As the CIPR claims the PR industry is facing a mental health epidemic, I look at what’s causing us to be so stressed and what we can do about it.
CIPR’s State of the Profession 2018/19 revealed that 63% of practitioners rated the stressfulness of their job as 7 or more out of 10. That’s a lot of stress for a lot of people.
Our industry is fast-paced by its very nature and stress is an inevitable part of our role. In fact, many people are drawn to the buzz of chasing a media enquiry, dealing with a crisis situation or getting senior spokespeople prepared for a live broadcast. It’s an amazing feeling when you pull it off.
Prolonged pressure, however, is not good. Stress is a natural response to pressure and spurs us into taking action and staying safe. But, our bodies can only take so much of its cortisol and adrenaline cocktail before succumbing to physical ailments (headaches, insomnia, upset stomach) and, sometimes, serious mental health issues.
So, what’s causing our stress?
Of those surveyed by CIPR, the top five drivers of stress were:
- Heavy and unmanageable workloads (59%)
- Unrealistic deadlines or expectations from colleagues (46%) or clients (32%)
- Unsociable hours and ‘always on’ culture (32%)
- Conflicting responsibilities (28%)
- Lack of clarity of role (27%)
Sound familiar? You have a huge workload that you can’t prioritise because of your myriad of competing priorities. Your colleagues or clients set the bar too high and the deadline too short. You have to respond to social media posts, media enquiries, and emails from those same colleagues and clients after you’ve left the office and while you’re still in your PJs the following morning. And, you have to push back the array of random jobs and corporate curiosities that come your way because no one knows where else they should go. Surely the communications team will pick them up, right?
It’s easy to see why this level of stress affects PR practitioners’ long-term health. 23% of those surveyed by CIPR said they had taken time off work because of stress, anxiety or depression and 53% said stress highly contributed to an existing mental health condition.
While 54% of practitioners said their workplaces had a mental health policy, only 53% have discussed their mental health with a manager. Of those, 23% said nothing happened as a result.
This doesn’t create a positive picture. CIPR says:
“The results point to a profession which is not only stressful to work in, but fails to provide support to those living with a mental health condition. The data also suggests public relations plays an active role in damaging the mental health of practitioners.”
So, what can we do?
Firstly, we probably all know that the secret to reducing our workloads and finally getting the clarity we crave on priorities and responsibilities is to make our business leaders and clients more strategic. Clear communication strategies will enable us to better plan our workloads and give us the capacity we need to handle the reactive stuff when it hits.
And, there’s also properly resourced teams that are paid salaries that reflect their level of responsibility and expertise.
But, that’s the Holy Grail: the elusive strategic, fully resourced communications team jackpot that isn’t going to appear overnight.
And, it’s not what I think we should be looking at right now on this current conversation about mental health. (Consider strategic communications parked for another day/crusade.)
What we should consider is how we, as individual practitioners, team, business or client managers, and thought leaders, can each make a contribution to turn the tide on stress in our sector.
There are three things we can do as individuals to combat stress in the PR industry:
1. Talk about it
We need to take the sting out of the stigma by talking to each other about how we’re really feeling. Whether you’re overwhelmed by a project, drowning under your workload or don’t have the brain capacity to solve an urgent problem, talking about that state of mind can be the first step to dealing with it.
There is no shame in feeling stressed or like you can’t cope with your role. I’ve certainly felt like that before and have days now when I don’t feel that I can deal with my professional responsibilities. At my worst, I was prescribed beta blockers to manage my rising blood pressure while my stress manifest itself in rashes, blotches and hives over my body and face. I couldn’t sleep and wasn’t eating well – and I was definitely drinking too much.
I talked to friends and family but it would have helped to discuss this with other practitioners who knew the perils of the job and why it’s not as easy as just saying no to the next piece of work.
2. Set your stress threshold
Knowing how much you can handle without putting your mental health at risk is really important.
Set your individual stress threshold by thinking about what triggers your stress and what techniques help to relieve it. You might not be able to remove the root cause of the stress but if you listen to your mind and body you’ll know when the pressure is becoming too much and what you need to do to reduce it.
For me, stress is increased when I feel out of control or unable to impact a situation. Once I understood that, I could identify the patterns that were leading me to a stressful episode. How do I combat it? I concentrate on the things that I can control and that I can impact and focus my energy and attention on those.
I’m aware we can’t all walk away from stress every time it appears, especially if you run your own business or have urgent deadlines to meet. But this is about listening to yourself so you can recognise when you’re getting into trouble and can take the necessary steps to reduce/avoid/eliminate it.
3. Kill the cult of ‘busy’
Since I read Tony Crabbe’s wonderful book Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much I’ve been at war with the concept of ‘busy’.
We live in a culture where being too busy to see your friends and family is a sign of success. Where having a side hustle is mandatory and a social media following of less than a trillion is scorned. Where you have to be seen at every event, in every networking group and speaking at every conference to stay relevant. And then there’s the guest blogs, the LinkedIn articles, the Twitter chats, the YouTube videos and the Instagram stories to show the world just how busy we really are.
It’s exhausting and it needs to stop.
In the aforementioned wonderful book, Crabbe says:
“Succeeding in a world of too much is not about producing ‘more’; in fact, it is about doing less, better and with more impact. It’s about focusing on fewer, bigger things with enormous energy.”
Yes, Tony! Hallelujah!
To fight that ‘always on’ culture of our industry, we need to take time out to do the things we enjoy and allow our brains time to reset.
We can’t – and probably shouldn’t – have it all and need to stop pretending that trying to get it isn’t completely knackering. On EIizabeth Day’s ‘How to Fail’ podcast, Cosmopolitan editor Farrah Storr talks about choosing not to have children because she didn’t want them enough to comprise the other great things in her life. She knew she could have pursued motherhood and found a way to fit it into her thriving career but she didn’t want to add something else into the already full life she had. Instead, she’s comfortable with “having it all-ish”. And so am I.
Busy is not a badge of honour or a sign of success and we need to stop promoting it as such. Pick the things that bring you the most joy or biggest reward and focus on doing them really, really well. And allow yourself to have a break the rest of the time.
These aren’t groundbreaking or new insights. But, I think by talking more, setting our own personal limits and stopping seeing busy as something to strive for, we’ll begin to develop an antidote to the stress epidemic we’re working in.