PR and communications can be a hugely stressful job. On World Mental Health Day, the National Union of Journalists' PR and communications co-chair talks about positive steps you can take.
by Philip Morcom
Working in communications in the public and not for profit sector can be immensely rewarding. We can be supporting behaviour change to save lives through improving fire safety or improving health. We can be encouraging more foster parents, bringing into being new families and opportunities. We can be helping citizens find out the stuff they really need when times are tough – or even when they just want to go and enjoy themselves.
There’s so much we do in and our audience is so huge and varied we get a chance to use a wide range of skills, knowledge and ideas trying to communicate effectively. It is what can help our jobs be really fulfilling.
But – and you guessed there was a ‘but’ coming, didn’t you – when times are tough, teams are shrinking and resources are tight, we’re often seen both as an easy target for savings and the people who can use a magic comms wand to turn bad news into something more positive. As others have pointed out here, hours worked get longer, expectations expand and, if we’re not careful, extra things done through good will become the accepted norm.
That can put a significant strain on teams and individuals. It can be hellish for managers who care about their staff and caught between demands for cuts and more outputs. For everyone there is uncertainty, workload pressure and it becomes harder to see opportunities for career progression or even to deliver work professionally. I know the private sector often faces this too.
In this environment it is no wonder mental health is becoming an increasingly important issue. It is social issue and an industry issue – as the recent PRCA report demonstrated. As Stephen Waddington’s blog points out:
“30% of respondents in the 2016 CIPR State of the Profession Survey state that they are ‘somewhat unhappy’ or ‘not at all happy’ when indicating their level of well-being in their jobs.
Nearly a third of UK staff persistently turn up to work ill and only 35% are generally healthy and present, according to the CIPD’s Absence Management Report.”
High profile figures like former journalist and Number 10 comms man Alistair Campbell are powerful mental health advocates, and the issue is being slowly de-stigmatised. The National Union of Journalists is very aware mental health is a notable problem across the industry – including the public relations and communications sector. The union’s public relations and communications council made the subject a priority last year and are using evidence to provide support to both individuals and organisations where they can help ensure mental health has the parity of esteem which means it is both de-stigmatised and given the same priority as physical health problems. As a union the NUJ can help members who are not being managed properly and need back up. With many communications professional working in small teams or as individuals within a bigger organisation which is focussed on other issues – from making widgets to delivering health care or education – the specific issues we face can be harder for managers to understand. It can also be harder to find someone to talk through challenges and pressures with.
Other organisations have also produced guidance. Forster worked with Public Health England to produce a guide for employers [pdf], which is helpful. It makes the simple – but often ignored – point that:
“Many of the factors that support workplace wellbeing are simply good management practices, including:
• Actively and transparently engaging and communicating with employees
• Preventing bullying and discrimination
• Ensuring your staff are able to use their skills and perform their work to the best of their abilities
Preventing bullying and discrimination
Work overload, job insecurity, poor career progression, poor quality of work and poor communication all have a strong negative influence on employee mental health.”
Look at that list. That last sentence. For so many public sector communicators I meet, that looks like every ingredient ready to stoke up a mental health fire is in place and ready to go!
What can we do?
Managers can use the guidance above to help inform procedures, policies and plans. As workers – as people - having a network where you can chat about the pressures you face and not feel that people will be judgemental can be a real help.
That is why belonging to formal and informal groups can be so helpful – from comms2point0 to a local union branch or informal links to people you meet through LinkedIn or Twitter – there’s often someone around who will be willing to lend a listening ear, share tips to alleviate pressures or who can signpost to more support.
So we all have a role. We can all do our bit to do away with mental health stigma, backing campaigns like the excellent TimeToChange, speaking up to make sure there are proper policies in the workplace, looking out for each other and – most importantly – being honest with ourselves if we’re experiencing symptoms and getting the help we need.
For me, planning for 2017’s health campaigns and reading the description that WHO had for this year’s World Health Day, was an eye-opener with lots of symptoms I could recognise. I’m glad so many organisations are now trying to be supportive of mental health. And I’m delighted that there’s ways for us all to get – and to offer – support to make things better. Let’s hope we can stop the stigma, support each other and make our profession a good example of positive mental health activity.
Philip Morcom is co-chair of the National Union of Journalists PR and communications.
Membership of the National Union of Journalists is open to journalists but also PR and communications in-house as well as freelance workers. The union can offer advice and take act on your behalf. Learn how to join here.
Picture credit: Smithsonian / Flickr