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Mind control: Encouraging openness rather than implementing shiny new initiatives

"People usually have no problem talking about feeling physically ill – because, that’s just biology, it’s fact, and it’s science." This passage comes from an article written by Sarah Alonze, senior campaign director at Babel, around our lack of communication around mental health issues. Hoping to learn more about encouraging openness, we asked her a few questions.
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Mental illness is rife in the PR world, with a #FuturePRoof report finding only 35 per cent of the sector could be deemed healthy and well-rested. Some 30 per cent are downright unhappy, with 12 per cent intent on switching careers. And with little emphasis on encouraging openness, it’s no wonder the industry faces a high turnover rate.

The report explained: “Mental illness costs the UK £70bn per year, with the annual cost of presenteeism being twice that of absenteeism.”

Its contents were of great debate, spurring Sarah Alonze, senior campaign director at Babel, to call for people to openly talk about the issue. Having been a psychology student, she admitted to being drawn to the subject – more specifically why certain industries were more susceptible to health issues than others.

As such, we asked her a few questions on ensuring the wellbeing of the Babel team, as well as her take on what the PR industry can do to foster awareness of the subject.

What do you think are the biggest factors leading to mental health issues?

More than a third of people working in PR have been diagnosed with or experienced mental health issues. This is higher than the national UK average of one in four. Stress is endemic in modern society, aggravated by gender inequality in boardrooms, an “always-on” society and unrealistic expectations perpetuated by social media platforms. While technology has brought us closer together, it’s a bit of a catch-22.

Life becomes more demanding when you are bombarded with white noise from TV sets, work phones, emails, Twitter and news sites. For that reason, it’s imperative we all learn to take a step back, breathe and think about our surroundings.

What do you believe are the benefits of investing in employees’ health and wellbeing?

In PR, as with most professional industries, your employees are your assets. If you’re not looking after your staff, then you can’t expect productivity and profitability in return. The mind is a powerful tool, but like any muscle in your body it needs to be exercised and maintained in the right way. If you can invest in your employees’ mental health and wellbeing, and help them to hone their minds in the right way, it’s inevitable that your business will see the benefits.

Happier employees are more productive, are more likely to remain with your company and, as a result, you’re more likely to attract more talent and business in return.

In what ways do you invest in your employees’ wellbeing?

In light of recent surveys, I’ve become aware of the challenges of our profession and how they could impact my colleagues. So we’ve set up an anonymous forum which allows team members to talk about concerns or issues they may have in the workplace. Encouraging openness is our main goal – staff should be able to talk about the issues they are personally facing so that we can then tackle them together.

I also believe sick days should incorporate mental wellbeing. I want them to feel like they can take time to work through their issues rather than be forced to sit at their desks feeling trapped and unproductive. We also have a “door open” policy where employees can speak to line managers, senior management or even a peer about mental wellbeing issues confidentially, and if they require external support or help on certain issues, we can provide them with training or access to relevant resources.

They are, right now, small changes, but given the stigma around mental health in the professional realm, the first step is the most important. It’s essentially about changing mind sets and encouraging openness rather than implementing shiny new initiatives that don’t get to the root of the problem.

If money was no object, what health and wellbeing perks/schemes would you like to have in place?

Much in the same vein as training budgets, I’d love to set aside a wellbeing budget whereby staff can access professional resources – life coaching, cognitive behavioural therapy, support groups, whatever it may be – to improve their mental wellbeing. I like to think of it as a gym membership for the mind. But when it comes to mental health, I’m not sure it’s really about how much money you can throw at it.

By encouraging openness, more staff might take their full holiday allocation or lunch breaks, for example, and it would help nip some superficial stresses in the bud on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis. Giving employees time off per month to pursue a passion – volunteer for a charity, learn a language, play a sport – would also go a long way to helping relax the mind and learn a new skill.

Read on for advice on addressing staff mental health

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About Author

Shané Schutte

Shané Schutte is a senior reporter at Real Business, with a particular specialism in employment and business law, human resources, information technology and sales/marketing.

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