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Senior comms leaders feel lonely at the top claims research into mental health in PR

A survey has found that 39% of senior comms practitioners are less than communicative when it comes to talking about their feelings at work. Communications professionals cite leadership responsibilities as one of the reasons for putting on a brave face when they are actually feeling anything but courageous. Others say that talking about your feelings is not the done thing. Instead, they draw on skills of self-sufficiency and resilience to stay focused on their work.

Feelings are hidden

The Communications Index Pulse developed by The Pulse Business in partnership with executive search firm Whitney Murray, was conducted in the last week of April 2021. One director working in the professional services sector explains why speaking up is challenging: “Everyone is experiencing problems of some kind. It's my job to stay positive and for colleagues to know they can rely on me. I am vulnerable about my feelings at times but I don't discuss them.”

Some say it's lonely at the top. How often do you talk about your feelings at work?

Leaders set an example

Another senior freelance practitioner is more direct, suggesting that comms leaders should step up and be role models for managing mental health and wellbeing in the workplace: “To nurture a work culture where mental health and emotional triggers can be discussed in a free and progressive manner, senior leaders need to lead by example.”

A director working in the financial sector says: “I think if those at the top do [talk about their feelings], it gives permission for all others in the organisation to follow suit.”

As we adapt to a more complicated future, how stressed do you feel right now?

Dealing with stress

The Communications Index Pulse found that around two thirds (64%) confessed to feeling stressed right now with just under a third (28%) claiming to have lower stress levels.

A senior director working in online retail says that to safeguard sanity: “We need to look at what is within our control and what is not.” Another senior consultant adds: “Stress is natural, but [it] impacts productivity, so my coping mechanism is to mitigate stress as soon as I feel it coming on.”

While also dealing with all the challenges the pandemic has thrown up, one in-house head of corporate comms says: “Everyone is at a different level of stress - in dealing with the stress of not only my team but other senior leaders and the wider organisation, I am often the one having to 'take things on' rather than others. The level of support for senior leaders in comms is very low."

As we adapt to a more complicated future, how stressed do you feel right now?

Staff motivation

The Pulse results also show that the biggest headaches for comms leaders come from keeping staff motivated (29%) and managing their team’s mental health and wellbeing (31%). Others cite the need to ensure a good level of personal development for everyone along with helping team’s grapple with today’s modern technology solutions that have replaced the pre-Covid ways of working. Deborah Oliver, master of the Company of Communicators, sums up: “It appears we have been overlooking the needs of our senior comms leaders in an industry renowned for understanding the craft of communication. The suggestion that some of our senior practitioners are reluctant to speak up because they don’t want to let the side down is concerning. No one is super human and if there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it is that we all need support and nurturing, no matter how experienced we are.”

Imogen Osborne, owner of The Pulse Business, says: “What is startling is how many senior leaders seem to accept their feelings should be kept under wraps because of the leadership position they hold. The picture in-house is particularly grim. How is this impacting global teams particularly in countries that are at different stages of lockdown? The answer must surely be considerable. And it appears there is no immediate silver bullet to change the status quo.”

Rebecca Whitney, managing director of Whitney Murray, comments: “We work with a wide range of senior comms professionals across different industry sectors and all of them hold down extremely demanding roles. It may be progressive talk but if we care about supporting our leaders as much as we care about supporting our teams, then surely the outcome will be happier leaders motivating even happier teams.”


The results come from an online three-question Pulse survey running from 22-29 April 2021. Sample size: 1,100 senior communications leaders in both in-house and agency MD positions.

Written by Deborah Oliver, master at The Company of Communicators

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