Under Pressure: PR industry on brink of a mental health epidemic

By Alexander Garrett,

Since the beginning of January, staff at London PR agency Frank have been on the receiving end of a surprising incentive. In an industry that prides itself on communicating constantly, employees have been rewarded for not using their phones. The Frank on Hold scheme uses an app to give points – which can be redeemed for vouchers and other treats – to individuals who avoid using their mobile, discouraging frequent browsing and checking emails at all hours.

Andrew Bloch, Frank’s managing partner, says: “I was aware of the pressures of being ‘always on’, and that manifests itself particularly with people never putting their phone away, even when they’re eating dinner or watching TV with their kids. What this app does is make using your phone a conscious decision.”

This is one of the more innovative responses to the issue of mental health, which has become recognised as a serious problem in the PR sector in the past few years. Data from CIPR’s State of the Profession report, collected for the first time in 2019, shows that nearly one in four PR professionals (23%) has taken sick leave due to stress, anxiety or depression, and 21% have been diagnosed with a mental health condition. Rachel Royall, chair of CIPR’s Health Group, says: “I think our industry is facing an epidemic.”

The sector has got better at understanding the problem and its scale, she says, but there is much more to do. “We need a plan for the profession – what are we going to do about this?”

Something to think about

These comments are echoed by others who have examined the subject. Stephen Waddington, managing director of Metia and former CIPR president, was one of the co-authors of a FuturePRoof report on mental wellbeing in the PR profession, published by the PRCA in 2017. He says: “We found that, although the profession was starting to acknowledge the existence of a mental health issue, at that time it was still managing it in terms of performance. Typically, the individuals concerned were put on performance review and often managed out. I think things have moved on immeasurably since then.”

Sarah Hall, a PR consultant, another former CIPR president and Waddington’s co-author, says: “Too much is still done on a reactive basis. We need to start looking at cause and prevention. And we need to put it at the heart of the organisation – too often it is left to HR.”

Most agree that PR professionals are particularly vulnerable to stress and mental health issues because of the nature of the role. “It’s 24/7 and always on, and you have to react to an unpredictable agenda,” says Bloch. “Clients expect to talk to you at all hours – I even had one call me at 11.30pm on New Year’s Eve – and social media adds another layer that you have to monitor and respond to.”

PRs are not alone

Some of these characteristics are shared with other creative and communication-based sectors such as advertising and journalism, but PR’s combination of demanding clients and news cycle responsiveness is unique. A study of the most stressful jobs by US website CareerCast put PR at number eight.

Specifically, PR professionals in the State of the Profession report cited unmanageable workloads, the unrealistic expectations of colleagues, unsociable hours and deadlines as the leading causes of stress. The symptoms are legion: “It ranges from anxiety or feeling overwhelmed to being completely unable to work,” says Waddington. “And then a lot of people resort to crutches such as alcohol or drug abuse.”

Many employers, but not all, do now at least have policies and support mechanisms in place. “But we still have to get better at recognising the symptoms – when people are absent-minded, depressed or even angry,” says Hall.

Cop a load of Ketchum

One agency that has taken positive steps is Ketchum in London. “For us, it began when we had a meeting in January 2018 and we were invited to talk about our goals for the year. A few people stood up to say they were going to focus on self-care and mental health,” says Kirsty Sachrajda, Ketchum’s head of HR for Europe.

The agency surveyed its staff to find out how it could better support their mental wellbeing. One consequence was a decision to fund 12 people to become mental health first-aiders. Ketchum also introduced yoga, meditation and exercise classes, and brought in speakers on topics such as fitness, sleep and mindfulness.

Therapy is another way to deal with mental health issues. Jodie Cariss, a consultant at ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, has also trained as a therapist and executive coach, and is the founder of Self Space, an organisation that offers individually tailored therapy to those working in the creative sector via their employer. Companies buy bundles of 100 sessions or more with 14 fully trained practitioners and make them available for their employees to book confidentially via the Self Space app.

“It’s not just for people experiencing mental health issues; it’s also for the ‘worried well’,” says Cariss. That can include someone feeling overwhelmed at work, facing up to a difficult conversation or simply feeling blue.

Most of her work to date has been with ad agencies, but she recognises that the PR industry faces similar pressures. “It’s a high-stress environment where people are judged on their creative output,” Cariss says. “It’s very fast-
paced and competitive.” Just getting work across the line internally can be stressful, let alone getting client buy-in.

Culture shift

While it’s important to introduce specific measures to support those with, and prevent, mental health issues, it’s also vital to change the culture of your organisation so that the stigma around mental health is removed and people are ready to talk about it openly.

“At the end of last year we did another employee survey and there were great improvements in how people felt about wellbeing in the agency,” says Sachrajda at Ketchum. “They really liked the steps we’d taken. It’s also important for our reputation for us to be seen as an employer that deals with this problem.”

Royall says: “For me, being proactive about this is about being a great manager, having one-to-one conversations and understanding each individual’s workload and their stress levels. That healthy, productive, supportive relationship between managers and their teams is the most important thing you can provide.”

And, with 23% of respondents to the State of the Profession survey having had time off work because of mental health issues, taking action could improve the performance of the business too. “That factor alone makes it worthwhile for every employer to take this issue seriously,” notes Royall.

Alexander Garrett is a freelance journalist and editor of WPP’s Atticus Journal.

A version of this article was first published in Influence magazine, Q2 2019.

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

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