Anyone even vaguely familiar with the PR industry's pandemic challenges knows that mental health is like a chant that doesn’t subside. And it shouldn’t. The cost of working without a pause, the endless syncs and Zoom meets, the isolation and the inability to express or articulate its effect, is real. Everyone knows it and feels it. Most of us grin and bear it, and some, like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, have normalised expressing it.

Friends and colleagues in the PR industry know fully well the pressure of performance, balancing multiple relationships and service delivery. Add to this, supervising staff, managing P&L responsibilities, and at the same time attending to family responsibilities during the pandemic has created tremendous mental exhaustion to an already stressful job. Many have begun to question: what is it worth?

'Lilianna' (name changed), who works in account servicing in Jakarta said she found it harder to motivate herself to service clients, develop innovative campaign ideas, chase numbers and deliver results. She was also worried for her father who was living by himself and who she hadn’t visited for the past year. She stated extreme fatigue and mental exhaustion and has contemplated resigning. “We all work to pay our bills, but if earning an income can impact our mental health, is it worth it?” she asks.

Lilianna is not alone in feeling this way. Mental fatigue has been felt across the board, regardless of country of origin or seniority level. Part of the reason lies in PR typically being viewed, particularly at entry and mid-levels, as less well remunerated compared to professions in the creative, digital and media industry, where billings can be considerably higher.

According to PRovoke Media's Best Agencies to Work For research, which polled more than 1,100 agency employees in the Asia-Pacific region this year, only three quarters (74%) feel that their agency has addressed issues with work-life balance and mental health/isolation, a sentiment expressed to a similar degree in other regions.

But there is a silver lining. A landmark study of Asia-Pacific’s in-house communications professionals revealed accelerated investments in budgets and staff in the PR field for 2021 after a challenging 18 months. PR was seen as instrumental in brand building, crisis communications, share-of-voice and employee communications. Agency heads too are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and are ramping up business activity amid a broader recovery.

Yet, even with all the jobs and economy opening up, there are relatively few takers.

“There are many jobs out there — at in-house and agencies, but they aren’t proving easy to fill,” says Lee Nugent, Asia-Pacific regional director of Archetype and chair of PRCA Southeast Asia. Agrees James Brasher, managing partner at Rice Communications: “It is an employees’ market now. They can be as discerning as they want about jobs they want to choose.” And that is exactly what employees are doing.

'Dana' (name changed), a Malaysian national who is a permanent resident of Singapore, lost her job just before Covid. Albeit initially worried about finding a job, the PR professional decided to take the time off. The initial concern soon became an epiphany and she is now assessing which companies match her values closely, how they have treated their employees during Covid and what kind of flexibility and growth opportunities they offer once things return to normal. “The job market will reopen by next year. Meanwhile, I want to do my due diligence and approach those companies I want to work with and how they will reward me in my career growth,” she tells me.

Attitudinal shifts like these are being seen across all Asian countries with many younger employees valuing stability, reasonable working hours, work environment and flexibility over perks like stocked pantries and snooker tables that promise a heavily edited version of 'fun'.

China, where the 9-9-6 work culture has long been the norm, youth are rebelling through sub-cultural movements like “touching fish”, “lying flat”, and adopting a “shang’an mentality” by shunning fast-paced private sector jobs to take on more stable government positions.

In Southeast Asia too, youngsters are preferring flexibility in their jobs. According to a survey by Ernst & Young, six in 10 workers in Southeast Asia said they would resign if they were not allowed to work flexibly post-pandemic.

India, which has battled with inflation for at least the past decade, has always been an employees' market. Here, it is very common to hop jobs and pursue higher salaries. It is also very common for companies to poach talent by luring them with pay raises. However, many who returned home to be closer to their families at the height of the Delta variant’s spread, do not feel ready to return to work.

“The pressure falls disproportionately on women who often feel responsible to look after their immediate and extended families while also holding down a job. Understandably, many aren’t yet wanting to return to full-time, office-based work,” says Nugent. “Working from home has enabled some to better balance household responsibilities and their jobs. Others, though have had the opposite experience and employers need to be much more flexible in response to staff needs.”

Asks an account manager who works in a boutique PR firm, “The whole of last year we proved that we can do our jobs remotely. Why are we expected to return to the office now?” This question can result in divisive arguments, but the truth is, flexibility is at the heart of every employee’s job considerations.

Agency heads know this only too well. “Remote working has added flexibility that comes with freedom from dependence on physical location. Companies need to respect this shift as something permanent because it’s what our next generation of leaders wants. A workplace that lacks flexibility will not be seen as an attractive employer,” says Caroline Hsu, Asia-Pacific MD at the Hoffman Agency.

Adds Zeno regional president Paul Mottram: “Employees want flexibility together with growth and opportunities. They also want to work for companies that inspire them, whose purpose is closely aligned with their own beliefs. The younger generation in particular is inspired by purpose and wants to work with brands who are committed to the environment, CSR or championing causes."

“Hiring the right talent remains hard, but we believe it is possible by offering the opportunity to advance the industry, by raising the level of our work and its contribution to business, we can win them back,” believes Hsu.

Yet, while the vision to build a new form of agency model is clear, all agency heads acknowledge the challenges of attracting and retaining the right kind of talent. The biggest crunch has been in the mid-tier band, those in account management, senior account management and account director levels who carry the bulk of client servicing, staff management and delivery. “Even before Covid, mid-tier PR professionals are the hardest to recruit and get visas for,” attests Mottram. And now, as agencies staff back up, they are also facing talent crunch for specialists, primarily impacted because of curtailed mobility.

Border closures, countrywide lockdowns, safety concerns and employees choosing to be with their families has hindered a free flow of travel and relocation. Says Nugent, “Chinese students who often study in overseas universities to equip themselves with advanced English language capabilities in order to work with international brands, have been unable to leave the country – making graduate-level recruitment a real challenge.”

Similarly, Australia, which has long relied on UK communications professionals to bolster its industry, has not been able to do so during the past 18 months. The result is a smaller talent pool to draw from. India is still not out of the woods in terms of Covid management and Singapore and Hong Kong remain out of bounds for many overseas talents.

Recruiting from a shallow pool of PR talent impacts the diversity ratio. While remote work may be a possible solution, a less obvious impact in the PR business is training and development. “On-the-job training is invaluable to young interns who learn soft-skills, media relations, client communications and crisis management skills from their seniors,” says Brasher. With remote work, younger staff have found it hard to learn these skills while mid-tier managers have not been able to adequately supervise their teams.

In the past, many leaders would just wait to ride out the economic slump and return to normalcy. But Covid has reshaped what that looks like. Agency heads know that to evolve their business models they must build specialisms, offer flexibility while not abandoning growth opportunities, invest in training and development, factor in salary increments and also include counselling as a part of their insurance package. All of this adds to their operating costs.

“Where in the past there were three to five agencies competing for a pitch, now there are 10 to 12, indicating price wars and a race to the bottom,” laments Brasher. “It is a vicious cycle,” chimes in Nugent. “If we don’t reward our staff well, why would they stay?”

And round and round we go. But in this not-so-merry-go-round, the only ones who want to get off are the employees. They have realised that they may never be able to afford a home or other comforts a job may bring, but they have also realised that the most invaluable possession they have is their mental health.

Mental health isn’t just a media headline; it is now a groundswell that is leading to a paradigm shift, with employees not hesitating to hold their employers accountable for workplace culture. As Nugent says: “Recruiting and retaining top talent, which was a challenge pre-Covid, is going to be the biggest challenge for all of us moving forward.” Everything must be viewed from the lens of mental health. Without that the younger generation is simply not enthusiastic about returning to work.