I’ve been thinking about mental health a lot lately – like everyone I suspect. With the world (quite literally) on fire, polarised politics at the fore, a global recession hitting and a global pandemic fundamentally altering our lives, the human mind has a lot to contend with right now. And that’s without adding in the mixing pot of worries, anxiety, depression and general life that we were all dealing with before this.

And that for me thinking about my own struggles, the industry we’re in and what we are doing here at Harvard.

Like so many other people I’ve spoken to, my mental health has most definitely taken a hit in 2020. Anxiety I’m usually able to (somewhat) control has spiralled and the result has been some pretty tough days.

An industry under stress

I know I’m not alone in feeling like that – and I certainly know in communications there are many people who suffer. The PRCA and Opinium’s recent mental wellbeing report was a sobering read on this; a quarter (26%) of PR Professionals said their role was extremely stressful, with unmanageable workloads (55%), the impact of coronavirus (44%) and poor work-life balance (43%) listed as the most common reasons for stress.

In a year where agencies have been under immense pressure as the world changes around them and sectors shut down, this is perhaps unsurprising. But, it is a trend. Year on year we’ve seen the industry come out on top as one of the most stressful – and one in which there is perhaps a feeling of ‘talking the talk, not walking the walk’ from those within in.

As with so many areas, mental health – and prioritising it in the workplace – isn’t a destination we can reach. It’s a journey and it involves rigour, planning and constant evolution. We recently spoke with Josh Krichefski, Global COO at MediaCom and Rax Lakhani, Chair of the PRCA’s Diversity Network about exactly this for our new podcast series, Heard @ Harvard, to hear their thoughts on running teams and agencies during the COVID pandemic; mental health in the agency world and diversity – and particularly what agencies in both PR and advertising need to be doing better.

At Harvard, we’ve worked hard to build a solid offering around mental health for our employees, from access to counselling through Vitality, through to mindfulness days and a team of mental health first aiders. We asked them why they had volunteered and trained to take on the role, here’s what they  said:

Shanil Nayee, Account Manager: I battled with anxiety and imposter syndrome a few years ago. As soon as I was better, I felt motivated to become a MHFA. Step by step, I hope to break down the barriers that prevent people from talking about their mental health and reaching out for help. Becoming a MHFA was one of my proudest moments, professionally and personally.

Izzy Ward, Account Director: Mental health problems impact nearly everyone – myself included – in some capacity, yet there are still a lot of myths and outdated beliefs surrounding it. It’s important that we normalise mental health and give it the same level of attention as physical health. Something I hope to do through being a MHFA!

Will Cook, Director: Life can be stressful on occasions, and as much as I would love to, I can’t always eradicate the stress or challenges my colleagues might be facing. So I wanted to better understand the potential triggers that may cause mental health issues, as well as the tools and techniques I can use to support them at these times.

Jules Haskayne, Creative Services Manager: I wanted to be more equipped to offer support to those suffering and help create more open conversations about the topic.

A new attitude towards mental health?

But personally, it does feel like there has been a shift in attitudes towards mental health issues and a broader openness in talking about the challenges we’re all facing and how we can overcome those. The same PRCA report showed that 72% of PR professional have taken time off for mental health reasons this year – a rise from the 40% who said the same last year; and 64% said their employer takes their mental health seriously.

More anecdotally, I’ve shared stories with friends and colleagues, gathered resources and recommendations for where to find a counsellor and had more open conversations around how we’re all feeling in the last six months, than I probably had in the two years previously. It feels like people are taking more time to help – to share their experiences, their coping mechanisms, their tips to get through it.

Long may that continue.

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