane times. And because there is no actual danger (and thus nothing to run from or protect from), all of the adrenaline flooding the body has nowhere to go or no way to be expended. This unnecessary adrenaline can cause physical discomfort, including feelings of restlessness.

Emphasis / italics has been added by myself.

77% of respondents appeared to feel and function this way, responding “Often” or “Very Often”.

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Anxiety Question 6: I become easily annoyed or irritable at work.

In keeping with the majority of questions, there were no respondents answering “Not at All” or “Rarely”. We do see 70% of respondents indicating they are easily annoyed or irritable at work “Often” or “Very Often”.

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Anxiety Question 7: I feel afraid, as if something awful will happen at work.

The last question on anxiety demonstrated the first substantial amount of responses for “Rarely” in this section. However, I believe we do see the basis for responses to questions 5 and 6.

Specifically, if we were to paraphrase this question, we could say, “I feel constantly stressed at work, I feel something awful will happen.”

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Key Takeaways on Anxiety

Across all work settings, the responses may paint a bleak picture of stress for the SEO industry. Does this translate more broadly to digital marketing or other categories?

The responses may indicate that constant, chronic stress is a widespread problem for the SEO industry.

For our respondents, the questions on anxiety (stress) appear to provide supporting evidence for burnout. From my own limited experience I think this raises points of reflection and potentially action. When thinking about stress at work, there are places that may attract larger amounts of stress:

From a personal perspective, I’ve witnessed friends and colleagues endure high amounts of stress for prolonged periods of time when the questions above receive negative answers.

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Depression

Rounding out the survey, there were 9 questions on depression which asked about energy, emotions and behaviors with a final question assessing impact on daily life.

Very thankfully, we saw a somewhat lower concentration of respondents answering with “Often” or “Very Often”.

However, if this data is applicable to the larger population of SEOs, just over 1 in 3 SEOs is struggling with depression.

The survey indicates we may be near a tipping point for depression among SEOs. On average, 35% of respondents indicated “Often” or “Very Often” to depression questions.

Similar to the other sections, here’s a list of jump links to a specific question for ease of navigation.

Depression Question 1: I have little interest or pleasure in doing things.

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Depression Question 2: I feel down, depressed, or hopeless.

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Depression Question 3: I have trouble falling or staying asleep, or sleeping too much.

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Depression Question 4: I feel tired or have very little energy.

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Depression Question 5: I have a poor appetite or overeat.

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Depression Question 6: I feel bad about myself, like a failure or that I’ve let my family or friends down.

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Depression Question 7: I have trouble concentrating on tasks or things, such as reading an email or watching TV.

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Depression Question 8: I more or speak so slowly that other people did or would have noticed.

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Depression Question 9: I have had thoughts that I would be better off dead, or of hurting myself.

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Depression Question 10: If any of the above problems affected you, how difficult have these problems made it for you at work, home, or with other people?

Key Takeaways on Depression

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Closing Thoughts & Action

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