Mental health is a public sector comms issue

One in four experience mental illness each year, but more than half of communications professionals are more afraid to speak up about mental than physical health?

Mental health is a public sector comms issue, argues Ashley Toon
Mental health is a public sector comms issue, argues Ashley Toon

Us comms professionals love nothing more than a decent conversation, so why are 57 per cent of us more afraid to speak up about our mental health than our physical health.

Despite mental illness being better understood, both medically and socially, the prejudice and stigma attached to certain conditions remains rife.

Also see: Mental illness in PR ignored or treated as a performance issue, says new report

As many as 16 per cent of adults in England still believe that someone with a history of mental problems should be excluded from taking public office, for instance.

Consequently, as PR people who tend to speak more about others rather than ourselves, we keep our feelings and emotions under wraps in embarrassment that we’ll appear weak or that we’re failing.

In the increasingly demanding environment of the public sector, targets, objectives and deadlines are a daily occurrence.

Efficiency savings continue to strip back-office functions to the bare bones, increasing the risk of isolation.

Comms teams are not immune to these issues. Those of us who remain are under greater pressure than ever.

PR is one of the only organisational functions with a 'boundary spanning' characteristic and in large, highly regulated public sector organisations this means there’s a vast amount of people to keep happy and informed.

Boundary spanning is a gifted role, but similarly can be a stressful task, no more so than when balancing risk and sharing sensitive corporate information internally and externally.

We’re well aware that honest, two-way communication is the ideal method for interacting.

Yet, when battling with a lengthy ‘to do’ list, many competing priorities, and the increasing expectation to respond to social media activity around the clock at pace; this complex combination can test even the best practitioners and lead us to make mistakes, causing additional stress.

As individuals we have to take a step back to understand how these challenges are impacting on our job satisfaction and wellbeing.

And as communicators, we have a privileged role to play in cultivating a culture of openness within our workplace so that colleagues, and ourselves, feel able to speak freely about mental illness in a safe environment.

The more mental health is spoken about, the more acceptable it becomes.

Under UK law, organisations have a ‘duty of care’ to protect their workforce’s health, safety and welfare.
And what better opportunity is there as PR practitioners to normalise the emotional support available to ourselves and colleagues?

Likewise, we need to shout about the early warning signs that individuals should be looking out for to prevent mental health deterioration and, as a result, breaking down stigmas and barriers and creating a healthier and more productive workforce that has strong employee relations.

However, ultimately, if mental health is to be taken seriously in the workplace it’s not just a PR issue – it’s an organisational-wide issue that needs to be recognised and supported from top to bottom and within all policies and procedures, including the sickness policy.

Organisations can also demonstrate their commitment by signing the ‘Time to Change’ pledge and becoming a ‘Mindful Employer’, sending a clear message of intent to employees and stakeholders.

Ashley Toon is communications officer at Derbyshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust

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