PR’s ‘poor job’ on mental health criticised as First Aider database planned

A database of PR Mental Health First Aiders and a mentoring scheme are two initiatives planned to improve mental health across the industry, which has been accused of doing a ‘really poor job’ of addressing the problems.

(Getty Images/Iryna Khabliuk/EyeEm)

PR’s mental health challenge was the focus of a seminar in London last night to mark World Mental Health Day. Recent research from event host State of Us, a new network that aims to tackle the issues, found one in two people working in PR, marketing and comms experienced severe stress, anxiety or burnout on several occasions over the past 12 months.

“As an industry, we do a really poor job of looking after our collective mental health,” said Vicki DeBlasi, founder of Innovate Comms, which launched the network alongside Harvard and CCgroup.

“I do think that we face a lot of challenges that are unique to us… we are under incredibly tight time pressures, we are always asked to do more with less. We are at the very front line, everything that we do is so visible – there’s nowhere to hide.”

She added: “We seem to be too accepting that we are facing really poor mental health across our industry and I think we have a responsibility to look at why that is and to see how we can course-correct it.”

State of Us will hold monthly events, alternating between virtual and physical formats, focused on addressing the sector’s mental health challenges. DeBlasi said the first “industry-wide database for Mental Health First Aiders” would be launched on the group’s website and she urged First Aiders to get in touch.

“We want to get as many people in there as possible,” she said. “We cannot do this on our own. There are people doing amazing things, but if we combine that together we can make a fundamental change to what we are doing and the way we’re working.”

She said State of Us would explore a programme of “short- to mid-term mentoring, specifically focused on how to nurture and protect your mental health through your career”, although the plan is at an “embryonic stage”.

‘Get with the programme’

A panel at the event discussed the impact of COVID-19 on mental health among PR professionals and how the issues are being handled by employers.

Shanil Nayee, account director at Harvard, said it’s a “complete myth” that these issues only emerged with the start of the pandemic – “we just weren’t talking about it enough” – although the crisis “massively changed the conversation”, with mental health now a bigger topic of discussion.

Another Harvard employee, Mary Paslawski (client services director, marketing), said the nature of hybrid working and other changes mean people working in the industry “don't really get those troughs that you used to get”.

She added: “There’s been this huge big movement over the last few years to bring your whole self to work. That has meant companies recognising that sometimes that means you bringing a load of shit into work with you, because you have got stuff that’s happening at home, you have stuff that's happening with your family, your dog died, whatever it is. That’s why it’s so different for organisations and leaders – it looks different on everyone.”

Katie de Cozar, head of enterprise tech at CCgroup, said: “It’s 2022, and we need to get with the programme. It’s not OK to employ people as resources. They are human beings and the companies that treat their staff as human beings are always going to perform better, they’re going to make more money.”

Changes

Panellists were asked what one change they would enforce across marcomms agencies to deal with the mental health crisis.

“I genuinely believe that any leader, anyone who manages teams, should go through [the training] and become a Mental Health First Aider,” said DeBlasi. “I thought I knew a lot about mental health and going through that process was so valuable to help me better understand so much.”

De Cozar urged employers to examine how much alcohol plays a part in their culture. “I think the link between alcohol and poor mental health is very strong, and particularly in our industry, we’ve encouraged it. It’s been: ‘This is how we get to know each other, this is how we get to know our clients, it’s how you build relationships, this is how you win.’ That can be really quite damaging.”

Nayee suggested agencies talk to each other more: “We need to help agencies that maybe aren’t far along in their mental health conversations to start having the right conversations.”

DeBlasi built on the theme of industry collaboration, saying: “I think, as an industry, we can be quite territorial, whether you’re in the agency camp or you’re in the client camp, and that often creates challenges and conflicts that don’t need to be there. If as an industry we can have this discussion across those boundaries that will serve us really well.”


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