One of Emma’s first thoughts when she heard about news of the lockdown in March 2020 was how lonely the long stretch of days would be stuck at home alone. Solitude and quietness stretched in front of her and she didn’t know if she was prepared for both.
The 20-something has been living independently since leaving the family home when she started working. She has gotten used to her routine of work during the week and hanging out with friends on the weekend with very little alone time in between. She broke up with her boyfriend of two years months back and didn’t want to start dating yet.
What would she fill the days with when WFH tasks are done? Will she survive talking to the four walls of the tiny shoe box she calls home? She hasn’t been staying indoors a lot to avoid being alone with her thoughts, but it looked like she can’t escape that fact now.
But it turned out things weren’t that gloomy after all. Besides learning how to cook and do the other chores, Emma used the time alone to write again. She wrote about all things and anything: She wrote about how she was spending time alone, how she felt having her heart broken again, how much she misses her family and friends. She wrote about her dreams and fears. She wrote letters to her parents, telling them how thankful she is for their love. She wrote short letters to herself, reminding herself to be strong.
When she’s not writing, she’s picking up a new hobby. Once she tried flipping an old wooden stool into a chic side table for her bed. Another time she baked and ended up snacking on brownies for two weeks because she baked too many.
Now on hybrid work mode, Emma longs for those days to be back and to have as much time with herself at home. Those months of restricted mobility that she thought would be some sort of a prison turned out to be a ticket to freedom, to finding herself again.
Emma’s is just one of many lockdown stories, a peek at one positive outcome. Many others had it harder. Many had their mental health compromised being limited to indoor living for months. Incidences of depression and anxiety went up during the pandemic, and they were paralleled by a significant increase in the number of calls to suicide and help hotlines.
Now that mobility seems to be going back to prepandemic levels and people are going back to offices and ready to return to normal life, you’d think mental health has ceased to be an issue. But with the virus still posing a threat, the economy not getting any better, and many families yet to recover from the loss of loved ones and/or their incomes, anxiety, depression and fear of the future remain real for many of us.
Mental health in PR
In the PR industry where stress levels are high, work pressure can exacerbate already existing anxiety or depression. Already, burnout incidences are high in this industry, and that is one reason for the high attrition rate in many agencies, especially smaller ones. Indeed, how many resignation letters point to mental health as one of the reasons?
A report from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) in 2019 revealed 60 percent of PR and communications professional have had mental illness and 89 percent have wrestled with mental well-being. What this means is that even before COVID-19, the PR industry was already facing mental health issues, acknowledged or otherwise.
Many agencies had their clients end or pause contracts, resulting in loss of income and in some cases, staff layoffs. PR and marketing activities have started to resume, but full recovery is not within sight for many in the PR industry, in particular local, smaller operations that do not have the financial backing of regional or international parent companies.
Even though quick to adjust to changes and challenges from training in their work, PR practitioners are hard-pressed now more than ever to find clients and retain existing ones. They face increased workload and tighter deadlines resulting from greater pressure from clients who can be unreasonable and demanding as they are concerned about their revenue. The unstable economic landscape is not helping any. All in all, more stress and higher chances of burnout.
Battling the enemy
What are the tell-tale signs to watch out for?
Reduced drive for work, compromised concentration, increased instances of feeling sad and sudden mood changes are just some of the indicators. If the feeling of sadness becomes longer than usual, the person is withdrawing from family and friends or not engaging in their usual activities, already have problems sleeping, eating or getting up and about, it might be time to call for professional help.
Beyond awareness of signs to be wary about, PR practitioners and agencies must set systems in place not just to support those with mental health concerns but to ensure mental health in the workplace is prioritized. For starters, more companies now try to have regular de-stress activities or design their office spaces to be less stifling. In an industry where overtime and late hours are frequent, work-life integration is key.
Are we doing enough?
But of course de-stress activities aren’t enough. What other steps can employers or agencies take?
Actually, the first question we need to ask is: Are agencies aware enough of this issue to actually do something about it? How can they nurture the mental health of their PR professionals? With hit the ground running almost the default starting pace in this industry, how can agencies train their hires to learn the ropes fast enough without losing themselves?
How can they agencies meet clients’ demands without transferring the pressure on to their staff? How can they ensure PR practitioners perform 100 percent at their job without sacrificing their individual health, mental health in particular? With many small companies not even offering health coverage for all their personnel — and this is true in other industries as well — how capable are they to even think of implementing mental health support programs?
These are just some of the questions that need to be asked and addressed. For individual practitioners, Emma’s experience can be a starting point. Self-love and self-care are important and not selfish. Facing one’s fears and concerns one step at a time helps as well. Making sure the work environment is conducive to one’s mental health is important, too.
There isn’t obviously a one-size, fits-all approach to addressing mental health, especially in the PR workplace. But pushing for more awareness about it and being open to supporting those afflicted would be a step in the right direction. For PR agencies, the challenge is awareness and proper action beyond umbrella statements. For individual PR practitioners, the call is to recognize signs in oneself and others and ask for or reach out to help.