An industry stressed to kill

Substance abuse, adultery and health problems are the common results of an industry pushing too hard.

Ben Willmott: "Managers can either help prevent stress or cause it."
Ben Willmott: "Managers can either help prevent stress or cause it."

Heard the one about the teetotal agency director who is happily married, works a standard 40-hour week and takes 25 days’ holiday every year? Nope, neither have we.

The PR Census 2013 highlighted that 41 per cent of staff work between 49 and 79 hours per week, while in November, we covered hypervigilant staff afraid to step away from social media in case they miss something.

But these facts point to a darker side to working in the industry – the work hard, play hard ethos of big egos at the top of the tree too often creates an unforgiving business that is usually fuelled by drink and sometimes drugs, with a good measure of infidelity and promiscuity thrown in. The cliché that PR is all about Champagne, cocaine and shagging is closer to the truth than the industry is comfortable with.

One senior operator told us: "I would have to think hard to name more than a handful of agency bosses who have a happy married life. This is a really adulterous industry." This, he says, is partly because PRs are expected to work long hours and during annual leave. He adds: "When my mother died, my company called a day later to ask when I would be back on email."

Financial PR has a particularly bad reputation for wringing every last drop out of staff. Another director, who moved into financial PR from an investment bank, says problems stem from bosses trying to emulate the competitive mentality of a bank’s trading floor: "They make it a high-stress environment where there are massive egos at play, which can lead to conflict. I have seen people square up to each other in the office."

He attributes some of the problems to the responsibility thrust on young teams, with testosterone and bravado perhaps more at play than insight or experience: "I opened and ran an overseas office for six months when I was in my twenties. The nature of the work and lifestyle saw the breakdown of my marriage because I was always abroad. From a health perspective, I am still working through the consequences of my time there. You are encouraged to work yourself into the ground."

Now working for a large integrated agency with a dem­anding, but less agg­ressive, culture, he says there is more awareness of the effects too much stress and long hours can have on employees: "It is easy to take a less pressured approach when the economy is buoyant, but not so much when things are difficult. Equally, it is easier for a smaller independent agency to manage staff hours and stress than for a multinational working to tight margin constraints."

There is a significant body of research that links stress to mental health conditions and increased incidence of coronary heart disease. Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says: "A key issue is how much control or autonomy one has over work. Managers can either help prevent stress or cause it."

A female PR who now heads up in-house PR for a UK charity left her agency because she "wanted a life". She said the male boss running the London agency worked hard and expected his team to follow suit, with his teams regularly working until after 9pm for days on the trot: "I remember one time when we worked for 13 days in a row. We were never given time off in lieu or overtime. I think long, hard hours are an agency thing – a part of agency life that is accepted as the norm."

Francis Ingham, PRCA director-general, says the stories of long hours and stress are all too familiar to the PR industry: "PR has always been a long hours industry. But now, mobile technology has given agency chiefs (and sometimes clients) the expectation that their staff will be available at any hour of the day or night and this situation has accelerated over the past few years with the economic crisis. I don’t know what we, as an industry, can do about it." Recruiting more staff might seem like the obvious answer, but Ingham says agency bosses will be cautious of increasing costs.

But an in-house head of comms for a blue-chip company says it is important to put PR into context with other disciplines: "Every department works at least a half-day over the weekend – not just PR. The culture of 24-hour media means clients think they are entitled to insist their PRs are always on. The answer is for teams to reorganise how they work."

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