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How the pandemic is affecting mental health in PR

It can be tough working in PR at the best of times, and the pandemic is certainly not the best of times. In this, the first of two features focusing on mental health in PR, we check in with PRs to find how well they are coping. We also speak to a psychologist who offers some advice for business leaders to help themselves, and their people.

PRs were already under enough stress
Gemma Pettman, chartered PR advisor and vice chair of the CIPR’s Not-for-Profit committee: “PRs were already experiencing significant stress prior to the pandemic so we should be even more concerned now. The CIPR’s 2019 State of the Profession survey reported one-in-five respondents having a diagnosed mental health condition and around a quarter (23%) saying they took sickness absence from work on the grounds of stress, anxiety or depression.

“This year, PRs have been on the frontline of shaping and sharing essential, and at times, very challenging messages. Many of us have been in full-on crisis comms mode for months on end, translating complex and ever-changing legislative information and public health guidance into messages that are effective and easily understood by our audiences. The ‘always on’ pace of work is not sustainable. We must check in with ourselves and our colleagues, taking time to switch off and rest when we can. We need to be prepared for what the next few months bring.”

It is okay to struggle sometimes
Paul Middleton, head of communications at investment firm Third Bridge: “From my experience, PR folk are some of the most resilient around so on the face of it we should be alright. We're used to tough and ugly days, we're used to working in a degree of chaos, and we're used to having to batten down the hatches and just get stuff done.

“But lockdown is different and I don't think it's a question of toughness or personal resilience. We aren't talking here about some easily compartmentalised work issue. Instead, lockdown can curtail our whole lives – our freedom, our ambitions, and our potential. It obstructs not just our routines, but our sense of connection with the world. 

“We can all be proactive and erect a sort of scaffolding around our lives with exercise, new skills, and good friends. But at the end of the day, I think the big lesson here is that it's okay to struggle sometimes.”    

There are three big worries
Hannah Milne, associate director at communications agency Tin Man: “Isolation, burn out and anxiety are the three big worries. The lines are becoming increasingly blurred between work and home – with our homes acting as our office, it’s hard for people to truly switch off. It’s a constant balance. On one hand we want to encourage more connection and interaction and on the other we need to find ways of reducing the endless and very draining screen time. 

As simple as it sounds, talking regularly is essential – we’ve given everyone more one to one time with line managers and buddies and switched up our company meetings to share good news and updates more regularly. Mental health is supported at a very senior level within the agency and we empower all staff to take time for their mental health, encouraging them to think about it as they would a client – from blocking out time in their diary for regular breaks to drafting their own Wellness Action Plans.”

Isolation is the hardest
Amy Sharpe, digital PR executive at marketing agency AGY47: “It is certainly an isolating time for those working remotely – particularly if a date to reopen the office is yet to be confirmed. This has to be the most detrimental effect to individual mental well-being because as PR professionals will know, our work is very collaborative, creative and sociable, and it’s certainly harder to replicate such qualities over the internet. 

"For many people, shared office spaces were a big part of their social life. To combat loneliness, our team meets on Google Hangouts every morning for a news briefing and informal chat about the latest current affairs and campaigns, and having a laugh every morning certainly helps in keeping everyone connected and cheerful.”

First person
The Freelance PR consultant Hannah Thomas at HT Automotive PR, discusses how she is eager to get back to ‘normal’ life: “I've been a work-from-home freelance PR for almost three years now. After I transitioned from the hustle and bustle of employment and being in an office, I struggled with the isolation – even before Covid. I then began to hot-desk once a week at a local co-working hub. It gave me back that feeling of ‘going out to work’ that I missed and a bit of human interaction that wasn't on the phone or on a video call – even if it was just to chat about Eastenders around the coffee machine! 

“At the beginning of the pandemic, I had to stop hot-desking and I'm really missing it. I'm very focused and hardworking whilst at home, but the enforced isolation is not healthy. After a while it makes you doubt your abilities and the simple things become more of a mental mountain. This is on top of a drop in work and income. I'm eager to get back some of my normal life to begin to build my business back up and feel more me again.”

PR must constantly justify its worth
Chloe Walden, freelance PR consultant: “Most of us who have been in PR for a while know that at times like these, when businesses are looking at ways to cut costs, one of the first things to go is often PR. During the first Lockdown, so many of my friends and colleagues in the industry – myself included – lost their jobs initially before the furlough scheme came into play. This time around, I feel like we're all a little more prepared. Businesses, while not able to trade as normal, have already adapted and – using the big buzzword – pivoted to offer new services such as delivery, click-and-collect, and more. And with the 2 December firmly in everyone's sights, it all seems a little bit more optimistic. 

“As PRs, however, we are still left in that very difficult situation of constantly trying to justify our worth. This is normal, but in these circumstances the pressure is on even more which, along with everything else, creates stress. What's more, with most of us working from home, we don't even have the benefit of having our colleagues around to blow off steam with; it's the perfect storm.” 

Christmas makes things harder
Francesca Baker, content marketer and creator of And She Thinks: “The same challenges as facing the rest of the population in terms of isolation, working from home, and stress about getting food and making travel plans will still apply. But there are some industry specific ones. 

PRs working on Christmas campaigns will find it challenging to land messages when it's not really known what the situation will be – how can you promote a Christmas event for example, when you don't know if it will go ahead?

It's very noisy out there at the moment, so it is difficult to land any story not Covid-19 or lockdown related. Clients won't always appreciate this however, so there will be an increasing pressure on PRs to get coverage in a saturated environment, which won't always be possible, adding anxiety and stress. PR is often seen as a nice to have, so if clients cut budgets it may well be something that goes – and no one needs to be told that having work cut is super stressful!”

A psychologist’s advice for employers
Dannielle Haig, business psychologist and owner of DH Consulting, says employers must put their people’s mental health on top of the agenda: “It can be hard for employers to monitor employee’s mental health especially as we work remotely, that is why I recommend hosting mental health workshops.

I find that through open and educational discussions about mental health, employers and employees feel more confident in approaching and understanding mental health in the workplace. I also teach my clients how to have conversations about mental health with colleagues. Once we’ve broken down the stigma and concerns about discussing this difficult subject, employees will feel a lot more comfortable in offering support to one another.

“I also aim to teach leaders the importance of being empathetic and acknowledging any concerns employees may have especially in the current climate. This can be achieved by building rapport with your team by being open, encouraging communication and by creating a culture of psychological safety with consistency and honesty.

“We can’t give from an empty pot so encourage everyone to look after their mental health.”

We need to support each other
Lydia Oakes, managing director and co-founder of communications agency Bluestripe Group: “We know that PR itself is proving to be more challenging during the pandemic with editorial teams suffering job cuts and journalists working harder than ever, no physical events and fewer opportunities to network. We need to be working with our teams to develop more creative and innovative ways to gain coverage for our clients.

“The difference with this lockdown is that we all have the experience of the first and we’ve learnt some valuable lessons, not just how to unmute on Zoom. More than ever before we are all aware of the need to support our colleagues whether that is through daily company check-ins, encouraging everyone to take lunch breaks and enjoy some fresh air or having virtual coffee breaks and quiz nights.”

Next week, PRinsight talks to business leaders for more tips on helping to support mental health in PR during this lockdown and beyond.

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