How to Manage An ‘Always-On’ Career on World Mental Health Day and Every day?

By Christine Bowles,

Mental health issues have proliferated in recent times, and this is borne out in our industry by research from CIPR.

The “State of the Profession Report 2018/19”, finds that the number of people in the PR industry with a diagnosed mental health condition, at 1 in 5, is higher than in the general population and shockingly almost a quarter (23%) of PR practitioners have sought support from their manager without result.

It’s hard to pinpoint which of the major changes that the PR industry has seen over the last twenty or so years have been responsible. Whether it’s the arrival of a 24/7 news media, smartphone adoption leading to email access at all times, the growth of social media enabling brands to be attacked from all over, or the proliferation of “hustle porn” on platforms such as LinkedIn, there are plenty of reasons for PR professionals to feel that they are struggling.

We were fortunate to have an impressive range of guest speakers for the CIPR Greater London Group (GLG) and Birkbeck College workshop event on managing an “always-on” career for World Mental Health Day.

Sponsored by Hotwire UK, the global communications agency, our workshop was designed to be a listening exercise for the GLG with the aim of creating an action plan to implement better wellness working practices and to promote practical ways of switching off and thriving for our members and the wider industry.

Mental health and wellbeing support

Charlotte Williams of Birkbeck College shared details on how the organisation has developed a whole university approach to mental health and wellbeing and offers a wide range of services for students and staff to address the issues.

She outlined helpful, practical steps for self-care which could be used and adopted by agency owners, in-house managers and directors responsible for staff. These include:

  • Talk about your feelings
  • Keep active
  • Eat well
  • Drink sensibly
  • Keep in touch
  • Ask for help
  • Take a break
  • Do something you’re good at
  • Accept who you are
  • Care for others

In particular, the need to focus on getting men talking, which Charlotte highlighted, is something that the CIPR GLG will look at going forward.

Research on the “always-on” culture

Almuth McDowell’s keynote speech focused on her research which highlights the impact of technology usage on work-life balance and how changing work patterns are fuelling the “always-on” culture. This has resulted in half of all waking hours now being spent engaged in media or comms, even though working longer than 50 hours per week has been proven to lead to poor productivity and performance. There have been several approaches across Europe to address this working culture, including giving employees the right to turn their devices off outside of work and emails being held on a server overnight.  However, Almuth’s research finds a bespoke approach is likely to be more effective whereby organisations work with employees directly to build a better relationship with communications technology so that they can enjoy the beneficial effects whilst still feeling able to take a break from work. She explained that as employers have a duty of care to employees, they should actively support them by ensuring the following procedures are actioned:

  • A work life balance policy is in place as a point of reference; then check processes and structures against this policy
  • Employers review job design and ensure that digital tasks (checking and responding to emails, synchronising devices, remote calls and conferences) are captured in people’s workload and tasks – these often fall off the radar
  • There is consultation to ask employees what they need – mutually negotiated boundaries and solutions work much better. Think creatively about flexible solutions!
  • Everyone, including senior leaders and managers, role models good behaviours. People need time to switch off, so don’t expect your staff to be available outside normal working hours
  • Staff are offered training and development. Managing in an increasingly digital workspace requires up-to-date management and leadership skills
  • Employees look out for implicit expectations and “rumours”. “I check my emails on holiday because this is what is expected of me”. Really? Question such assumptions as they can often take on a life of their own

Almuth highlighted the impact of technology usage on work-life balance and that is something we are now talking about how to tackle in a CIPR GLG 2020 activity.

Bring your whole self

It was heartening to hear Darryl Sparey talk about the enlightened work culture and leadership provided at Hotwire UK. He discussed some of the initiatives which the company has put in place to help support their staff, which include:

  • Thoughtful working – a philosophy adopted across the business to do away with “presentee-ism” and allow people to balance their work and personal commitments by encouraging them to work when and where they need to
  • BUPA Employee Assistance Programme – offering counsellors and psychotherapists to staff
  • Mental Health First Aider programme – with staff trained to help in first response mental health situations
  • A free Headspace subscription for staff
  • Paid sabbaticals every four years for long-serving team members in order to allow them to recharge their batteries

The company encourages all staff to be open about mental health and other personal challenges they may experience, and these have been featured in the “Bring Your Whole Self” e-book, in which everyone from the CEO to junior colleagues are included. With men being more at risk, it was encouraging to see both genders equally represented.

Understanding mental health and wellbeing skills guide

Jo Twiselton from the CIPR’s Health Group Committee explained how the Group has partnered with MIND to produce new resources including a skills guide “Understanding Mental Health and Wellbeing” to help employers build a better mental health environment and advise practitioners on how to look after their mental wellbeing. Jo gave us a tour of the guide which highlights the following steps to take for organisations and managers:

  • Follow the ‘Core Standards’ of the government-commissioned report ‘Thriving at Work’ report by Lord Stevenson and Paul Farmer (Chief Executive of MIND)
  • Provide managers with training around mental health
  • Promote a culture of open and supportive conversation
  • Sign up to the Time to Change Employer Pledge
  • Promote and role-model an effective work-life balance across organisations, to help employees stay healthy, engaged and productive

The guide also gives suggestions for individuals including independent practitioners:

  • Look after yourself – including getting outside, exercising, staying hydrated and speaking to people daily
  • Establish a structure in your working day as much as possible including networking with clients
  • Buddy up. CIPR’s Independent Practitioner Network can be found online here.
  • Get your work-life balance in check and find something else to do (ideally physical rather than mental)
  • Sleep experts recommend that you keep off devices like phones and tablets at least one hour before bedtime to encourage better sleep.

The CIPR (£) member-only webinar has health professionals and practitioners with a mental health condition advising how to take positive action on mental health in the profession.

Opportunities, challenges and actions

Our GLG has already started talking about ways that we can build on this year’s workshop in 2020 to help our members address some of the key challenges highlighted. If you can help us to identify practical ways going forward for practitioners and employers, please get in touch through Twitter or LinkedIn.

Further information on the speakers can be found here:

Professor Almuth McDowell is Head of Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck College

Darryl Sparey is Business Development Director at Hotwire.

Charlotte Williams is Manager of the Birkbeck Counselling Service.

Jo Twiselton is a member of the CIPR Health Group.

Christine Bowles is Head of Marketing & Communications, Renaix and member of Greater London Group Committee.

Photo by Curtis MacNewton on Unsplash

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