Identifying and combating burnout within PR teams

Let’s face it: Life can be hard sometimes, and the challenges of the past few years have been particularly formidable. From the worst public health crisis in modern history to protracted lockdowns to supply chain crises and the threat of a global recession, we’ve all been through a lot.

The challenges of living in the world today are often only amplified when we walk through the office door. For professionals working in the field of public relations, workplace stressors can be particularly acute, especially when there’s so much bad news coming from so many sides.

The chronic stress, long and unpredictable hours, and frequent crises that so often attend a career in PR can quickly overwhelm even the most dedicated and impassioned pro. Indeed, PR professionals are at elevated risk for experiencing burnout, which can not only detrimentally impact their careers but can also take a toll on their physical and mental health.

What Is burnout and why does It matter in PR?

Burnout refers to the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion that comes from prolonged (and often severe) stress. Workplace stress is one of the leading causes of burnout and, consequently, burnout is often strongly associated with a significant deterioration in work performance.

Signs of WFH burnout include the following: 

  • Unable to complete tasks on time
  • Losing track of tasks and time
  • Mood swings experience anger, sadness, or irritability
  • Not getting proper sleep or experience insomnia
  • Drinking more alcohol than normal or using it as a coping mechanism
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, illness, or dizziness.

Burnout is also attributed to causing significant increases in depression, anxiety, insomnia, addiction, and related disorders – thus further exacerbating the decline in health and performance.

Unfortunately, there’s mounting evidence that those who work in public relations and related fields are especially susceptible to burnout, with rates of burnout or severe stress topping 50%. For instance, the 2022 Workplace Mental Wellbeing Audit found that 91% of PR professionals had experienced poor mental health at some point in the previous year, but only 22% of  PR professionals who experienced poor mental health took time off work to rest and recover. The national UK average in 2022 was 41% across all professional industries. The audit was jointly conducted among members of the PRCA (the Public Relations and Communications Association), which calls itself “the world’s largest professional PR body,” with 35,000 members in 70 countries, and the CIPR (the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations).

US PR pros are also recognized as working in extremely demanding roles that frequently lead to burnout. For example, the US career site, CareerCast, has regularly rated PR around number 8 in their list of the most stressful jobs. Also, in 2022 the London Medical Laboratory listed PR and marketing professionals in the 8th position on a list of the 10 most demanding jobs.

The top causes of stress in the Mental Wellbeing Audit were having too much to do (58%), followed by impending deadlines (47%). The work can be extremely demanding physically, mentally, and emotionally. You may find yourself facing gruelling hours as you deal with a crisis at your company or in the wider world.

The issues you confront on the job can be difficult to leave behind when you return home at night. You may find yourself burdened with anxiety, sadness, or trauma, especially if you are working in a high-stakes sector, such as public health.

Recognizing the signs

As menacing as the threat of burnout may be, you are not without resources. It’s possible to learn to recognize the signs of burnout and proactively intervene before it escalates into a true mental or physical health crisis.

One of the earliest and most significant indicators of burnout is unexplained exhaustion. You may find that you or someone on your team constantly lacks energy or motivation, despite adequate sleep. It may be difficult to engage, process new information, or be as productive as usual. 

This kind of fatigue can arise from any number of issues, from dehydration to a chronic illness to an undiagnosed infection. However, when other causes have been ruled out, that’s a pretty good sign that anxiety, stress, and overwork may be the culprit.

Unfortunately, you or your team members may well be experiencing the early stages of burnout. This is especially true if severe fatigue is accompanied by other signs, such as irritability, changes in appetite, physical pain, frequent illnesses, and sudden outbursts of anger or crying.

Taking action

Despite the prevalence of burnout in the PR industry, some things can be done to reduce the risk and reverse the symptoms once they occur.

It’s critical, for example, that PR professionals prioritize a healthy work/life balance. This can be especially important for those who work remotely, as the pressure to be “always on” can be intense.

As a result, PR team leaders must strive to create a culture that puts employee well-being first, including modelling self-care practices themselves.

In addition, PR pros must learn to embrace communication not as an aspect of their work alone, but as a wellness tool. For example, reaching out to other professionals, including those outside of your particular field, is an ideal way to support your physical and mental health.

Connecting with those working outside of PR can provide both a respite and a bit of perspective when the job becomes overwhelming.

Leaders should regularly check in with each team member

One-to-one meetings are very important. These meetings help to keep track of work progress, but they help you to monitor how well team members are coping and give you the opportunity to support them.

Celebrate individual and team wins

Recognizing individual and team wins and the hard work that earned those wins provides a massive boost to the personal outlook of workers, and is instrumental in reducing their stress.

Consistent research shows that the boss’s recognition of individuals and teams is vital to a successful workplace. People want to be noticed and appreciated, even for small successes. Such recognition should be frequent and consistent. Depending on the preference of the recipient, it is just as effective to recognize their good work privately and personally, eg in a conversation with the boss, or by email – as it is to be given in front of colleagues.

Just as important is peer-to-peer recognition in the workplace. What’s more – research has found that giving praise and recognition benefits the giver as well as the receiver for the positive psychological function of workers, according to research. And it also benefits those who observe others receiving recognition.

Recognize work effort as well, not just good results. People appreciate acknowledgement for their dedication just as much as for their good results.

Obviously, it is more difficult to keep in touch with colleagues when they are WFH and hybrid-based. But recognition in these environments gives more reason to capture personal moments and milestones. Your team members belong to their family, a friend, a volunteer, and they have a lot of achievements and milestones outside of work. Managing all of those aspects of life can often be challenging, but worthwhile for you to note.

Using recognition to celebrate your peers’ personal milestones lets them know that you see them as real people; that you appreciate who they are and the other events they have in their lives.

Birthdays, anniversaries, new babies, earning a degree, many personal milestones deserve recognition. Have a little fun writing a congratulatory note or finding an appropriate image to personalize your message.

The takeaway

Burnout is a risk in every profession, but those who work in public relations are especially vulnerable to the threat. This can take a profound toll not only on their work but also on their physical and mental health. The good news, though, is that it’s possible to recognize the signs of burnout and intervene before a crisis arises. Whether you are experiencing burnout, or you just want to be proactive in preventing it, the key is to prioritize a healthy work/life balance and to reach out early and often for the support you need.

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