With May being Mental Health Month, we are doing a series of Q&As with industry professionals who are taking action around this issue for the industry. As we know, the PR is facing a mental health crisis. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the latest figures from the Public Relations and Communications Association and research company Opinium showed that a shocking 89% of practitioners have struggled with mental wellbeing.

In this Q&A, we speak to Leslie Campisi, who has spent more than two decades in PR and marketing, most recently as CMO of Anthemis Group and, prior to that, held senior positions at MSLGroup and Hotwire. Campisi also recently became a Mayo Clinic-trained coach in order to make wellness a bigger priority within the tech sector.

Q&As in this series: Leslie CampisiJo-Ann Robertson | Barbara Bates Leslie Garcia

Aarti Shah: You recently received certification as a Mayo Clinic-trained coach with a focus on wellness within the tech ecosystem. Tell me about this. 

Leslie Campisi: Yes! The Mayo Clinic training and NBC-HWC certification is the natural convergence of two important strands in my life: wellness and tech.

I’ve done a ton of work over the past six years searching for balance and wellbeing in my own life. I got serious about it in the summer of 2015 when I took my last PR agency job at MSL. After leaving Hotwire, I thought I’d never work at another agency. But I used the new role as an opportunity to challenge my expectations on what agency life could be like. Could I succeed without making so many sacrifices to my health, my time, and my relationships?

The first, tiny step I took was searching for help eating better. I found a nutrition coach to work with me one-on-one and was able to pinpoint all my triggers (airports and hotel rooms, surprise) and find substitutes and hacks. She even came over to help me clean out and re-stock my pantry. The job at MSL wasn’t all it was cracked up to be — I ended up leaving after about eight months — but it also came with the side benefit of taking me to California regularly where I became a real surfer. Getting out in nature turned out to be another huge piece of my personal wellness puzzle.

When I moved to Anthemis, these realizations were really fresh. I felt great, and I was doing some of the best work of my life. The collaboration with my Hacking Finance creative team was just kicking off. Looking back, I have no doubt that the success of the entire Hacking Finance brand build, launch and print magazine was fueled by my commitment to taking care of myself--the opposite of where we’re told success comes from.

As I found myself working closely with our portfolio companies and other startups in the fintech ecosystem, I started realizing that, while I felt fulfilled giving them marketing and communications advice, it wasn’t enough. When you work in VC, the cruelty of startup math is impossible to ignore. There is so much failure built into the system and so much pressure applied from investors to achieve the impossible in impossible time frames.

Shortly after joining Anthemis, I completed yoga teacher training and began teaching Finyasa, a free weekly yoga class for the fintech community at my friend Dan Simon’s agency, Vested, as well as in-house at Barclays Rise New York for the Techstars cohort. 

Interacting with the startup community in this new way was really exhilarating. It made me think more deeply about all of the entrepreneurs I’d worked with over the years to help tell their stories, and how the ones who made the best spokespeople and leaders had something in common: their health. They were grounded people who cared for their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around them.

Once I landed on this realization, it was inescapable. I could no longer help unhealthy people tell good stories. I needed to go a level deeper, below the communications layer and help people working in the tech ecosystem with their wellness. In doing so, their ability to succeed from a marketing point of view would flourish, but also, let’s be real, so would so much else! Healthy people build healthy teams, products, and companies, all things we need more of in the world--and especially in our industry.

By 2019, learning more about wellness felt urgent. I completed my Mayo Clinic training in the winter and started working with clients in the fall as I reduced my schedule at Anthemis. I took the NBHWC board exam in February and now have joined a group of about 3,000 certified health and wellness coaches all over the world who bring this skill set to their communities in a multitude of ways.

Right now, I’m exploring a few different methods I might use to weave this interest further into my day job. In the meantime, I’m working on some marketing and communications consulting projects with people who share my values and am taking on a small number of wellness coaching clients. 

AaS: What is a wellness coach and how is that different than a therapist? 

LC: The easiest way to think about it is that therapy eliminates illness and coaching builds wellbeing. But it’s not a zero sum game, as you need both a lack of disease and a presence of wellness to create health, which is why doctors and coaches work really well side-by-side.

This holistic definition of what constitutes health comes from the school of positive psychology and, later, positive health, the work of Dr. Martin Seligman from Penn, and it’s one of the very first things I learned at the Mayo Clinic. As a coach, it’s crucial to understand the guard rails separating coaching from psychotherapy to stay within your scope of practice.

People who believe they are suffering from depression or anxiety and are looking to treat those illnesses should seek out a therapist. Health and wellness coaching requires a state of mind in which you believe you are ready to make a change--even a small one, like me replacing my airport M&Ms--to build new positive habits that enhance your physical and mental wellbeing.

But you can start either place, as a good therapist or coach will make the referral in whichever direction is needed.

It’s also worth noting that health and wellness coaches receive referrals not only from psychotherapists but also from doctors treating patients dealing with obesity, pre-diabetes, hypertension, and other underlying conditions. That’s because it’s increasingly clear that just telling someone to lose twenty pounds doesn’t work. They need help getting there, and that’s where coaches come in.

AaS: Are most of your clients individuals or companies? What kinds of issues do you get called in for?   

LC: My typical client is a career-minded person in a demanding industry that feels “off.” They’re looking for a lens through which they can identify what’s not working and how to fix it. While my clients have been founders as well as PR people, I’ve also worked with teachers, folks in the fashion industry, even nurses. Some are interested in exploring their eating and exercise habits, others with sleep or finding more time to spend with their family, friends or in nature. Coaching is completely self-directed, so I’m there to follow their lead and help them identify for themselves what they value in life and what would motivate them to move toward it.

I think there’s a huge opportunity for companies to expand coaching services they may already offer employees to accommodate wellness coaching, especially now as we adapt to “new normal” ways of working and living and the stressors that come with it. That said, as with any form of coaching, the relationship between the coach and client is sacred and only works if the company stays out of it. And of course, offering wellness coaching to employees isn’t a quick fix for firms that aren’t supporting, or are prepared to support, their team with real business practices that allow them to thrive. In fact, workplace stress is probably the number one thing that drives people to a wellness coach in the first place.

AaS: Whenever those ‘most stressful jobs in America’ lists come out, working in PR in nearly always there. What are some unexpected ways that PR can be stressful? Since you’ve worked both agency and in-house, is one more stressful than the other?

LC: Hahahaha the “unexpected” ways? Let’s start with the expected ways PR is stressful. You’re selling your ideas, and your ability to convince people of them--journalists, clients, and their customers--so they better be good, and you better be persuasive, and you better have new, persuasive ideas all the time. Working in PR is like pulling a rabbit out of a hat every single day. The toll of PR’s emotional labor is well documented — I often think of Jennifer Pan’s essay in Jacobin about “pink collar” work — but unless you are in the field, it’s hard to put into words how taxing all this can be.

Layer on the fact that you have to stay plugged into the news cycle 24/7, so it’s almost impossible to control your media consumption or minimize your screen time. And if you’re an agency or team leader, you have to somehow support other team members in living this almost untenable lifestyle without gaslighting them. (If you’re not a leader, add the stress of gaslighting--or worse--bosses to the list.)

Now pile on the travel, the time zones, the time it takes to convince a client not to write an angry comment on the article, the fear of losing your job if your account goes away...no wonder most agencies “solve” this problem by getting everyone drunk at the end of the day. Just writing this gets my heart racing.

And yet! When you’re working with a client whose mission you really believe in, selling in a story you dreamed up, alongside a team you love, well, there really is nothing better, is there?

Agency stress and in-house stress are both real. I’d just say they vibrate at different frequencies. Agency stress is the heightened, high-pitched stress of a zillion things that could go wrong any minute. In-house stress is the slower, more dread-based stress of working on larger projects, on lengthier time horizons, where you’re never quite sure you’ll push the rock all the way up the hill. 

AaS: I’ve seen PR agencies take mental health more seriously than ever. Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has created new stressors, has it also helped relieve some others?

LC: Yes, I do think this new work environment has an upside for many. Here’s one example: pre-Covid PR agency culture was way too focused on the performative side of work, giving people top marks for showing up early, dressing smartly, chatting up the right people, staying late. If you were focused on playing the game, these intangibles might even advance your career over colleagues who were actually delivering results.

Well, lighting up your green dot on Slack at 9pm just doesn’t have the same effect, does it? So I hope this is a moment where agency leaders really start judging team members on their output and not their style or “culture fit,” as it is so often inappropriately described.

Also, I think I speak for all of us when I say it was impossible to write a byline article in an open-plan office, even with noise-reducing headphones. 

AaS: What should the PR industry change to better address mental health?

LC: Here are a few obvious places to start:

Get rid of bad actors and enforce a zero-tolerance culture for harassment, discrimination and retaliation. This includes clients as well as employees.

If you are running an agency, look at your business model. Consider adopting an approach like the triple bottom-line that puts people, and planet, on par with profit. Similarly, explore non-billable-hour revenue models that aren’t based on pyramid structures that unfairly squeeze lower-level workers to create margins.

Take care of your own mental health and wellness, so that you lead by example, no matter your level. A simple way to do this is to use your vacation days. All of them.

Encourage — demand — your team members do the same, and, when they do, leave them alone.

AaS: Let’s talk about the tech sector. What is unique to this sector regarding stress and mental health? 

LC: Anyone who has worked in tech for as long as I have has witnessed a huge shift in tech company culture, as well as the meta-narrative surrounding the tech industry from an outsider’s perspective. To go from underdog (“tech companies are going to save the world!”) to villain (“tech companies are destroying the world!”) in such a short stretch of time has been really stressful to those working in the sector, whether they work in big tech or at a startup.

Against that backdrop, there are more investors prepared to deploy more capital into more early stage companies than ever before — and, I would argue, more people embracing entrepreneurship without truly understanding what they’ve signed up for. Not a good combination.

In 2019, it felt safer and more accessible than ever to spin out and do your own thing. Many first-time venture-backed founders, as well as solopreneurs who quit corporate jobs to rent a desk at WeWork, were caught up in this moment of peak entrepreneurship.

I know how few entrepreneurs succeed, and I certainly worried about whether, on a large scale, we were ready for their failure and its ripple effects on their workers, friends, families. The idea of creating resilience among the entrepreneurial community is at the heart of why I pursued wellness coaching--to help people be prepared to weather such a storm.

Of course, Covid-19 darkens the picture considerably, because it’s not just entrepreneurs today who are failing or losing their jobs and being asked to reinvent their future. 

AaS: What differences do you notice in how different genders, generations or other groups approach and handle mental health issues?

LC: This is a tricky question, but it gets to the heart of another reason why I am so passionate about health and wellness coaching.

I have to laugh at how much of a PR person I am, always looking to take on campaigns changing peoples’ minds about big concepts. Redefining “finance” was what Hacking Finance was all about...now I’m drawn to the notion of redefining wellness so it’s not so capitalist and so gendered. You can’t buy wellness, from Goop or anywhere else. And it’s not just for women.

If you go to the roots of wellness theory, as I did in my studies at the Mayo Clinic, you discover it’s actually a very accessible entrypoint for people to begin to look inward without seeing a therapist or taking up a spiritual practice. It probably comes as no surprise that women make up the bulk of my client base, but the reason why I signal so strongly that I want to serve the tech ecosystem is because I think startup founders and teams, which are still largely male, need this type of intervention. I’m working to change their minds every day.

AaS: At PRovoke19, a major theme was ‘bringing your authentic self to work.’ What does this look like? And what are the reasons/risks that hold people back? 

LC: Another tricky concept! I had a long conversation with a friend who at the time was very high up on the innovation team at a large insurance company. He presented as a cis, straight white male and didn’t advertise that he was gay. He explained to me how conflicted he was with the company’s newfound focus on authenticity and supporting diversity, because to him it felt very much like an employee marketing campaign. Bottom line, he felt if he was his true self, it would have negative implications on his career, though he was being asked to “perform” authenticity. Terrible, right?

Businesses need to understand that a lot of minority workers — and I use “minority” in its broadest sense — are skeptical about bringing their authentic selves to work, as they should be. It’s de rigueur now to talk about authenticity in the workplace, but I too question whether most companies can back this up with a work environment that makes people feel safe. And yes, my experiences working in PR agencies absolutely inform this skepticism. I certainly feel getting out of PR helped me to become a more authentic person and express myself freely without the omnipresent concern that I might be compromising my “personal brand,” whatever that is.

If you work in communications, as with any campaign you find yourself promoting, always ask yourself: am I doing good here? I’d like to see more agency people feel safe enough to challenge clients on vapid campaigns, about fake authenticity or anything else. That would be a truly authentic expression of themselves in the workplace. But again, sadly, I’m skeptical that most PR environments would allow for it.

Q&As in this series: Leslie Campisi | Jo-Ann Robertson | Barbara Bates