Mental ill-health: It's time for us to grow up and talk about this problem in PR

When I read the PR Week/PRCA survey on Mental Wellbeing, I did so with a sense of relief.

Dan Kent: the characteristics that make PRs effective are also their Achilles heel
Dan Kent: the characteristics that make PRs effective are also their Achilles heel

Our industry is finally acknowledging the dirty little secret that lives beneath the newspapers and Starbuck’s cups. Whisper it, but PR people are vulnerable human beings and sometimes need support and help from colleagues and managers. Go figure…

The survey found that a third of people in PR have had mental health issues during their career – higher than the national average. This is no surprise because the success of the industry is built on Type A personalities. 

You just might know one or two people who fit the description of a Type A: determined, competitive, dedicated individuals who go above and beyond to get the job done on deadline (always) and on budget (mostly) no matter how unreasonable the request. 

I expect I’ve just described 90 per cent of your colleagues (and you’re probably wondering whether the other 10 per cent are ‘right’ for PR anyway). 

Type As make it happen. They make the company look good and they work hard. But here’s the not very surprising punch line: Type As are more prone to anxiety, stress and depression than more relaxed B and C personality types. 

The characteristics that make PR consultants great at their jobs are the same traits that put them at higher risk of mental illness.

Now, we won’t change the way the industry works anytime soon. If anything, the pressure will keep rising. So what can we do? 

We need start by squashing the lie that mental illness is a sign of weakness or something embarrassing. It is a response to stimulus, it can affect anyone and hard-working, perfectionist, Type A personalities are naturally prone. 

Second, companies and managers need to start talking openly about mental wellbeing and creating an environment that helps staff recognise the symptoms. The sooner these are spotted and addressed, the less impact they have. 

Stress and anxiety thrive on fear and isolation. We need to look for signs of mental illness and deal compassionately with them. If people do get signed off they should feel like they can return to work without stigma. Right now, we are a long way from that point, but it's a good thing to aim for. 

Finally, let’s have grown up conversations. There is an unspoken rule that we don’t ask for deadline extensions but maybe sometimes it’s OK. Urgent is a word so overused it has become meaningless, so why not pressure-test it? Most people will accept deadline extensions if there is a good reason or if trust exists. Easing the pressure once in a while can make a big difference to mental wellbeing.

The shiny Type A personalities all around you make this industry tick. Let’s start acknowledging and accepting that they need support in their mental wellbeing as well as career development. I’m not talking grand gestures, just compassion and flexibility. 

Try it. I guarantee your business will survive. Who knows, it might even do better…  

Daniel Kent is senior partner and head of healthcare at FleishmanHillard London and a qualified psychotherapist with his own practice

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