PRWeek podcast: The industry response to the pandemic's impact on PRs' mental health

In a special episode of The PR Show, agency bosses say the mental health of their teams is among their top concerns heading into the “darkest depths of a cold winter”. We look at the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on mental health and how agencies are supporting employees.

The panel (clockwise, from top left): Amy McKeown, Kev O'Sullivan, Luciana Berger, Indigo Le Fèvre and John Brown
The panel (clockwise, from top left): Amy McKeown, Kev O'Sullivan, Luciana Berger, Indigo Le Fèvre and John Brown

PR leaders are concerned about a looming mental health crisis and would support a industry-wide collaboration to tackle the issue.

Edelman’s managing director of advocacy and public affairs, Luciana Berger – who served as a shadow minister of mental health during her previous career in politics – told The PR Show her colleagues' mental health is “right at the top of the priorities” during a “very, very difficult time”.

“We've come out of the first lockdown, we're expecting increased restrictions, and we're now going into the darkest depths of a cold winter,” she said. “For many people [who] might be affected by seasonal affective disorder [it] is only going to make it worse.”

Berger, who has years of experience campaigning on public policy, said that while there has been progress on breaking down stigmas so that people can talk more openly about mental health, there aren't the public services available to adequately address mental health issues, and “this has been exacerbated by lockdown and the COVID pandemic”.

‘Our resilience chipped away’

Two of the panelists, Don’t Cry Wolf chief executive John Brown and FleishmanHillard Fishburn executive creative director Kev O’Sullivan, shared their deeply personal battles with mental ill-health and addiction.

Brown told The PR Show the coronavirus crisis has had a “significant” impact on the mental wellbeing of his team.

He explained that the initial “honeymoon period” of working from home quickly wore off.

“What we found was that the resilience that we perhaps had as a collective… spontaneously supporting one another… started to be chipped away,” he said. “For quite a number of my team, they're sharing a kitchen table with four or five other people and in a fairly kind of combative environment, because everyone's a little bit more frustrated. That's a poor mental health environment to work in.”

O’Sullivan said he was “incredibly concerned” about the next six months: “You know, we can't overlook the impact that winter has on people's mental health. Also, I think the uncertainty around what the holiday period will look like [will have an impact]… will people be able to see their families during the festive period?”

The Romans senior account director Indigo Le Fèvre told The PR Show that she was one of those people working at a shared kitchen table, without a garden – which was “absolutely delightful during the summer heatwave”.

“It definitely takes its toll,” she added. “So it's important to realise that, yes, we're all dealing with something as an industry and each agency is handling that differently. But also, each individual is responding to that differently, [and] we really can't generalise about how we're all coping and managing it.”

Mental health charter

Edelman, FleishmanHillard Fishburn, Don’t Cry Wolf and The Romans have implemented several mental health policies and practices to support employees during the pandemic.

Panelists discussed the policies that have proven to be most effective.

Amy McKeown, a mental health and wellbeing expert who is also part of the Head Office Collective, shared details about a new industry mental health charter that is in the early stages of planning.

“The idea is to create a mental health charter created by the PR industry for the PR industry,” she said. “Having a charter that is created by representatives from all different areas of the PR industry, from large firms to smaller agencies… is more likely to deal with some of the PR-specific issues.”

Brown and Berger said a sector-wide initiative would be welcome. 

“There's so much that we can, or should, be doing as an industry to address the challenges that we face around mental health because of the very specific reasons why our teams might be impacted. It'd be really fantastic to have that sectoral approach,” Berger said. “And connected to that, I would really like to see leaders speaking out about their experience to make that difference.”

This is an episode of The PR Show that no one in the industry should miss.

Running order

02.00 John Brown and Kev O'Sullivan open up about their mental health battles

11.00 How does client pressure contribute?

13.30 Luciana Berger discusses public policy on mental health: "It’s been a poor relation to physical health"

15.20 The impact of the pandemic on mental health

24.40 "An opportunity for PR industry to reset practices and culture"

28.00 What agencies are doing about it: "Strategy, monitoring moods, transparency, sympathy, inclusiveness"

37.30 What more can the industry do: "We’re in favour of sector-wide approach, PR mental health charter, let’s stamp out bravado and be more human"

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