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The 'Mental Health Catch-All' and Its Impact On The PR Industry Must Not Be Underestimated

It's important to celebrate and continually improve on the strides the global workplace and our industry have taken to address mental health, writes Liesl Williams – managing partner of Razor PR Cape Town.

We have all seen the report that says Public Relations is one of the most stressful jobs in the world. Ranking somewhere between military professional in a war zone and a paramedic it often feels like we nailed the brief. So, while partly tongue in cheek (because let’s not kid, no lives are being saved with a good press release) and partly absolutely spot on (because of the demands of the role are very real) – mental health has become one of (if not the most) critical focus areas for agency leaders around the world.

And it should be.

In recent years, particularly during and post-pandemic, the conversation surrounding mental health has gained significant traction in workplaces around the world. And, Public Relations is no exception. The demanding nature of the work, often with its tight deadlines, high-pressure situations, and constant need for strategic thinking that seems to “look around corners” while still being deeply creative triggers a perfect storm for elevated stress levels.

It's important to celebrate and continually improve on the strides the global workplace and our industry have taken to address mental health. However, it is equally important to not let the term "mental health" be used as a broad umbrella term to address a wide range of workplace issues that may not necessarily be rooted in mental health concerns. And it is here that we must have a real and meaningful debate.

There are Positive Aspects of the 'Mental Health Catch-All'

The recognition of mental health as a vital component of overall well-being has led to more open conversations, the implementation of mental health policies, and the development of supportive work environments. I cannot emphasis strongly enough how this is likely one of the most significant gear changes in the work place and comes with positive drivers of real change and impact:

  1. Reduced Stigma: The embrace of mental health as an essential workplace concern has significantly reduced the stigma associated with discussing personal challenges. Employees may find it easier to speak up about their struggles, knowing that mental health is a recognised and accepted topic and that support is available to them.
  2. Holistic Well-Being: Treating workplace challenges as potential mental health issues reflects a more comprehensive approach to PR professional’s well-being. It acknowledges that personal and professional lives are interconnected, and addressing one can impact the other positively.
  3. Preventative Measures: By addressing potential issues under the mental health umbrella, agencies can take proactive steps to prevent more severe problems from developing. Early intervention and accessible solutions can be life changing and life-saving. More than this is the unsaid positive impact of stepping into the gap … a rebased social contract between agencies and their people.

Equally, there are Negative Implications of the 'Mental Health Catch-All'

I’m likely to be deeply controversial with what I say next. But in the spirit of open and constructive debate it is a conversation we should be having. While this increased awareness is undoubtedly a positive step forward, there's a growing concern that mental health has become somewhat of a catch-all term for various workplace issues.

  1. Dilution of Focus: Labelling all workplace issues as mental health concerns may dilute the focus on genuine mental health problems. It's essential to distinguish between ordinary workplace stress (which can be a good thing) and diagnosable mental health conditions.
  2. Masking Root Causes: By using mental health as a catch-all, agencies might overlook their underlying structural, culture, capability and operational issues. These problems can continue to fester if not addressed directly. We must be diligent in fixing the right issue if the outcome is to be sustainably positive.
  3. Delivery Decline: If performance issues or capability issues are portrayed as mental health issues, it becomes very difficult for an agency to put corrective action in place. And, without building on capability and addressing performance, client delivery will decline and in turn systemic risk to the agency overall. Added to this is the need to embrace the kindness of a clear and honest conversation. Negative feedback can in many cases be constructive. Addressing delivery is the biggest lever of a “happy client” and this has a direct bearing on mood (not mental health).

Overall, the increased emphasis on mental health in the workplace is undoubtedly a positive step forward in creating more supportive and empathetic work environments. However, it's crucial for agencies their leaders and PR professionals to strike a balance between addressing genuine mental health concerns and recognising and managing other workplace challenges. By doing so, they can ensure that their efforts are both effective in supporting employees' well-being while also focused on the broader aspects of a healthy work environment. Recognizing the nuances in workplace issues is key to achieving this equilibrium and fostering a thriving workforce.

It starts with a conversation. And we welcome it.