As an issue mental health has been on the radar for the communications industry for some time. In truth we haven’t responded quickly enough to the risks it poses to us. But it feels like changes are taking place and that’s something we should all embrace.
by Leanne Ehren
I am not a mental health expert. I’m putting that out there, front and centre. I am just one comms person, trying to give a voice to the mental health challenges we face in our industry after having my own eyes opened wide to this negative stigma.
So, why did I decide to raise the flag? It all started earlier this year (2018) when I was approached to speak at a super event known as the Granicus Summit UK. When the organisers went through the line up of best practice, awesome campaigns, crisis tactics, I felt like there was only one thing I could talk honestly about. One thing that I had really learned over the past year that was absolutely imperative to good comms – but also was the one thing I had rarely heard being discussed openly: the mental health of comms professionals.
I bet you’ve written about it – mental health that is. Been asked to develop and deliver a campaign even tackling the stigma; a news release about your organisation signing a mental health pledge or pictures of staff undertaking mental health training. So we can talk about mental health, write about it. But when it comes to telling our story, the story of the communications industry and some of the negative impact it’s having on our mental health, we seem pretty tongue tied.
So, for World Mental Health Day this year (October 10), I’m trying to tell a very different kind of story; my story and hopefully, our story.
About one year ago, I was diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Like dozens of other colleagues, I was part of the many teams of people managing the aftermath Manchester Arena terror attack.
But we’re all different, and apparently, guilt is a real thing. It was for me; the guilt I had that I couldn’t do more, that we were working so hard but still couldn’t make things better, the guilt of going home when all you wanted to do was stay, the guilt that then six weeks later I had a new job opportunity and had to leave my team in, frankly, a slightly broken state.
It wasn’t until three months later, one day having a shower of all things, I started uncontrollably crying, continually seeing the faces of my colleagues who had gone through so much in such tragic circumstances. This wasn’t me. I was a strong, resilient, loud, bubbly, determined, a happy person – normally. I should be able to control this, deal with this, suck it up and just crack on. That’s not what happened.
I was so lucky to get the help and support I needed to learn about mental health, understand what PTSD was and develop ways to overcome my challenges and return to the person I’m most happiest being. And the beauty of mental health, like any injury, is that you can manage it, and that’s what I’ve been able to do.
While this was my first battle with my own mental health, I became intrigued and have learned I’m not the only one as the CIPR State of Profession report from this year highlights: about one in six PR professionals (16 per cent) report living with a mental health condition – an increase of 10 per cent from last year’s research.
A study for PRCA also found mental health in comms people is repeatedly ignored. Tragic.
So this is me, speaking for all those people I’ve chatted to in the past year, who maybe feel they can’t stand up right now and share their story quite yet.
I started listening to the stories of comms people and how the world we work in, can make them feel. These are some of their words:
“There’s a stigma – I didn’t want to say I felt stressed because comms people are can-do people. We’re the fixers.”
“I find it really hard to separate my work and my personal life online. It’s like I’m permanently switched on.”
“I bottled everything up until I exploded. I knew it wasn’t healthy, but everyone always expects comms to be the happy people!”
“We’re the first line of defence. All the trolls, all the negative comments about what the council isn’t doing; all of that, my team sees first on social media. I guess you become a bit immune to it all, but there are a few we’ve taken really personally and they can just hang over you. I think we then carry a lot of guilt.”
“There’s no out of hours rota but what’s expected of us is so full on. And worst of all, if something contentious that a councillor has spotted isn’t responded to over the weekend, we get blamed. We know it’s not fair but it’s just how it is. You feel the pressure, do it after work, then it’s hard to switch off.”
“My boss set up a competition in the team for social media: whose content would get the most engagement each week. It was meant to be motivational but it actually became harmful. People would be on the accounts out of hours, responding and making sure they were doing everything they could to get engagement up. It was only one Friday night at 7pm when I was in the office obsessed with the challenge, when I should have been up the pub, that I realised this whole situation was not a good thing.”
“Public sector comms is always under scrutiny – therefore it’s constantly changing. It puts a lot of pressure on us and we have to be resilient. That can take its toll after a few rounds of it.”
“I’d dealt with much worse, so many times before. But for some reason, that case really got to me. I just sobbed and sobbed the whole way home. Reading words can be extremely powerful.”
“The symptoms I went to the doctor with were physical – a skin rash. But it was only when we sat down and started talking and I told her all what I’d been dealing with at work, she was the one who said it wasn’t just my skin that needed treating, but my mental health needed looking after.”
“Everyone is being asked to do more with less. Some days I feel like I will never get to the end of my to-do list and that makes me anxious. But I just want to make sure everything gets done so I do work long hours.”
“We see some pretty horrific stuff working in blue light services and don’t get me wrong, we can access welfare like the frontline officers, but the difference is, people across the organisation don’t realise what you’ve been dealing with. You might have just been to the scene of a horrible incident overnight on-call and then the next morning you come in and deal with branding issues on a poster. The horrible stuff just gets forgotten about because “comms” is thought of as fluffy. It’s not and this stuff can really hang over you.”
“Comms isn’t getting the recognition for how 24/7 and “on” we are, all the time.”
Do any of these resonate with you? After hearing these, so many of you nodded your head, smirked, or found yourself embarrassingly echoing the calls of other people in our industry.
“But it’s just the way it is, isn’t it?” No. No, it’s not. It shouldn’t be, and it doesn’t have to be. Our mental health is no more, but equally no less important than that of any other employee in the workplace, but we do face different challenges.
It’s great we’re talking about mental health but there is a stigma. Still. I’ve faced that stigma head on.
No one is expected to be superman – or woman – there is no 24/7 resilience in one individual. We’ve seen that when expert comms teams lean on each other and on mutual aid during major incidents and times of crisis.
Your organisation has a legal obligation under the Health and Safety at Work Act for your mental health. Risk assessments have to be done to make sure you are OK. It really is a shame that some organisations don’t do this. It’s also a real shame that some leaders allow their teams to break – mentally and often physically – before bringing in a temporary fix.
But there are contributing factors to poor mental health that seem prevalent in the comms industry:
Our 24/7 online world
Mobile devices muddying the waters
Long hours, deadline driven
Doing more with less
Lack of respect and understanding for comms profession
Don’t forget on top of these, we have normal stressers as well, such as relationships, financial pressures and just general life.
However, there is some great stuff going on in organisations out there. These are some of the things you’ve told me is going on:
Wellbeing walks, meditation, wellness sessions and activities during core hours
Managers encouraged to log time spent on staff wellbeing activities
Banning lunchtime meetings and out of hours emails (when not business critical)
Encouraging staff to work, create and deliver off-site
Specialist networking groups; single-sex, LGBTQ+, mental health groups
Staff subscriptions to meditation apps
Talks and training by mental health specialists and speakers
And as individuals you’ve given some brill tips:
Talking to people helps
Having one or two reliable buddies in the workplace you go to when you feel pressure is building , to coach you through a tough day
A safe space to go and switch off
If you’re leading a meeting, checking with people at the start how they are – accept that maybe our colleagues aren’t firing on all cylinders.
Addressing out of hours issues and pressures to be “on” through peer-led discussions
Getting work tech to help separate work/personal; doing this by sourcing business cases from other organisations who are successfully running a model you want to adopt
Regular team building efforts to bring comms together – and keep us there
Finally, we must drive this if we want things to change for our profession. The challenge of having difficult conversations with bosses who are just used to you managing every social media enquiry out of hours (with no additional pay); who are used to you just turning up for the 11th day on the trot without needing some time off; who are used to you undeniably putting your work and the organisation in front of everything else you do. It’s hard, I know that, so we must encourage a culture of change and tell our leaders what they can do to support us in being healthy, happy and productive people.
Someone always has to be the first – why shouldn’t it be you? As communicators, we are storytellers and I think it’s about time we started telling our story of mental health – do you?
Leanne Ehren is the communication and stakeholder engagement manager at London Stansted Airport.
CIPR East Anglia is running a wellbeing in comms event next week: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/wellbeing-and-mental-health-in-communications-tickets-50638439937
For the full videos of the speakers at Granicus Summit UK: https://uk.granicus.com/uksummit18/
And think about Comms Unplugged 2019 which dedicates a large chunk of the event to tackling wellbeing issues.
Image via LSE Library