To mark mental health awareness week, PRWeek has published the results of a survey, carried out in partnership with the PRCA, looking into the rate of incidence and attitudes towards mental health in the PR and comms industry.
The survey follows another such review of the industry, carried out in February 2015, which found that a third of people in the industry had suffered from mental ill health and that industry employers and the industry itself was not properly equipped to respond.
There were 227 respondents to the 2017 mental health survey, who took part in an online poll between 27 April and 4 May.
Depression, stress and anxiety are common
The 2017 survey results, although derived from a smaller sample size, nonetheless paint a disturbing picture, with 59 per cent of respondents answering yes to the question "Have you ever suffered from or been diagnosed with mental ill health?".
This compares with 33 per cent who gave this answer in 2015.
Depression, stress and anxiety, or a combination of all three, were common among the comments left by respondents.
"Depression, stress and anxiety", wrote one respondent, while another described "stress-induced anxiety whilst in a head of PR role".
There were also other manifestations of mental ill health, including eating disorders, and one told the survey they had suffered over a long period of time before receiving a clinical diagnosis. They said: "After experiencing extensive depressive episodes between 2005 and 2015, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Type 2".
Another respondent directly attributed their condition to their place of work, telling the survey: "I have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder that is directly related to my work."
Majority won’t discuss mental health with line managers
But among those respondents who were suffering mental ill health, 54 per cent told the survey they would be either "not very comfortable" or "very uncomfortable" talking about it with their line manager, compared with 60 per cent in the 2015 survey.
One respondent wrote: "Don't want to sound like I can't handle the pressure of the job. Depression might be easier to talk about than anxiety."
I was forced to get rid of staff on performance issues when they had mental health illnesses and therefore I knew that the same would happen to me.A survey respondent
A recent Future PRoof report found that mental health was still being treated as a performance issue in many areas of the industry and one respondent to the 2017 survey made it clear that this was the case where they worked.
They said: "I was forced to get rid of staff on performance issues when they had mental health illnesses and therefore I knew that the same would happen to me".
More encouragingly, 53 per cent of respondents - although not happy to talk to their managers about their mental health – said they would feel very or fairly comfortable talking about it to a colleague.
Asked if their organisation had a formal mental health policy in place, a third of respondents said ‘no’ but, worryingly, 50 per cent said they did not know if there was a policy in place or not, with just 16 per cent answering ‘yes’ to this question.
Stress a key trigger for more mental health issues
Workplace stress is one of many trigger points for sufferers of depression and anxiety.
In 2015, 45 per cent of respondents said they were under more stress than the year before, with 30 per cent saying it was the same.
But in the 2017 survey, 50 per cent said they were under more pressure than last year, while 24 per cent said it was the same.
Some felt under less pressure, however, but it was often the case that they had to leave their job to achieve that.
I have moved to an in-house environment from an agency (where lunch breaks were frowned upon). In terms of stress levels, I would never go near an agency again.A survey respondent
One respondent wrote: "[I'm] in a better more supportive job - 12 months ago I was mentally unwell and got fired (yes, because of it)"; while another said: "Much less - primarily because I have moved to an in-house environment from an agency (where lunch breaks were frowned upon). In terms of stress levels, I would never go near an agency again."
As for what factors affect their mental health, respondents pointed to workload, long hours and workplace bullying among the triggers.
One wrote: "Lack of leadership, work overload, struggle to balance work and family, feelings of inadequacy and lack of confidence."
Few formal mental policies in place
Among those respondents who had management duties themselves, 35 per cent told the survey they felt equipped to help a member of staff regarding their mental health, but 34 per cent said they were not able to do this and 30 per cent said they did not know.
Employers were also asked if their organisation had a formal mental health policy. Only 10 per cent told the survey that they did have a policy, and just 2 per cent said their organisation had signed up to the Time For Change initiative, which aims to de-stigmatise mental health in the workplace.
And yet, when asked if they felt their organisation was supportive of staff suffering from mental ill health, 64 per cent said it was "very supportive" and 33 per cent said "fairly supportive", with only 3 per cent admitting it was "not very supportive".
Like many policies, it sits in a company folder and I think probably needs to be promoted/discussed internally.An employer respondent to the survey
And an overwhelming majority of employers told the survey they encouraged staff to talk to their line managers about their mental health.
One employer told the survey: "We have implemented flexible working policies to tackle mental health, and encourage our team to talk to each other about their mental health so that we can structure work to support each other."
However, another admitted: "Like many policies, it sits in a company folder and I think probably needs to be promoted/discussed internally."
How is mental health regarded across the industry?
But when employers were asked if they thought the industry was accepting of people with mental ill health, a clear majority of employers said it was not.
This view also chimed with the experience of employees who responded to the survey.
My experience of agency world is that [mental health] isn't acknowledged; dismissed as being weak, bad at your job.A respondent to the survey
One told the survey: "It's important not to generalise, but in an industry as fast-paced as PR, mental illnesses can often be seen as nothing more than somebody having a bad day at work or having too much on their plate. This is a very dangerous attitude."
Another said: "My experience of agency world is that it isn't acknowledged; dismissed as being weak, bad at your job."
Time for change?
The PRCA said it would be launching a mental health toolkit later this year, which would act as a guide on how to address the issue in the workplace and that mental health and employee wellbeing would also soon feature in its management standard hallmark scheme.
Commenting on the survey’s findings, PRCA director general Francis Ingham (above) said: "It has been over two years since we last surveyed the industry on mental health and the results will and should shock the industry. We are seeing stress and anxiety levels increase, which has clearly had a negative impact on our employees’ mental health. We know that managing mental health and employee wellbeing is a key business issue but it is also a clear moral issue. More organisations should treat employee wellbeing as a business priority."