Take burnout off the back burner or risk burning talent to a crisp

While some feel that an infinite supply of entry-level workers can replace those who burn out, this could undermine the industry’s success, says Lynn Appelbaum.

Take burnout off the back burner or risk burning talent to a crisp

Workplace fatigue existed long before COVID-19, but the work-from-home lifestyle imposed by the pandemic has accelerated an already looming issue. Burnout, especially in PR agencies, may be more widespread than we want to acknowledge.

The Wall Street Journal recently covered how many young professionals are experiencing heightened anxiety, exhaustion and even depression that they attribute to relentless pressures from work. 

The article cited a McKinsey & Co. survey, which found that “65% of employers say employee mental health is supported well or very well; 51% of employee respondents agreed.”

As the U.S. emerges from the pandemic, PR agencies are optimistic about the prospects of gaining back clients and getting new business. But, employees, especially at the account executive level, may not be feeling the same optimism. This presents an important opportunity for agency leaders to address employee mental health in the workplace and to take actions, which impact agency success.

Are you burned out?
The Mayo Clinic defines job burnout as “work-related stress: a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”

Six successful former students and several long-time practitioners, all in competitive PR or digital agencies, recently reached out to me for guidance in feeling overworked and overwhelmed in the office. 

Across a variety of agencies and clients, they reported that their employers appeared to have little regard for their mental well-being. For example, some supervisors, on a regular basis, constantly messaged them with work updates late at night. Several felt that they could not step away from their phones and computers, even to eat lunch or to take a bathroom break. They sensed their employers were unfairly burdening them to do more than their jobs.

The PR pros were afraid to speak with their supervisors, concerned that they would appear disgruntled or lazy, and feared for their jobs, if they tried to set work-life boundaries.

Those who spoke with their supervisors reported that although empathetic, their bosses ultimately put the responsibility back on their shoulders to better prioritize and “work smarter.”

Why management should care about burnout
Some agency veterans have a “sink or swim” and “pay your dues” attitude with an industry serving clients in a global 24/7 media world. Employees are expected to service often understaffed client teams determined by a formulaic profit model.

But continuing down this path, especially in today’s “never unplugged” world, could undermine agencies.

A 2017 study on burnout and work performance found, “Burnout has a direct negative impact on job performance. The higher the burnout, the lower the job performance, while the reverse is the opposite.”

I spoke with PR professionals who affirmed these findings. Several admitted that work overload forces them to deliver services that they consider to be less than their best. They lacked the time and support to provide the level of strategic thinking that they know the client deserves. Fatigue makes mistakes more likely and the quality of work suffers.

Agencies also risk a greater exodus of talent. While professionals change agencies as a matter of course, lack of job satisfaction due to burnout exacerbates this. PR executives reportedly resigned from agencies to pursue non-PR-related careers due to burnout. Others expressed that PR was not the life they envisioned for themselves looking at a five-year horizon.  

Building mutually beneficial relationships with employees to stop burnout 
PRWeek’s Post Pandemic Survey in May 2020 revealed that 48% of PR workers expect employers to increase prioritization of work-life balance and 32.8% desire enhanced employee engagement initiatives.

To create a healthier work-life balance for employees, agency leaders can take these following steps:

  • Respect and be kind to your staff at every level;

  • Be transparent about workplace demands, and support employees with heavy work demands;

  • Respect the end of the work day;

  • Respect employee rights to take workday breaks and holidays; consider quarterly mental health days;

  • Create reasonable boundaries with clients;

  • Rotate team members to be on call, so not everyone is “on duty” beyond a reasonable work day;

  • Communicate with employees and set appropriate expectations;

  • Schedule exit interviews with employees who are leaving and ask them about their work experience, getting feedback about work-life boundaries.

A pivotal moment
In returning back to the office, employers can reevaluate whether their policies support their values. If the PR industry advocates for serving the public interest and building mutually beneficial relationships, these same standards should also apply to our PR workforce. If PR agencies do not also evolve to attract and retain the best and brightest, they risk losing the talent to lead us into the future. 

While some may feel that an infinite supply of entry-level workers can replace those who burn out, this could undermine the industry’s success. The industry can only provide quality customer service if it invests in the long-term health of a quality workforce.

Lynn Appelbaum is professor emerita at the City College of New York, in its advertising and PR program. 

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