It’s Good to Talk

By Sabine Raabe

Considering Public Relations ranked as the sixth most stressful job in 2016, it seems the profession is remarkably bad at talking about mental health.

Perhaps it is the PR practitioner’s instinct to manage bad news that prevents us from revealing the true extent of the problem.  After all, communications professionals are ideally placed to spark the conversation around mental health.

In the UK, the two major professional PR bodies have carried out research and published figures on the incidence of and attitudes towards mental health. In 2015 the verdict from the PRCA was that the industry is not doing enough to tackle a problem that appears to be getting worse rather than better and the CIPR’s 2016 Annual State of the Profession Survey revealed that 30% of respondents consider themselves unhappy or extremely unhappy in their workplace.

One third of practitioners suffered mental ill health and cited stress, pressure from clients, levels of support from management, workload and career progression as issues. Some of the frequently-listed mental health issues that have been experienced by respondents include depression, anxiety, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Without doubt, Public Relations is stressful because everything we do is highly visible and open to scrutiny.  These days it is not only the media we need to worry about, but the general public at large via social media and the internet.

We must keep everyone calm in a crisis and provide counsel that could make or break a client.  The higher up we work, the greater the burden we carry on behalf of our clients who are ultimately responsible to shareholders or public stakeholders.

After suffering a devastating break-down a couple of years ago, I was forced to evaluate my lifestyle, including my career. It is no secret that many leave our profession to pursue a quieter life, most recently Weber Shandwick’s CEO  Colin Byrne stepped down to study creative writing citing that ‘there is more to life’. The 2016 PRCA Census reported that 12% of those in public relations changing their job opted to leave the industry completely for a new career. The overall level of staff turnover within the public relations industry is around 25% per year.

Prevention is always better than cure and rather than maintaining a façade of perfect professionalism, it is high time mental health is accepted as an issue that needs addressing in the PR industry. As the saying goes – it’s good to talk.

This topic deserves serious food for thought to find ways around the paradox of being in a position to speak sensitively and eloquently about mental health, whilst instinctively being tuned to manage risks and reputations. I understand the business imperatives of running a PR agency and therefore know it is in our best interest to protect the very resource that generates the income, ie our people.

There are no industry specific statistics available, but twelve billion working days are lost every year to stress and depression at a cost of more than £650 billion to the world’s economy.  According to the Department of Health “the cost of mental ill health to the UK economy, the NHS and society as a whole is £105 billion a year”.

“Removing the stigma around the issue of mental health in the workplace will have the single biggest impact on positive outcomes.” – says Stephen Waddington, partner and chief engagement officer at Ketchum.  We need to lead by example; we must acknowledge, encourage and champion people at all levels across the industry, and within our own organisations, to talk about their experiences and issues with mental health honestly and openly, without fear of professional repercussion.

The more mental health is spoken about, the more acceptable it becomes.  And what better opportunity is there as PR practitioners to normalise the topic. The pervasive nature of communications these days has changed the goalposts and calls for some candid conversation within the industry.  We have the opportunity to champion the cause positively and constructively, leading by good example.

Picture credit: Søren Astrup Jørgensen

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