Overwork in PR: An urgent call to avoid burnout and poor mental health

Tending to emails and pitches past working hours is a ‘given’ in the PR industry, so how do we shed this culture and move toward a more balanced, healthful future for young talent?


In light of World Mental Health Day on October 12, we ask the industry about a problem that deeply permeates agency culture: overwork. Any agency executive—whether client-facing or not—will lament tending to emails way past working hours and toiling in the office to meet client-imposed deadlines.

To understand how to combat it, we first ask industry leaders why overwork has become a 'given' in this region.

"Overwork is a function of time," says Niharica Sand, HR lead at Redhill. "In any client servicing and consulting role, time is dictated by the clients. We are here to service our clients and ensure their success, and in doing that, their work ends up taking priority."

Clear expectations are also not set between the management (contract signers) and client representatives. This often results in over-promising and an eventual scramble to meet those promises, says Sand. The PR industry is filled with boutique and small agencies who are in survival mode at all times. And in these cases, agency leaders may need to stand out from their competition by over-servicing.

"There's no getting away from the nature of our business—we don't have a 9-5 job," says Jane Morgan, managing director at Golin Hong Kong. "Specifically, in either a crisis or a launch situation, or when pitching new business, there are many unknowns which can sometimes lead to increased hours. We've all been there and very often these are the moments we grow as consultants. That said, overtime and overwork shouldn't be an ongoing issue or the norm."

Morgan adds that overwork tends to occur because of incorrect resourcing, scope creep or a disconnect between agreed fee and scope. Client leads, she says, should be empowered to have an open and honest conversation with clients about ways of working and respect for time.

Some of this could also be cultural. Pattanee Jeeriphab, CCO at Vero, says there is a long tradition in Asian culture where hard work is valued as the surest path to success. But these cultural perceptions could be "taken to extremes" and can drain agency folk, resulting in poor mental health.

Sand concurs: "Looking at Asian culture we see that overwork is due to fluid cut-off lines, or undefined work-life mix. Countries in Europe, for example, have very strict switch-off times. The clients themselves switch off and don't expect their counterparts in agencies to be available on their beck and call."

She adds that this culture of distinguishing one's 'professional' from 'personal' life is sadly still not a popular notion in Asia.

"My personal view is that this stems from Asian culture, where we go out of our way to please our parents, seniors, or managers. This then leads to overwork as people get stuck in that mindset of always being of service," she says.

Covid: A problem on top of a problem

The pandemic has undoubtedly had an impact on overwork in the region with everyone facing different sets of challenges—whether it's the blurring between personal and professional life, childcare or lack of resources or space at home. Amit Misra, South Asia CEO at MSL, says that a lot more needs to be done about working from home and overwork if we're in this arrangement for the long haul.

"[Covid] has disrupted engagement rhythms, leading to stretched hours which can be largely avoided. Working remotely has also made it difficult for us to disengage from work as we are always online, on one device or the other," he says.

Golin's Morgan says that the expectation of being constantly online while working from home brings along a unique challenge for staff.

"In the beginning of the pandemic we used to see emails flying in constantly; it became apparent there was a sense of wanting to be seen to be online, as if being out of sight meant value was questioned," she says.

"Some of our team members were consistently working through lunch and late at night. The leadership team led by example and stopped sending lunchtime emails, we encouraged everyone to take breaks and we introduced the hashtag #DFTD (Done For The Day) to encourage shutting down at a reasonable hour."

Redhill's Sand says that when physical and face-to-face routines are taken out of the equation, it could actually lead to staff feeling disillusioned. "As professionals we are all always stretched for time. We are planning our travel to and for work, our breaks, our meetings, all while trying to avoid rush hours. But once those daily stresses were removed, we were lured into this false feeling of infinite time," she says.

"With 'extra' time on our hands now, we rushed to fill it up with work—thinking that we can accomplish more in the day so that tomorrow will be easier. But tomorrow comes with its own set of responsibilities and deadlines."

"With both [agency and client side] working from home and finding more time on their hands, we saw everyone being constantly 'on'. Clients lost some of their inhibitions of reaching out at 'non-working' hours as they subconsciously knew that the receiver of the message is at home and available." - Niharica Sand, HR lead, Redhill

How to combat overwork?

Off-the-record, agency staff say that more power-equal relationships between the client and agency can result in more mature, understanding relationships that take into account reasonable working hours.

MSL's Misra says that open and honest conversation on managing expectations is perhaps the best approach. "All of us need to be more empathetic and considerate about how chronic overworking affects mental health, especially when it can very well be avoided by better planning, engagement and sharper focus on strategic deliverables," he says.

"We need to address this at all levels urgently as the need of the hour is to be mindful of both professional and personal challenges that we all face. Sharing best practices and developing sustainable engagement rhythm is critical to surviving this phase. We need to cut out the unnecessary frills and focus on what really matters." - Amit Misra, South Asia CEO, MSL

At Golin, Morgan initiates kickoff meetings with new clients to take them through how the agency works, including agreeing to optimum response times and putting parameters around acceptable working hours. She also makes sure that staff get ample time to rest and reset post-crisis or launch.

"Both agencies and clients need to come together to tackle the problem, agree ways of working that are acceptable, and hold each other accountable," says Morgan. "We should develop an industry standard, an accreditation or grading system that forms part of a new 'best place to work' charter. And for clients, perhaps an initiative that factors in excellence in agency management and rates them as a best-in-class communications team depending on their handling of agency teams."

"Often we see agencies undercutting to win business but all this does is serve to undermine the value of the work and instigate a spiral effect in which fees are low, scopes are large and staff are working constantly to meet unrealistic expectations. This results in burn out of staff and under par work. No one wins." - Jane Morgan, MD, Golin Hong Kong

Vero's Jeeriphab says that certain industries, by nature, operate on shorter timelines, or might expect teams to jump on a crisis plan in the dead of the night. "It's our responsibility as an agency to adapt to their requirements, and our responsibility as an employer to ensure processes and rules are set up to protect employees from overwork," she says.

"We recognise that sometimes work styles and cultures simply do not match, in which case it can be necessary to part ways. While it might seem counter-intuitive for an agency to voluntarily let go of a client, we see this as a way to protect our teams and hopefully put some pressure on organisations to improve how they deal with the vendors and agencies they work with."Pattanee Jeeriphab, CCO, Vero

Jeeriphab adds that agency folk being more empowered to talk about overwork with their managers. On the client side, meanwhile, comms pros in large organisations are usually operating in small teams and reporting to managers who might not be as empathetic about the challenges they face. And this normalcy of demanding shorter timelines and unreasonable work hours may trickle down to the agency as well.

Redhill's Sand says that managers need to realise that their teams are very much influenced by their actions. "Many times I have seen senior management responding to clients at odd hours of the day. This creates unnecessary pressure on the teams to be connected to work all the time. They feel that it is expected out of them," she says.

She adds that industry bodies can pitch in a hand by educating others on the sheer work that goes into planning or executing a campaign.

"Many people do not understand the inner workings of PR," she says. "PR professionals [may sometimes be perceived] as spin-doctors. So it's important to educate clients on behind-the-scenes work, what it involves, and how long and difficult the journey is."

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