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Why are PR practitioners more likely to suffer from poor mental health?

Latest research in the CIPR/PRCA Workplace Mental Wellbing Audit shows that PR practitioners are significantly more likely to suffer from poor mental health compared to other UK workers and the last two years have only piled on more pressure. Imtiaz Mufti, senior PR and communications manager at public policy consultancy Access Partnership, believes that at least this is an issue that is spoken about openly these days and that more people are focused on achieving a better work-life balance: “We are seeing a noticeable shift towards more open and supportive discussions on work cultures than ever before. It is imperative that this continues, and organisations big or small need to continue to embrace the current world of hybrid working as an opportunity to deliver a better balance between work and life.“

To show how hard it has been for some, PRs share their own tough experiences during the lockdowns. The good news is that many agencies are now more focused on helping support their people’s mental health and a few share their initiatives below. Freelancers do not have the support of an organisation, but there are things they can do to care for themselves better, and three freelancers offer some useful tips.

How lockdowns impacted me

Rhiannon Bates, founder of agency Garnet PR: “Whilst I believe mental health in the PR industry has been an issue for a long time due to pressure and the ever-increasing 'always-on' culture, I think the last 18 months have made this worse for many of us, particularly freelancers and entrepreneurs. I lost 95% of my clients in two weeks leading up to the first lockdown in 2020, and ended up burning out under the pressure of supporting those panicking clients and trying to keep my business afloat. Passing out holding a just-boiled kettle and landing up in hospital for three weeks was a stark wake-up call that my wellbeing, and that of my team, would always be a non-negotiable from that moment on (something I was already passionate about anyway after years in a toxic workplace).”

Natalie Trice, senior PR director at marketing agency Fox Agency: “There is no doubt that lockdown one knocked me as I saw 90% of my work disappear in one afternoon. My anxiety grew and self-doubt set in and took over - yes, they ended contracts due to Covid, but it was still a shock and I internalised it as not being good enough.

“Whilst I got back on track, I completed my formal coaching training, as well as writing my third book, I found that walking for an hour a day gave me the time out and headspace I need to move ahead. I would walk the hills of our village or go to the beach, with my dogs and it became a habit I have kept. Sometimes it’s an hour, or I split with 30 minutes at lunchtime and then after work, but I do it every day, even when I am away for work, and have added in (I know it’s a cliché) but yoga and meditation to ease the noise. I have also bought an alarm clock and no longer take my phone to bed, so the scrolling has decreased. “

Elma Glasgow, freelance PR consultant: “The first, sudden lockdown left me without clients. The pandemic alone would've been hard enough to deal with, but I also suffer with ME/CFS which is a chronic health condition. With that comes anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. I manage them well but just as I was reaching an extended period of better health, Covid hit the UK. And, as a woman of colour, Black Lives Matter added to the pressure on my mental health.

“I'd endured a similar battle in summer 2017, after severe burnout, and it was happening again.” (See how freelancers support themselves below to find out self-care techniques Elma has found successful).

How agencies support mental wellbeing

We are focused on positivity

Rhiannon Bates: “Garnet PR is built around positivity and mindset and the health and happiness of my team is paramount. I practice and encourage my team to be intuitive with their emotions through mindset work whether that be via journaling, breathwork or even just starting later on in the day to have the time to do something they enjoy like walking the dog. We have a super flexible working environment.”

We work a four-day week

Rhiannon Bates: “In August 2021, I also moved the business to a four-day week. Not only does this show I value and trust my team, I fully believe flexible working and freedom is the way to better productivity and happier people. We shouldn't live to work, life is too short, let's remember that we work to live. Personal development, happiness and mental health is the best investment we can make, in ourselves and in our team, especially in the fast-paced PR industry."

We focus on the invididual

Natalie Trice: Fox Agency has a wide range support in place for the teams, and these include:

  1. In-house mental health first aider.
  2. Employment Assistance Programme - 24-hour helpline for all issues and telephone counselling if required.
  3. Wellness initiatives with regular talks from physical and mental health and wellbeing practitioners (now on Zoom).
  4. Personal nutrition programmes and training plans from Reach Fitness.
  5. Rolling online tutoring sessions for meditation, yoga, mindfulness, photography tuition, finance help, etc.
  6. Flexibility - home working and hybrid working as an ongoing approach.

“We have also launched a lunchtime walk on a Tuesday for those in the Leeds office, but I personally make sure I take this time out to walk on the beach at home here in Devon.”

We follow the Human Givens approach

Jane Latham, head of wellbeing at agency Splendid Communications: “Our wellbeing strategy is underpinned by the Human Givens approach, based on empirical evidence that we must all meet certain emotional needs to thrive; security, control, status, headspace, inclusion, connection, development, and purpose. As a qualified Human Givens therapist, I promote a supportive environment for people to talk about mental health. I recently launched our Feel Human at Work workshops, where small groups facilitate openness and free discussion. I hold regular breathing and relaxation, guided meditation, and one-to-one sessions.

“A weekly ‘Wednesday Wellness’ email covers many topics; recent ones dealt with stress around returning to the office and nutritional suggestions for those on a plant-based diet.

“Last year, we launched a meeting-free, daily Headspace Hour, as our need for headspace was compromised by seemingly endless video meetings. We encourage everyone to take a proper break between 12 and 1pm, ideally to get outside and stretch their legs, whether working at home or in the office.”

We have a Mental Health Toolkit

Kam White, global head of people and culture at PR agency Hotwire Global: “We have always had a proactive approach to employee wellbeing, concentrating on developing two-way trust and supporting the individual, whatever their personal circumstances. We encourage our staff to feel empowered to speak openly about mental health and seek support from line managers and our trained Mental Health First Aiders when needed.

“To support our staff through these difficult times, all employees have 24/7 access to a Mental Health Toolkit which includes a number of resources that all employees can access including helplines, useful tips, articles, podcasts and even a free download of the Headspace app. We also offer meditation sessions and a wellbeing allowance of £300 a year that staff can spend on whatever makes them feel better.

“We have evolved Thoughtful Working into a thoughtful culture with wellness at the heart of it. We proactively plan our activities around the six dimensions of wellbeing: emotional, emotional, work, intellectual, physical, and spiritual.”

How freelancers support themselves

Cheryl Morris, owner of PR and content writing service Creative Word PR: “Working as a freelancer, it can be very isolating which can be hard on your mental health as we are naturally social beings. I think it is really important to build up a good network of support around you through networking, like-minded businesses and associates which help to ground you and offer a sounding board.

“It is also important to know when to switch off. The pandemic brought homeworking to the nation, and it can be all consuming if you don’t manage it well. Having good quality down time with family and friends means that you are energised and focused to deliver the very best for every client.

“Taking time to relax and exercise, for me it is running, helps to prevent burn out and keep you working at optimum levels.

“But most of all enjoy what you do and do it well. There is nothing better for your mental health than being inspired and driven by what you do every day so make sure you take time to focus on what counts and pause to recognise the positives in your work.”

Cath Shuttlewood, freelance PR director at SY1 Consulting: "Each weekday, I run 6-7km as soon as I wake up and it's become a non-negotiable part of my work routine. I find that whilst I mull over the day ahead, I don't stress about what's on the agenda as right then, in that moment, there's nothing I can do about it, one way or the other. By the time I'm sat at my desk later on, I'm well on my way to my 10,000 steps, I've achieved something and I feel much better prepared to tackle what lays ahead. I also try to nip out for a quick walk at lunchtime and again, this gives me the headspace to digest how the day is going and have some all important time away from my inbox."

Elma Glasgow: “Here is how I have supported myself:

  • Asked family and friends for practical and emotional support.
  • Found counselling through a mental health charity.
  • Took part in online webinars and networking groups.
  • Spent time my garden, growing vegetables.
  • Rested when I needed time out.
  • Walked on the nearby beach.
  • Indulged in favourite box sets.
  • Meditated.
  • Reminded myself I’d overcome challenges before, and I can do it again.”

Mental health research

Brittany Atkins, UK&I country lead at creative business software firm Streamtime, discusses research findings into mental health in PR and invites you to get involved in current research: “Though the past two years have brought mental health in our industry under the spotlight, high levels of depression and anxiety were sadly reported long before Covid-19. The change group, Mentally Healthy, reported just a minor increase in depression from 56% to 58%

“Mentally Healthy's research also reported that over 95% of people in our industry believe 'more empathetic leaders' would have the biggest impact on improving their mental wellbeing at work.

“Empathy is more than a trait, it's also a skill that needs developing, meaning we need to provide education and not expect ourselves or others to just get it right. Different Shoes is a research project to understand perspectives on empathy, how it's experienced (or not) at work, and the benefits to not only our mental wellbeing, but also the output of our work. To help our industry to understand empathy better, take the survey here.

PR is a rewarding profession, but it is important to put your own mental health first. As Francis Ingham, PRCA director general, says in the Workplace Mental Wellbeing Audit: “You shouldn’t feel guilty because you’re feeling unwell. You definitely should talk about the issue. We need to take better care of ourselves, and for many, that’s about workload.” So first step, always make sure you take some time out and take a look at the PRCA's Mental Health Toolkit.

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