ITL #233 It’s good to talk: addressing mental health in the workplace

5 years, 3 months ago

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The PR industry globally needs to do more to tackle the issues of stress and mental ill health in the workplace. By Sabine Raabe.



I read with interest my Australian colleague Nicky James’ article on burn-out and stress in the PR industry. 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.

According to the PRCA, 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.  

Visibility and scrutiny

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.

Let’s not forget also our Public Affairs colleagues who walk in the shadows of the system.  Lobbying and Public Affairs are perceived as the devil’s work by those who do not understand its valid place in influencing public policy.  

However, this is a debate in its own right for another day…  This piece is to highlight the fact that our profession is highly stressful and should take an exemplary lead in providing sound advice and guidance on mental health in the workplace.

No one gets a job in PR looking for a quiet life.  It is a real thrill to be at the centre of a developing story. A bit of stress is good for us – energising and sharpening our cognitive functions.  But what happens when stress overtakes the enjoyable element for those in PR? When it starts to feel that everything is crushing you?

More to life

After suffering a devastating break-down a couple of years ago, I was forced to evaluate my lifestyle and that included my career.  It is no secret that many leave our profession to pursue a quieter life, most recently Weber Shandwick’s CEO  Colin Byrne who 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.

There are some great strides being made in the UK, with even a specialist counselling service for communications professionals set up and some high-profile influencers championing the cause.  The PRCA and FutureProof published a report Exploring Mental Health within the Public Relations Profession with recommendations for employers and managers.

  • The cost of mental health to public relations and the broader business community is well known. Make mental health and wellbeing a management issue within your management team.
  • Company policies and procedures should cover sickness due to mental health. Provide clear signposting and training to all employees and managers on policies and procedures.
  • Where resources do not exist within an organisation, access external support such as the resources listed in this report. Small organisations should consider retaining specialised support.

These recommendations should be adopted across the board, but recommendations are just that.  In PR and its other functions, mental health is not given the attention it deserves.  It represents an issue that agencies see as a real risk in terms of reputation, client perception and potential legal liabilities.  

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, i.e. our people.  

A high cost

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” as of 15 February 2016.  

“Removing the stigma around the issue of mental health in the workplace will have the single biggest impact on positive outcomes.” is the advice of 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 help normalise the topic?  We need to raise awareness also of the early warning signs individuals should be looking out for to prevent mental health deterioration.  

The pervasive nature of communications these days has changed the goalposts and calls for some frank conversation within the industry.  We have the opportunity to champion mental health positively and constructively, leading by good example.  This starts with acknowledging the problem as a sign of the times that needs to be solved by the industry as a whole.


I am keen to hear the thoughts of practitioners across the globe on what could and should be done. IPRA’s LinkedIn Group would be the ideal forum in which to begin the debate. If there is sufficient interest and momentum, perhaps IPRA could be prevailed upon to launch an initiative of its own to address workplace stress and mental ill health within the sector.


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The Author

Sabine Raabe

Sabine Raabe is the Founder of Biscuit PR. She has worked on national and international headline-making campaigns around alternative energy, finance, transport, environmental issues, disruptive technologies, consumer rights and high profile legal cases.

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