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How To Avoid Stress and Mental Illness in Public Relations

Stress leading to burn-out and mental illness is real.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

Is it even possible to avoid stress in public relations?

This post will provide several powerful mindsets and techniques to help communicators- and PR professionals avoid stress and mental illness.

According to a recent study, 41% of all sick leaves in the Swedish communications industry are mental illnesses.

During my 17 years in the PR industry, I know of countless former industry colleagues who suffered periods of stress-related mental health problems.

And I’m no exception; in 2016 (the same year I was awarded Cision Scandinavia’s PR Influencer of the Year Award), I had to turn the volume down on my career to get my head back straight.

It took me three whole years to get back into mental shape.

Let’s get right into it:

Are PR Professionals… Weak?

Public relations is one of the most stressful jobs in the world. It can be challenging to slow down in a world where everything is instantaneous. We work long hours and rarely get paid what we deserve.

PR professionals often face the mental stress of working in a high-pressure environment. This can lead to more severe mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety.

Mental illness is an epidemic, with 1 in 5 Americans suffering from it. This is not only a mental health issue but also a social problem. And the PR- and communications industry seems especially afflicted.

Why are PR jobs so stressful?
Are we … weak?

Doctors and nurses save lives. Construction workers and engineers build homes, hospitals, and roads. In contrast, we might be brainstorming names for a corporate insurance podcast that will likely be forgotten in six months.

What right do PR professionals have to complain about our corporate jobs? Was the coffee machine broken this morning?

Low Professional Self-Esteem

We all communicate all the time. Still, no one knows what the heck is going on. We know more about quantum mechanics than what’s happening inside our brains when communicating.

We don’t know how our brains grew to consume 20% of all our energy. Did we develop large brains because we strived for complex forms of communication—or was it the other way around? Why have we evolved to think and communicate with such complexity when it was unnecessary for early hunter-gatherers? 1If you’re curious about how little we know about the origins of languages, Noam Chomsky has plenty to say on the subject. 2There’s also scientific evidence that our brains are shrinking and that we’ve lost a chunk the size of a tennis ball in the last 20,000 years. I’ll save that nugget of information … Continue reading

Most people work at jobs where they know things. We don’t.

We seldom know anything for sure. I have been working with PR every day since 2005 (and studied PR at the university between 2000-2005), but I rarely know for sure if the press release I just wrote will take off.

I don’t know if the pitch will result in a full-page article or not. I don’t know if the website copy will convert at 0,5% or 3%. I don’t know how many subscribers will forward that last newsletter. Will our brilliant PR strategy work? I mean, I hope so. 3There are no standards when it comes to conversion rates. To find benchmarks for your website’s niche, you should expect that online numbers might be exaggerated for effect. Still, conversion … Continue reading

What if something in our professional life worked once before? We can almost always be sure that it won’t work precisely the same way ever again. The gist is that we don’t know — but we have to deliver tangible results repeatedly.

If you’re PR- and communications, and you don’t have at least a touch of low professional self-esteem, please let the rest of us know how you do it.

Theory of Mind: A Blessing and a Curse

Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states — thoughts, intents, desires, pretending, knowing — to oneself and others and to understand how those mental states influence behaviour. It’s a critical developmental skill that helps children develop empathy and understand other people’s feelings and intentions.

The term “theory of mind” was first coined by Premack and Woodruff (1978) and referred to people’s thoughts and reasoning about their minds and those of others. The assumption that we need a theory for our thoughts is called introspection.

A PR superpower is an ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes and reason about what they might be thinking. But it can also be a stressor.

As PR- and communications professionals, we need to understand how people think and react. It’s a form of empathy, and when you put people like this together, they tend to be over-serious and over-committed. To be good at what we do, we must consider what other people think and feel.

Our type of work is always dancing on a knife’s edge between success and failure—despite our best or worst efforts. Our personality traits make us extra susceptible to stress. If the pressure is allowed to run rampant for a few years, various mental health problems follow.

“I always thought burnout happened when you work too much. Now I get it. It’s investing emotionally and not getting a return on that investment.”
— @spamap

5 Ways for PR Professionals To Avoid Stress

Public relations professionals often report feeling overworked, stressed, and anxious. 4In 2019, PR ranked eight out of the 10 most stressful jobs in the US.

However, many are not aware of the stressors present in their everyday work. These stressors can be related to the job or personal struggles affecting work performance. When these stressors are allowed to pile up, stress can negatively impact mental health.

I know — I’ve been there myself.

The Covid-19 pandemic isn’t doing us any favours, either. In a recent newsletter, PR blogger Arik Hanson writes:

“In my conversations with folks the last couple of weeks, one theme is coming through loud and clear: People are at their wit’s end. Burnt to a crisp. FRIED.”

I’m not a medical professional, but the five strategies below have helped me improve and stay mentally healthy. Here are some ways to reduce stress levels while making an impactful career.

1. Stop Moving the Goal Posts

One of the many things I’ve learned as a PR consultant is that clients are never satisfied for long. If you deliver top-notch results, clients will reward your efforts by expecting the same output level (or higher) at the same compensation level the next time.

If I deliver way above what I’m being compensated for, it’s probably because I got lucky that time. One could wish that clients would remember this if I’m not so fortunate at some point. But no, that’s not the way the business world works.

And it’s no different working in-house, either. There’s always someone walking around with unreasonable expectations, which also outrank you in the workplace.

But it’s still up to you to constantly manage such expectations. Today, I’m always reasonably explaining to everyone around me what to expect.

I’m describing when we got lucky due to unforeseen circumstances.
I’m explaining before, during, and after streaks of bad luck.

2. It’s “Hell Yeah” or “No”

Inspired by Derek Sivers’s book Hell Yeah or No, I’ve realised that I used to be too quick to say yes.

Today, if I feel like saying, “hell yeah,” it’s a yes. If I’m not too enthusiastic but can’t say no, I start discussing what to remove from my to-do list. If I can trade doing something that’s “fine, I guess”, and get rid of something that’s “oh god, that’s pointless,” then I’m still better off than when I had my coffee that morning.

It’s Pavlovian conditioning. Co-workers will quickly learn to send deliverables your way if you take on everything.

Pavlov Dogs - Doctor Spin - The PR Dog
We’re all just animals, right?

If you punish bad suggestions by forcing tough decisions, you will increase your co-workers’ cognitive load. This type of negative reinforcement will lessen their unwanted behaviours.

3. Hug Lots of Trees Weekly

Many victims of work-related stress often say the same thing: nature heals.

And I agree. Nothing healed me more than spending time in nature. In my case, I took an interest in nature photography (which is why every blog post on Doctor Spin has a cover photo taken from some tree-hugging excursion).

Today, whenever I feel the slightest stress creeping up on me, I grab my camera and head off into the woods.

4. Force Positive Change by Removing Friction

One idea to combat stress is to add activities to your life — and that’s fine. But adding too many non-work-related hobbies to help you relax and have fun can become a stressor. This is problematic because if your life is causing you mental health problems, you must change your life.

Life change is easier said than done. Adding more to your life might not be the correct answer. At least, it wasn’t for me.

I found that removing minor daily frustrations had the most significant impact. In 2016, when I was in my worst state, I was irritated at something every ten minutes of every waking hour. If I feel irritated over anything, however small or insignificant, I immediately remove that friction from my life.

I used to be irritated daily about coming up with what to cook for dinner, so I automated weekly grocery deliveries. I used to be annoyed over having a slow computer, so I bought a fast laptop and built an even speedier desktop. I used to be irritated over being interrupted by pointless telephone calls and voice messages, so I created a personal phone policy.

You can change your life by removing one frustration at a time.

5. Liberate Your Inner Weirdo

I know you’re a little bit weird; we all are.

  • My favourite school subject was grammar.
  • I suffer from mottephobia.
  • Every year, I spend at least one week (“Think Week”) in isolation.
  • And I prepare for the zombie apocalypse by learning skills like lock-picking, first aid, and urban survival.
  • I’ve got a fucket list.
  • My phone policy is somewhat passive-aggressive.

Yes, I’m a total weirdo. And I think that you’re probably pretty weird, too.

My best advice is to allow yourself to be you—for your mental health’s sake. It’s liberating. And people are, at least in my experience, surprisingly forgiving as long as you’re authentic to yourself.

In the words of Steve Jobs, “here’s to the crazy ones.”

Misfits - Crazy Ones - Steve Jobs - Apple
“Here’s to the crazy ones.”

Take Your Stress Levels Seriously

Stress is a part of life. It comes in many forms and can be caused by many factors. As public relations professionals, we are often expected to take on many different tasks. Juggling various responsibilities can quickly pile up and lead to mental illness if not dealt with properly. 5According to a recent study, multitasking will result in a 40% loss of efficiency.

Individuals experiencing these issues should seek help and not be afraid to speak up about their problems to loved ones. Or to seek help from a medical professional.

Stress leading to burnout and mental illness is real. You’re not weak, but rather too strong for your good. Our industry is losing too many professionals to this silent pandemic. 6PR blogger Jessica Pardoe points to a UK survey taken in 2020, in which 58% of over 2,000 employees reported some form of stress at work, and almost 70% had experienced it in general. Over 60% … Continue reading

I found my path to wellness. It didn’t include yoga, group therapy, or green tea. But maybe your path will?

If I can leave you with just one insight: Take your stress symptoms seriously. The longer you wait to take action, the longer your path to recovery will be.

Thank you for reading this article. Please consider supporting my work by sharing it with other PR- and communication professionals. For questions or PR support, contact me via [email protected].

ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 If you’re curious about how little we know about the origins of languages, Noam Chomsky has plenty to say on the subject.
2 There’s also scientific evidence that our brains are shrinking and that we’ve lost a chunk the size of a tennis ball in the last 20,000 years. I’ll save that nugget of information for another blog article.
3 There are no standards when it comes to conversion rates. To find benchmarks for your website’s niche, you should expect that online numbers might be exaggerated for effect. Still, conversion rates seem to adhere to the engagement pyramid in which approximately 1% are actively engaged. Interestingly, few discuss what happens with the 99% that don’t convert.
4 In 2019, PR ranked eight out of the 10 most stressful jobs in the US.
5 According to a recent study, multitasking will result in a 40% loss of efficiency.
6 PR blogger Jessica Pardoe points to a UK survey taken in 2020, in which 58% of over 2,000 employees reported some form of stress at work, and almost 70% had experienced it in general. Over 60% claimed they had experienced at least mild anxiety symptoms, and 58% said the same for depression. In Pardoe’s blog post on mental health, she argues for the importance of openly discussing these issues in the PR industry.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://www.doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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