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How do PR execs manage their mental health? – 9 leaders share their hacks

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Saturday was World Mental Health Day. To mark the day our committee member Sneha Patel asked 9 PR leaders, including some fellow committee members, to share their tips on managing their mental wellbeing.

I was recently asked whether comms leaders ever struggle with their mental health. My answer was a resounding yes, but I couldn’t help thinking something was wrong if leaders appear to have it all sussed out – when we all know we don’t.

Mental wellbeing at work has never been more important. COVID-19 has fundamentally shifted the way many of us live and work, and whilst we don’t yet know the full extent of how the pandemic impacts our wellbeing, when you look at the latest data it is not hard to see the scale of the challenge facing the comms industry.

90% of PR and comms professionals said they have struggled with their mental health in 2020 (89% in 2019). They named unreasonable workloads, poor work-life balance including working late, and unsurprisingly COVID-19 as the top causes of stress.

So how do we create working environments that are good for our mental wellbeing? There’s plenty of research out there on the effect of toxic workplace cultures and how to counter them, but as the PRCA research shows creating positive work environments is also about normalising mental health and understanding how others manage their mental wellbeing.

So, inspired by the question recently asked of me, I’ve asked comms leaders to share which aspects of their work most impact their mental health and what practical steps they take to manage them. 

This is what they shared:

Sarah Samee – Group Head of External Communications, Lloyd’s Register and Vice President of WIPR
“Like many PRs I am a career ’people pleaser’ so as well as my full on day job, I also sit on three boards, therefore separating my personal life from my work obligations is my biggest challenge. Additionally I am a mental health carer, so it’s even more important that I conserve my energy, prioritise self-care and manage my ‘stress bucket’. Regular breaks from social media, reading, keeping a journal, walking and having an incredibly supportive partner and friends keeps me motivated, positive and laughing.”

Gavin Davis – Founder and CEO, Nepean
“Constant emails, news alerts and ‘noise’ that is never ending. I work hard to block out time to block out noise. Therefore, my diary has set slots for blue sky thinking, reading, and even just clearing emails. The risk otherwise is that you are ‘busy’ responding and skimming the surface rather than allowing yourself deeper thought. I also try to meditate to ensure moments of calm.”

Davnet Doran – Head of Brand PR, BRITVIC PLC and WIPR Committee Member
“For me there is a responsibility that comes with leadership in PR and comms, that means you’re never really ‘off’. But this can have the most destructive impact on our mental health, wellbeing and our bodies. Finding your own strategy to remain calm, regardless of how adverse the situation, is critical for good health. I’ve found having personal boundaries around screen time, avoiding dipping into the inbox outside of agreed hours and learning how to assertively say no, have been essential for me. As well as (ridiculous as it may seem) learning to breathe properly and ensuring laughter is allowed regardless of how dire the situation is”

Abbie Sampson – Director of External Affairs, Energy UK and WIPR Committee Member
“The increasing volume and pace of work since the beginning of coronavirus, alongside remote working and the associated impact on work-life balance, has had a significant impact on my mental health. The hours are long, there is limited downtime and the lines between work and home are frequently blurred. I’ve been able to manage this as best possible by trying to take breaks, yoga, getting outside for fresh air and a walk and writing lots of lists. Also trying to focus on what is really important, and what I have to be thankful for. I’m also trying to (not always successfully!) banish guilt, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic after all so we’re all entitled to cut ourselves some slack.”

Jane Fordham – People Consultant, Jane Fordham Consulting and WIPR Committee Member
“Having operated as an independent consultant, early on I would have said the fear of having an empty pipeline, the constant financial pressure, would have been my biggest cause of anxiety. I’m grateful that for me this has now dulled to a more of a healthy motivator. My biggest challenge right now is how to delineate between home and work as we’re essentially – ‘living at work’ – how to create boundaries to physically and mentally switch off. I am disciplined in inserting breaks, both long and short in my day. It could be as little as a stretch, moving rooms, losing myself in my favourite dance track for three minutes or a longer bike ride/dog walk and a regular lunch date with my homeworking husband. I am consciously seeking balance with family time and other, mainly virtual ways, to stay engaged with loved ones further afield. When guidelines permit, I can also be found with a laptop at a local café getting a change of scenery. Finally, I am very committed to long rest periods and holidays.

Addy Frederick – Group communications manager, Prudential and WIPR Committee Member
“Lockdown has stripped away my favourite part of my role: the physical interaction with people. Like most people, I’ve sought to replicate the social aspect virtually but it doesn’t replace the conversations about life intertwined with work. I’ve had to become more intentional about connecting with people. I find any excuse to call a colleague – sorry, not sorry! Recognising that working from home doesn’t mean I can only work from my house has also helped. My morning runs have become even more important in lockdown. They used to be a time for me to be silent and prep for the day ahead. Now it forms part of my gratitude practice. The post-run endorphins definitely help to remove the funk I feel at 3pm on the days when I’ve rolled down the stairs to my office and have racked up 178 steps.”

Asad Dhunna – Founder and CEO, The Unmistakables
“Running a consultancy that helps clients become inclusive by design means constantly needing to understand what’s going on in society and how the conversation about such a personal, and now professional, issue is evolving. It’s easy to get caught in a web of Instagram stories and endless Twitter threads, a hangover from my more traditional PR days.  To help overcome this, I’ve started becoming very conscious about carving out time for myself during the day. From small things like having my phone in the other room when sleeping, to not checking email until I’ve had breakfast, finding at least half an hour of the waking day not connected makes a big difference. Now we are living at work, it feels more important than ever to consciously create space to disconnect. It’s in those moments I find new ideas and am able to recharge.”

Effie Kanyua – Director of PR and Comms, Hearst UK and WIPR mentoring programme mentor
“I find my days are filled with non-stop meetings now that we are working remotely which means more video calls and more phone calls as we aren’t able to physically ask each other simple questions. Some days I can work continuously without realising that it is 5.30pm and that I haven’t taken a break. I have taken the step of where physically possible, blocking out an hour to do a 50-minute walk just to get some headspace. I also start every morning by meditating and doing a workout. Luckily we have amazing Health titles at Hearst UK and so I follow Women’s Health workouts and also Gillian Michael’s 30-day shred. Unfortunately my six pack is yet to be realised but my mental and physical health has vastly improved.”

Emily Walch – Corporate Affairs Director, The Investment Association
“Whilst I’m certainly not alone to have struggled to find the right work-life balance in a demanding job, coronavirus has torn up the rulebook for us all. The first few months were some of the darkest I have had. But necessity is the mother of invention as they say and I have found myself not only getting better at sticking to old self-care habits – like getting daily exercise, exposure to nature and sunlight, good sleep, eating healthily and even meditating – I have also found that coronavirus has brought many of us closer to people. I take the time to focus more on the here and now and be grateful for the things and people I love in my life. I try and do something nice every day. This summer I became part of two very different, informal, small groups of like-minded women, where we support and mentor each other through everything from day-to-day challenges to long-term career planning. I have reached out to friends and family I hadn’t seen in ages. I have made time almost every day during the pandemic to check in on colleagues outside my team and have discovered a different side to them all. When I’m 85 I won’t remember having beaten that deadline or won that argument. So if I feel overwhelmed or a bit down, there is no better cure for my mental health than a kind gesture to someone else who is undoubtedly more in need of it than me.”

Finally, mine – like many of the stories above, not having some work-free time to explore other interests and switch off impacts my mental wellbeing. To keep the blurring boundaries between my personal and work life in check, I block out time in my diary – including evenings/weekends – to dedicate to my interests outside of work and make sure my colleagues know when I’m not available. It helps me have peace of mind and leaves me feeling energised.

Just as the changes necessitated by COVID-19 have caused many of us to look at the way we work and manage our mental wellbeing, the same shift may happen when we finally ‘go back to normal’ (whatever that looks like).

In the meantime, I hope by sharing this, anyone in the industry, whether they are a CEO or an apprentice, can see that managing your mental health is something that is constantly shifting and which everyone thinks about.