How to find help for your mental wellbeing in PR

As it is Mental Health Awareness Week, it seems a good time to talk about whether mental health is still a taboo subject in PR. Life isn’t easy, so there should be no stigma attached to anyone struggling with problems such as anxiety, depression and stress-related illness. Here industry chiefs open up about mental-health issues, discuss their own experiences, and outline how people can be best supported in this industry.

We must talk publicly says Chris Brown, account manager at marketing agency Stone Junction: “Mental health is still a taboo for many industries, not just PR. With more than 28% of businesses saying mental health is now a bigger issue than physical illness, something needs to be done. One of the biggest challenges with tackling the issue is that it often does not manifest in symptoms that are visual, in the same way the flu or even a broken arm does. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything wrong.

"More than 28% of businesses saying mental health is now a bigger issue than physical illness"

“To end the stigma we need to start talking about mental health. It is often associated with failure and personal weakness and this just isn’t the case. To talk about it publicly is perhaps one of the most courageous things you can do and more people should consider it as part of their own recovery.

“Speaking from experience, having suffered with anxiety, there is an abundance of help and support out there, much of which is available on the NHS. You don’t need to suffer in silence. Get yourself down to your local GP and talk to someone. In today’s connected society it’s difficult to take a step back from it all, but you need to make time for yourself. Use your holiday productively to recharge your batteries. If you’re running on low it’s not just you that will suffer, but also your work and your clients. Companies need to realise this too and support their staff.”  

We need more mental health policies says Russell Goldsmith founder of agency Audere Communications, producers of the csuite podcast: “Mental Health in the workplace is a topic that has been discussed a number of times on our podcast series and it’s great that more awareness is being drawn to this important issue. However, as we highlighted in our episode on Wellbeing in the Workplace, the PRCA’s Mental Health Survey found that 59% of PR and communications practitioners have suffered from mental ill health yet, alarmingly, over 90% of PR and communications employers said they had no formal mental health policy.

“When I asked Geoff McDonald, former global VP for HR at Unilever about this, he said that we are still in the foothills of addressing the stigma and the issue of mental ill health in the workplace across all industries, even though we have made great advances in a broader societal level within the UK in driving awareness and understanding, where he feels people are more comfortable outside of work talking about their mental health. He added that whilst organisations may have first aiders on each floor for physical health, they should also have first aiders around mental ill health too. Geoff’s interview was one of the most inspirational I’ve carried out as part of the series as he was himself diagnosed with anxiety-fuelled depression, but now advises businesses on how to address this issue in the corporate world.”

Workloads must be tackled says Lindsay Jones, owner of LJPR: “I think that our industry needs to be more aware of the impact that pressure puts on the mental health of our staff.

“In these times where budgets are tight and client spend is static, I am hearing more and more reports from account managers working in agencies where staff numbers have been cut and workloads have ramped up to an almost unacceptable level.

“These people are afraid to speak out as they fear for their jobs and are struggling to meet the demands being put on them. Long working hours with no overtime or days of in lieu and little thanks are all storing up huge mental health issues waiting just around the corner.

"Budgets are tight and client spend is static, I am hearing more and more reports from account managers working in agencies where staff numbers have been cut and workloads have ramped up to an almost unacceptable level."

“People aren’t robots. In such a high-pressure industry we need to ensure that staff are appreciated and given the down time they need to rest and recuperate – even if that is a quiet room set aside and a no-fear/blame, open-door policy where junior members of staff can flag up that they are struggling to cope.”

First person

Two PROs explain why it is good to talk

Kristina Wilcock, assistant head of external communications, NHS Digital: “I am the first to admit that earlier in my career I would raise more than an eyebrow if somebody was off work with stress or depression. I just assumed the person was in the wrong job or couldn't hack it, particularly in the often relentless national media relations environment. 

“That was until I was diagnosed with PTSD. More fool me. I was incredibly nervous about telling my employer, but am lucky I work for the NHS and we have strong HR policies. I was still highly reluctant to tell trusted colleagues and seek help and in all honesty, probably wouldn't have done if I hadn't proven my worth to my organisation for more than a decade. When your self worth is largely driven by work it's the worst catch-22 to not be there, functioning as normal. You spend a lot of time wondering what colleagues really think, whether they have lost faith in you even though you know deep down you have earned your role and the trust that goes with it."

Kirsty Reid, client director at PR agency Milk and Honey: “Before joining Milk and Honey PR as client director, I was unsure whether to mention in my interview that I had, and sometimes still do, experience extreme anxiety. Persuaded by my friends, I'd set up a dedicated Instagram account to offer motivation, support and advice to others who may be experiencing anxiety, low moods and a lack of confidence. I worried about whether any prospective employer would stumble upon it and decide not to take the chance on someone who could be seen, by some in the industry, as a liability. I thought long and hard about those affected by mental health issues and decided not to shy away from my own, and therefore, in my interview I was upfront and honest about my anxiety and the support I wanted to give to others. I got the job, and rather than look at my mental health as a stigma, it has been embraced as we strive to be a workplace that talks openly about how we are feeling and what can be done to ease any issues. You wouldn't brush off a colleague with a broken leg, so why ignore someone experiencing ill mental health?

“PR can be a demanding, stressful and pressured environment, especially with poor management. Mental wellbeing can be ignored to hit client or internal targets. It was after a particularly stressful time in my career, when I couldn't eat and felt sick with anxiety, that I decided to seek help before it all got too much. Therapy helped me in more ways than I could imagine, giving me tools to use in everyday life when the anxiety pangs start to creep in. I plan to use what I've learnt to educate my team and, as we grow, ensure we have mental wellbeing ambassadors, who are on hand to give support and advice. I'm also planning to take a Mental Health First Aid course in the near future.”

How we support our staff

Two agencies outline their policies for supporting mental health in their workplaces:

Jane Wilson, managing director at agency MHP Communications:On 30 April MHP signed the Mental Health Employer Pledge, making the commitment to reduce stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace. The pledge is our promise to continually work towards creating an inclusive and supportive environment at MHP. We have created a holistic program to ensure that we are incorporating mental wellness into all aspects of the workplace.

“To support employees through our programme, we have a Mental Health and Wellbeing policy to promote and ensure the mental health and wellbeing of all staff. I am one of 15 Mental Wellness Champions drawn from people from every level and discipline at MHP, who can provide confidential advice and support to their colleagues and have been trained by MHFA England to train champions in being Mental Health First Aiders.

“To encourage conversations surrounding mental health and reduce stigma in the workplace, we have created a calendar of events to recognise different aspects of mental health, such as Stress Awareness Month and Mental Health Week. For these events we encourage employees to get involved in fundraising and incorporate small changes to their day which are proven to have a positive effect on mental health. To complement these events, we have organised numerous training sessions that cover the science of mental health, along with sessions that incorporate mindfulness into the workplace, equipping our employees with the knowledge and tools to recognise and reduce poor mental health.

“Additionally, we have revamped our appraisal process to incorporate conversations regarding wellbeing are taking place. This aims to reduce stigma around these conversations and normalise them in the line manager/line managee relationship. We understand the importance of acknowledging the impact of the workplace on mental health, and creating an environment which supports and enhances mental wellness.”

Kirsty Sachrajda, head of HR, Europe, at PR firm Ketchum: “As a business, we encourage open discussion about mental health and wellbeing. At the start of this year we asked all our employees at Ketchum London to complete a short survey to help us identify how we could support their mental health and wellbeing better, and asked them to vote for the activities they would like to see included in our wellbeing programme. We had an overwhelming response and we’re now about to launch the programme. As part of this, we will signpost information about mental health and contact details for our Employee Assistance Programme and private Mental Health Cover around the office. We will also provide yoga/meditation classes, on-site health checks, discounted gym memberships, on-site exercise classes, as well as host guest speakers on topics such as nutrition, fitness, sleep and mindfulness. We have also created a list of organisations and helplines, apps and online programmes that our employees can visit. In addition, we’ll be arranging Wellbeing Workshops to give our people the tools to cope with stress in both their work and personal lives.

“It’s important that you have people who are passionate about the issue, and Chante Plom, brand team assistant at Ketchum London, has been trained as a mental health first aider. Chante has been responsible for driving the programme, and I’m pleased to say we are about to train eight more people to become mental health first aiders, who will then have the skills to spot the signs early on and will know how best to support someone experiencing ill mental health.”

PRCA support

Here the PRCA’s position on mental health is put forward by public affairs, policy, and research manager Neha Khatwani

  • Awareness about mental health in the PR and communications industry is certainly increasing, but it is still a stigmatised issue. Employers and employees are both reluctant to talk about mental ill health and that must change. Our research shows that 59% of PR and communications practitioners suffer for mental ill health, however 37% of practitioners are reluctant to talk to their line managers about their mental health. The majority of our industry suffer from mental ill health which is why the industry should take this issue seriously.  
  • The first thing companies can do is create an inclusive environment and have regular check-ins with employees about their workload and general wellbeing. Employees should feel like they are able to talk about their wellbeing freely without being concerned about their performance. The PRCA Diversity and Inclusion guidelines are a step-by-step guide on how companies can achieve an inclusive work environment and how they should manage a diverse workforce. You can find the guidelines here.
  • Employers should also implement the right policies to accommodate employees with mental health issues for example by implementing flexible working policies to all employees. The PR and Communications Census found that the opportunities to work flexibly are generally only available to senior employees. However, the ability to work flexibly is beneficial to people who suffer from mental ill  health. For example they may need to work from home a few days a week or to have flexible start and finish times to accommodate medical appointments. Flexible working policies should be clearly laid out in an employee handbook and should be encouraged by senior members of staff.
  • The PRCA has always been committed to raising awareness about mental health, and last year we launched the PRCA Mental Health Toolkit to help employees and employers manage mental health issues in the workplace. It features resources from leading mental health organisations such as Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, Mind, and Business in the Community.

Being open about mental health issues is the first step to supporting people in our industry, but this needs to be backed up with practical ways of actually helping people, rather than leaving them to struggle on their own. The good news that more and more businesses are recognising the need to have trained mental health first aiders.