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PR is a Stressful Job: Avoid Mental Health Problems

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

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

PR is a stress­ful job — take your men­tal health seriously.

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.

Here we go:

PR is a Stressful Job, But …

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

Our annu­al State of the Profession report (2019) revealed that 21% of pub­lic rela­tions prac­ti­tion­ers live with, or have pre­vi­ously lived with, a dia­gnosed men­tal health con­di­tion reflect­ing nation­al data. Over half of those respond­ents said their work con­trib­utes highly to their dia­gnos­is. Around a quarter (23%) of PR pro­fes­sion­als say they have taken sick­ness absence from work on the grounds of stress, anxi­ety or depres­sion. This is an issue that has far reach­ing con­sequences for employ­ees and busi­nesses. Organisations have a respons­ib­il­ity to take steps to pro­tect the well­being of all their staff.”
Source: Chartered Institute of Public Relations 1Chartered Institute of Public Relations. (2019). Mental Health. Cipr​.co​.uk. https://​cipr​.co​.uk/​C​I​P​R​/​O​u​r​_​w​o​r​k​/​P​o​l​i​c​y​/​M​e​n​t​a​l​_​H​e​a​l​t​h​.​a​spx

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

Mental ill­ness is an epi­dem­ic, with 1 in 5 Americans suf­fer­ing. 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 brain­storm 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. When com­mu­nic­at­ing, we know more about quantum mech­an­ics than what’s hap­pen­ing inside our brains.

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? 2If you’re curi­ous about how little we know about the ori­gins of lan­guages, Noam Chomsky has plenty to say on the sub­ject. 3There’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 … 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 if the press release I wrote will take off.

I don’t know if the pitch will res­ult in a full-page art­icle. 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. 4There 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 … 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 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. 5Theory of mind. (2023, December 4). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​T​h​e​o​r​y​_​o​f​_​m​ind 6Schwitzgebel, E. (2019). Introspection (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford​.edu. https://​pla​to​.stan​ford​.edu/​e​n​t​r​i​e​s​/​i​n​t​r​o​s​p​e​c​t​i​on/

A PR super­power is the abil­ity to put one­self in anoth­er person’s shoes and reas­on about their thoughts. But it can also be a stressor.

As PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tions pro­fes­sion­als, we must 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 oth­ers 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

Read also: Theory of Mind: A Superpower for PR Professionals

5 Ways for PR Professionals To Avoid Stress 

Public rela­tions pro­fes­sion­als often report feel­ing over­worked, stressed, and anxious. In 2019, PR ranked eight out of the 10 most stress­ful jobs in the US. 7Blagojević, I. (2023, May 19). PR Statistics 2023. 99firms​.com. https://​99firms​.com/​b​l​o​g​/​p​r​-​s​t​a​t​i​s​t​i​cs/

Workplace Mental Wellbeing Audit 2021 - Key Findings
Mental health in the PR industry. (Source: Workplace Mental Wellbeing Audit 2021)

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 Goalposts

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 I used to be too quick to say yes. 8Sivers, D. (2020, July 12). Hell Yeah or No. Sive​.rs. https://​sive​.rs/n

Today, if I say, “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. If you take on everything, co-work­ers will quickly learn to send deliv­er­ables your way. 

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.

  • The basic rule of beha­vi­our­al psy­cho­logy is that you get more of what you reinforce.

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 small or insig­ni­fic­ant, I imme­di­ately remove that fric­tion from my life.

I used to be irrit­ated 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.
  • I spend at least one week (“Think Week”) in isol­a­tion yearly.
  • 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 Mental Health Seriously

Stress is a part of life. It comes in many forms and can be caused by many factors. Public rela­tions pro­fes­sion­als 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. 9According 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. 10PR blog­ger Jessica Pardoe points to a UK sur­vey 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 … 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.


Please sup­port my PR blog by shar­ing it with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 Chartered Institute of Public Relations. (2019). Mental Health. Cipr​.co​.uk. https://​cipr​.co​.uk/​C​I​P​R​/​O​u​r​_​w​o​r​k​/​P​o​l​i​c​y​/​M​e​n​t​a​l​_​H​e​a​l​t​h​.​a​spx
2 If you’re curi­ous about how little we know about the ori­gins of lan­guages, Noam Chomsky has plenty to say on the sub­ject.
3 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.
4 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.
5 Theory of mind. (2023, December 4). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​T​h​e​o​r​y​_​o​f​_​m​ind
6 Schwitzgebel, E. (2019). Introspection (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford​.edu. https://​pla​to​.stan​ford​.edu/​e​n​t​r​i​e​s​/​i​n​t​r​o​s​p​e​c​t​i​on/
7 Blagojević, I. (2023, May 19). PR Statistics 2023. 99firms​.com. https://​99firms​.com/​b​l​o​g​/​p​r​-​s​t​a​t​i​s​t​i​cs/
8 Sivers, D. (2020, July 12). Hell Yeah or No. Sive​.rs. https://​sive​.rs/n
9 According to a recent study, mul­ti­task­ing will res­ult in a 40% loss of efficiency.
10 PR blog­ger Jessica Pardoe points to a UK sur­vey 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://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Cover Photo

The cover photo isn't related to public relations; it's just a photo of mine. Think of it as a 'decorative diversion', a subtle reminder that there is more to life than strategic communication.

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