Inaugural SEO Mental Health Survey: 2021

Welcome to the inaugural SEO burnout and mental health survey! It’s not lost on me that while the title says 2021, we’re now halfway through 2022. In the fall of 2021, I posted this survey on LinkedIn, Twitter, and a few other places – I was absolutely blown away by the responses. Then with no small degree of irony, I promptly struggled for months to make the time to assemble and write this up.

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”.

Last year, 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, 25+ 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 10 years…

Our respondents were strongly weighted to the agency work, and a location in North America, respectively. Totals may not sum to 100% on rounding.

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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 quiet 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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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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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 symptoms of depression “Often” or “Very Often”.

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.

For many of the questions on depression, we saw a welcome change in the distribution of responses. While we still see some skew towards “Often” responses, we’re starting to see more register for “Not at All” and “Rarely”.

Here, we see that more than half of the respondents felt disengaged with activities or indicated difficulties experience emotion in their life. Difficulty experiencing emotions can be precursors to deeper struggles with depression.

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

When asked directly about feeling depressive symptoms, just short of 40% experienced feelings of depression or hopelessness “Often” or “Very Often”. Unfortunately, this does suggest that SEOs are having difficulty in coping with stressors, burnout, and anxiety that results.

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

The question on sleep habits saw one of the most unusual distributions of responses yet. Happily, we saw one of our largest showings for “Not at all” and “Rarely”, suggesting that our respondents may at least be able to find some basic recharge in their daily routines.

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

Our respondents were unable to find consistent traction through these questions, however. More than half of the respondents reported exhausting often or more.

If we extend the window of focus to “Sometimes”, 9 out of 10 respondents feel tired or have very little energy.

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

Just when I thought that we would see traction in the respondents being able to find stability and coping within daily routines, we see that over half the respondents face such intense struggles that it impacts their ability to regulate eating habits. From an amateur perspective, this could certainly raise concerns for SEOs in other ways with regard to potential eating disorders or obesity and subsequent health complications.

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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.

Going into the home stretch of depression-related questions, we saw a divide between respondents. Almost half on either side, rarely or often feeling like a failure. This question does present an immediate opportunity for line managers and leaders to regularly offer support, recognition and praise to their teams to bolster this area.

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

When asked about concentrating on basic tasks, this question saw a blended distribution of responses. We did see the typical weighting of “Sometimes” and more frequently, but also 15% of respondents saying it was never a struggle – a bright spot in the survey.

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

This was our very first question in the survey (I believe) where we finally saw a lack of responses for “Often” or “Very Often”. Seeing this distribution of results may suggest again that there are two main groups of respondents: One group that is enduring and coping with intense stress and burnout, and one group that may be teetering on the edge of serious depression. (Looking to the 50% of respondents that sometimes struggle with moving or speaking so slowly that it’s noticeable.)

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

As we begin to wrap up our survey questions, we have one of the toughest questions yet: whether respondents have had thoughts of self-harm. While I’m pleased to report there were no responses for “Often” or “Very Often”, almost 1 in 3 of the respondents reported sometimes having thoughts of self-harm. On a personal note, that number is too high for me, same for the “Rarely” responses for that matter. It is my fervent hope that we can endeavor to get 100% of responses in the “Not at All” column.

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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?

The final question sought to assess any potential impacts from these areas of struggle. We see almost half of the respondents reporting that these difficulties have made it somewhat difficult for their lives at home and work, while more than 1 in 3 reported greater difficulty.

Key Takeaways on Depression

While it may not be apparent to readers, I’ve struggled finding the time since the survey to compile and report on this data. While it’s a personal frustration, there may be a silver lining for insights here, as I have somewhat “fresh eyes” on this Depression section.

If I were to summarize Depression, there seems to be 2 camps of respondents, those managing to cope somehow, and those who may be on the edge of grave mental illness. Perhaps there are some respondents who have been stuck in the echo chamber of work, finding more identity in their work than others.

Thus, we should lead, more than ever, with empathy and compassion to our teammates, clients, vendors, and anyone else we interact with – not viewing relationships as transactional, but as opportunities to love and encourage one another.

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Closing Thoughts & Action

As we close this survey, there are some things we know with high confidence:

This survey should spur us to action:

Examining how we lead people: Building Stronger Relationships with our Teammates

Briefly zooming out, the pandemic has been both devastating and fascinating. With regards to mental health and workplace cultures, I firmly believe that remote working has surfaced and magnified existing issues, more than it has created new issues.

The first thing that we can should do is build better relationships with our teammates. To paraphrase Simon Sinek, there’s a difference between the act of listening and the art of listening. (Hat tip to my friend and former teammate Robert Francis for sharing this gem.)

Do we:

Do we create an environment that values the person over the work?

If you conduct yourself and your team in an affirmative manner to the above, you can go such a long way in building stronger relationships.

To take it a step further, do we take ownership of these behaviors, and of the entirety of our team, and its output? Anything from Jocko Willink is a great study, here’s a short TED talk from him that primes the topic.

Examining our Business Practices

The last few years have seen a lot of advancement in business practices in the SEO space. And in some regards, adapting our own leadership behaviors could be argued the “easiest” solve in this conversation. However, we don’t want to limit ourselves to personal scopes of change.

While this is likely difficult, advocating for evolved business practices around mental health can only help SEOs, digital marketers, and beyond. Some thought starters:

What ideas do you have?

Reflect into our Personal Support Systems

Last, but certainly not least, do we allow our support systems to help us?

Do we have honest, compassionate conversations with family and friends?

Do we display wise vulnerability with those around us, telling people when we need help, or when things aren’t okay?

Perhaps this is the most difficult of all.

If you’ve read this far, wow. I appreciate you taking this time to learn more about the state of our industry. To all those extended their trust to share the state of their lives in this survey, thank you. May we continue to grow together with increasing strength and kindness.

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