LONDON — The PR industry has made significant progress in addressing the taboo of talking about mental health in the workplace, according to a new study.

The second annual report by the PRCA and Opinium into mental wellbeing in the industry – ‘Continuing the Conversation: Mental Wellbeing in Public Relations’found that 72% of PR professionals who took time off work for their mental health were honest with their employer about their reasons for taking leave, compared to 40% last year.

In addition, 64% say their current workplace takes the health and wellbeing of their employees seriously and 59% of those in PR who struggled with their mental health had felt able to tell their employer.

In 2020 a quarter (26%) of PR professionals took time off for mental health, down from 31% in 2019. Those in senior level positions were less likely to take time off for mental health at 22% compared to junior staff at 32%.

Having too much on at work to take time off (48%, up from 43% 2019) and feeling that their mental health problem was not bad enough to need a day off (46% up from 33% 2019) were the main reasons cited for not taking time off. Those in senior level positions in particular were much more likely to feel that it wasn’t bad enough for them to take time off (52%).

The number of those who felt their mental health wasn’t a valid reason to take time off decreased to 23%, from 33% last year. And those not taking time off for their mental health because they didn’t think their employer would understand is also down to 21%, from 26% last year.

In addition, 35% said they would still not know how to approach the topic of mental health if they were struggling at work, though this is down from 39% last year. There are also still feelings of embarrassment about struggling with mental health, as 40% of PR professionals say they would feel embarrassed if their colleagues discovered they were struggling, stable with 41% last year.

Expanding upon their experiences, those who spoke up said they felt heard and were offered support initiatives, time off and reduced workloads. 

However, other respondents expressed concerns including: “Management are supportive but there is also a view to just get on with it, work has to be done and everyone struggles at some point,” and “They were kind and encouraged me to take a long weekend. However, the long-term issues such as immense workload, rude and disrespectful client behaviour were not addressed.”

The research, with responses from more than 400 UK practitioners, found that 90% of the PR industry have struggled with their mental wellbeing to some degree in the last 12 months, consistent with last year’s figure of 89%. 

The report – published ahead of World Mental Health Day on October 10 – also reveals mixed opinions on the mental health impact of working from home: 40% of practitioners said it improved their mental health, while 42% said it did not.

Those who struggle with working from home cite the challenges of switching off, loneliness, missing socialising with colleagues, and the stresses of looking after small children. In addition, 58% struggle to draw boundaries between work and rest and more than half (51%) are working longer hours. Despite the challenges, however, 96% want to continue working from home in some capacity.

The report found that the above-average levels of stress in the PR industry continued: 26% of PR professionals find their job extremely stressful compared to 18% of all UK workers. (See our feature published after last year's report.) Unmanageable workloads (55%), the impact of coronavirus (44%) and poor work-life balance (43%) were cited by PR professionals as the most common causes of stress.

Perhaps surprisingly, there has only been a slight decline in mental wellbeing scores – measured via the established Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale – this year. The average score among PR practitioners is 43.5 this year, compared to 44.6 last year, with junior PR professionals having the lowest score at 39.9.

The report offers three recommendations on actions that employers can take to improve employees’ mental health, particularly among those who are struggling and are still not speaking up. The first is to create a safe space workplace “where stories can be shared in a relatable manner” and a workplace where mental health can be discussed openly and without fear of consequence, including taking time off to recover if needed.

The second recommendation is to build on the increase in the number of employers offering mental wellbeing initiatives by ensuring employees understand how to access them and feel comfortable using them; and thirdly, to make some of the more positive aspects of lockdown – such as more time for hobbies and less time commuting – permanent by offering greater flexibility and demonstrating trust in staff.

PRCA director general Francis Ingham said it had never been more important for the industry to take action on mental health: “The progress made in recent years has been welcome: more and employers recognise the importance of mental wellbeing by offering their staff support; they actively encourage conversations about mental health in the workplace. And employees have responded by being far more candid than was the case even five years ago. Our industry should be proud of this progress. But it is not enough.

“Too many people still don’t feel comfortable opening up about their mental health. And there is still a minority of employers who don’t want them to. Covid has made it more important than ever that we do more than ever. From the conversations I have every day, there is enormous pressure on pretty much everybody right now.

“At one end, junior employees working from home in cramped and crude surroundings. At the other end, bosses are fighting hard to lead; to reform their working practices; to put their organisations on firm footings. And for everyone, there are the worries of job security as we enter a global recession.”

Opinium CEO James Endersby added: “It has been a challenging year for people working in PR. The stress of Covid-19 and the impact on the industry has been vast and has negatively impacted mental wellbeing scores for the sector. But encouragingly, thanks to agency leaders, there has also been some progress made since we launched our first workplace mental wellbeing report. Employers are clearly focusing their energies on mental health more, and PR professionals are noticing this.

“Covid has posed many challenges to the industry, but has clearly taught agencies and in-house teams to adapt. Some of these more positive changes to working life, such as increased flexibility, could be built into working life in the months and years ahead.”