We’re still not getting our heads around mental health issues in PR

“My name’s Rob – I work in PR and I have depression”.

It sounds like a confession at a self-help group. It feels like admitting some awful secret. It should be neither.

By Robert Gage,

Just to qualify at the outset, my depression is not at the severe end of the scale (not that it doesn’t feel like it sometimes) but I’ve lived with it for years since diagnosis and developed a level of resilience which means I can manage it day to day. It doesn’t hit me every day and retaining a sense of humour is essential, because it’s important to laugh regularly. It means I can take the comments about being grumpy, crass as they may be.

Tuesday 10th October is World Mental Health Day and research undertaken by the CIPR and PRCA regularly demonstrates that around a third of those working in the PR industry experience some form of mental illness. PR Week was talking about it in 2015, as well as The Drum in 2016 and 2017. And we’ll continue to talk about it. Except we won’t, because talking about it is still seen as a weakness as backed up by the research which indicates that candidness is only on condition of anonymity in the majority of cases.

Indeed, I had to think carefully before posting this. Would it affect my employment prospects going forward? Would they think I’m a little unhinged? Just the phrase “mental illness” carries a huge stigma – if there ever was something that would benefit from a re-brand, mental illness is it.

It’s an ill-informed world. But if any employer doesn’t get it – or indeed realise that, in the UK at least, they have a legal obligation to safeguard the health and welfare of their employees in the workplace, including their mental health – then they are not worth applying for a job with.

I’ve been open about my personal struggle. Fortunately, my employer does get it. Amongst other things, it has been training mental health first-aiders to spot the signs of someone who may be experiencing a deterioration in their mental health. I worked with BBC Wales on an article on this subject nearly five years ago and it’s still relevant today.

But I’ve also worked in organisations where mental illness was considered a performance issue. People would just disappear to tend to their gardens, often never to return, because exclusion was easier than identifying the root cause of the problem and addressing it. The culture remained the same and more people went off to water their begonias. The garden can be a cold place, especially in winter.

To fully understand the scale of the problem, an article in Safety and Health Practitionercites UK Health and Safety Executive data which shows that ill health is costing British business billions each year and a significant proportion of that is mental ill health.  So, it is affecting your company performance, but – and this is the real stinger – aggressively targeting individuals with an illness is not only hugely damaging for their own well-being and that of their colleagues, it also doesn’t solve your problem.

An article from the CIPR by Paul Sutton pulls few punches. Come to expect such straight talking from someone who has been confirmed as having depression and is willing to share their story. I’ll guess that we’d probably share similar experiences: ill-informed comments and inferences; an institutionalised denial that there is a problem; a drive for business success without recognising the effect that this has on the bottom line. I could go on.

But the fact that the PR profession has been talking about this for so long doesn’t bode well. I mean, it’s good to talk and great that it is recognised as a strategic problem, but action is far better. Much is made of the “ethics of PR” – the conscious differentiation between right and wrong behaviour in the conduct of business – and yet a huge number of PR professionals cannot talk about their illness to their employers for fear of being sent into the garden. Right or wrong? You decide.

PR’s professional bodies have it within their gift to mandate their members to start taking this seriously. We expect practitioners to follow a code of conduct for ethics, but is compulsory mental health awareness and training part of that? If it isn’t, it should be.

We’ve lost too many good, talented people to other professions because of culture of fear, constant connectivity or the “magic bullet” attitude, whereby communications is perceived as the elixir to cure all corporate ills, but is otherwise not taken as seriously as the expected results would suggest.

Best practice guidelines aren’t enough. We need to hold up models of best practice and call out the worst offenders. Managing change is our business – let’s start effecting this one.

Picture credit: Sebastian Davenport-Handley

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  1. Thank for this article – brilliant, and we should be pushing on this issue. I am very much in favour of mandatory first aid training and support for mental health. Our mental health must have equal status with physical health. It’s as simple as that.

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