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Prioritising employee wellbeing in PR - here’s what the industry could be doing better

Though it undoubtedly comes with a range of fun and rewarding benefits, there is no escaping the fact that PR is an extremely high-pressured industry, posing various challenges to employees at all levels, and regardless of whether they work agency-side or in-house.

Inboxes full of emails that fill up quicker than they can be actioned, endless Zoom or Google Hangout meeting requests, and a to-do list full of reactive tasks and long-term projects that can often feel overwhelming. It’s no wonder that in a 2021 study highlighted by the CIPR, researchers found that PR professionals are 40% more likely to suffer from poor mental health than other UK workers.

A more recent study from the CIPD released in September 2023 that looked into health and wellbeing within UK workplaces, reported that more than three quarters (76%) of employees have experienced some form of stress-related staff absence, with heavy workloads, and management styles most commonly to blame.

These worrying figures, coupled with the fact that the instability of the economic climate and cost of living crisis has added even more pressure on PR teams to deliver consistently high results in an ever-evolving industry, means that the risk of burnout, stress and anxiety amongst employees working in PR is higher than ever.

So, how can those in senior positions ensure that team members feel valued in their PR roles, and what short- or long-term changes can be implemented to improve and maintain their overall wellbeing?

Embrace flexible and remote working

As the world readjusted to the ‘new normal’ of workplace environments, PR has been amongst one of the many industries to embrace the benefits of offering hybrid and remote roles to employees. This is due to employees being just as capable of fulfilling their job roles from their home environments as they are in an office setting.

Many employees enjoy travelling to the office on a weekly basis to engage in face-to-face meetings, ideation brainstorms, training sessions, and socialisation with their colleagues. Yet for others who live a substantial distance away, take care of dependents such as children or elderly relatives, or are living with a condition that prevents them from working in an office setting, being able to offer roles to talented individuals that can be carried out remotely can benefit all stakeholders of a business.

The unpredictable economic climate is impacting everyone, including businesses, and for businesses that cannot afford to offer their members of staff pay rises, there are numerous other ways to help those struggling with the cost-of-living crisis. Subsidising travel costs to the office, allowing employees to work from home on a hybrid or remote basis, and providing such amenities as free meals, snacks, and drinks in the office can all help to reduce financial outgoings to employees feeling the financial pinch.

Establish and promote mental health policies

Offering support for employees’ mental health should be an ongoing priority for decision-makers across all businesses, but especially within an industry like PR that is clearly already suffering from mass burnout.

Regular check-ins, offering employees a safe space to discuss any work challenges or personal issues that are causing them barriers in terms of their performance, is a proactive way for managers to identify any issues or problems before they worsen. In order to cater to all kinds of workers and personality types, these should be provided in various forms, including in-person, online, in groups, on forms, or during regular one-to-one catch-ups.

Many managers are guilty of assuming that it’s enough to simply promote an ‘open door policy’ when it comes to encouraging employees to discuss any well-being or mental health issues. However, quite often their power and authority can blind them to the fact that it can be extremely hard for individuals to step over the threshold. This is why it’s vital for clear messaging and processes regarding well-being to be embedded holistically across PR organisations.

Many larger PR settings benefit from having at least one trained mental health first aider who can assess employee struggles on a case-by-case basis, and suggest available resources or coping techniques. For smaller agencies or SMEs that cannot afford to train these MHFAs, there are free resources available from organisations like mhfaengland.org to upskill managers. The NHS website also provides guidance for managers and employees on how to spot the signs of stress, burnout, or mental health issues in either a colleague or yourself, and when to ask for help.

Those working in PR should be reminded by employers that mental health is just as important as physical health. Implementing a ‘reset day scheme’ - allowing employees to take a day for themselves when feeling stressed or burnt out but without impacting their annual leave or sickness allowance - can help to normalise the need to prioritise mental health and wellbeing and discuss their struggles openly.

Other employers also offer Blue Monday (the second Monday in January, and reportedly the most miserable day of the year) as a day off for staff, allowing them to refresh, rejuvenate, and relax after a particularly stressful and overwhelming festive period.

Commit to offering a healthy work-life balance

Unhealthy attitudes to working excessive hours, not taking adequate breaks throughout the day, and spending weekends on projects and tasks not completed during contracted hours, can signify a myriad of warning signs for the operational side of a company, as well as the detrimental effect on an employee’s wellbeing and risk of burnout.

Encouraging employees to block out full lunch breaks in their calendars, monitoring anyone who seems to be staying online or emailing work after the end of the working day on a regular basis, and making sure that managers and senior team members are not encouraging this toxic ‘grind’ behaviour, can help to minimise the risk of individuals overworking themselves.

Invest in training and career development

During regular PDP meetings, where managers can offer employees a clearer understanding of the skills they need to develop and progress, the topic of training and career development should also be at the forefront of discussions.

By understanding the specific areas of interest that an employee working in PR wants to focus on, a personalised training plan can be created to identify different routes to assist with self-development and in honing their specialist skills. This helps staff wellbeing in feeling valued and respected by their place of employment who want to see them progress within the business, and gives them motivation to improve their knowledge and abilities within the PR industry.

Article written by Jane Hunt, co-founder and CEO of digital PR and SEO agency JBH

You can read more about supporting mental health in PR here.

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