Paul Sutton on tackling mental health in public relations
In this candid interview for World Mental Health Day, Paul Sutton shares how he's bringing his personal story of managing mental health to bear to help agencies and communication teams. There's a strong business case.
You approach the issue of wellbeing from a very personal perspective. What’s your story?
I’ve worked in marketing communications for 20 years, mostly in an agency environment but now as an independent digital media consultant. Back in late 2004 I was diagnosed with clinical depression after the break up of my first marriage though, with hindsight, I can trace it back a lot further than that.
I didn’t disclose the diagnosis to my employer, though they did know all about my personal circumstances. In common with many suffering from depression, my performance suffered over the next few months; my motivation and productivity were both down. And then, just before the end of my first year with the company, I was asked to leave without so much as a warning.
A few years later I was working part-time for another agency, the leader of which believed in 110% commitment at all times. Life outside of work didn’t really exist as far as they were concerned, and the pressure and stress that created among the staff was incredible. The toxic environment started to affect me and I left of my own accord.
It took me the best part of a decade to talk about my experiences with depression to anyone outside of my family. But when I did, the reaction I received was amazing. And the more I was open about it, the more support I received and the more people contacted me to talk about their own issues.
It made me realise that there is a huge problem in the communications industry, and that the only way to address it is to be very open and honest and to tell personal stories that others can relate to and empathise with.
How do you manage your own mental health in the workplace?
In some ways I’m fortunate now that I work for myself. So if I’m having a bad day for whatever reason I can give myself licence to take it easy. But regardless of that, my approach is to understand the way I personally react to stress and pressure, whether that comes from my personal life or from work, and to recognise if I behave in certain way.
I’ve learned to spot the signs of depression relatively early and to act upon them. There are things you can do to help yourself, from removing yourself from situations to making dietary changes to exercise, to talking to a counsellor to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
My top advice to anyone who’s suffering from stress, anxiety or depression of any kind is to talk to someone about it. It took me many years to learn that. Admitting you’re struggling is not a sign of weakness; if anything it takes strength and courage to do.
So find someone you can talk to who won’t judge you, who will listen and who understands that their role is not to solve your problem but just to be there for you. It could be a friend, a work colleague, a family member or a professional (ie. counsellor). Contact me, even!
I’m very lucky in that I have an incredible wife who is amazingly understanding and supportive but who’ll also give me a kick up the arse if I need it. As a result, I don’t let my mental health affect my work in any way.
Why do we get mental well-being so wrong when it seemingly affects so many people?
It’s difficult to answer this with any certainty, but public relations is a stressful career; as a profession it always ranks up there with airline pilots and police officers and firefighters. Given that, you’d think we’d be all over it, right?
But my belief is that the communications industry has always put the job first and people second. There exists a very strong ‘yes culture’, where no ridiculous deadline is unachievable and no unrealistic expectation is too much trouble. Personal lives and issues take a back seat. It’s a historic thing that’s not changed in all my time working in marketing communications.
To compound that, senior communications people aren’t trained to recognise the signs of stress or to manage issues. Quite simply, we don’t know how to deal with personal stress and pressure, and that’s where the real problem lies.
It’s not the fact that public relations is a stressful career that’s really the problem, it’s the fact that we don’t try and manage that. Pushing people too hard leads to emotional trauma; stress, anxiety, depression and, ultimately, burnout. Just look at the churn rates in PR.
If management personnel knew a) how to recognise when someone is suffering from a mental health issue, and b) what to do about it, that would go a long, long way to solving the problem.
What’s the service that you’ve launched?
It’s aimed at doing just that: helping people in communications teams at all levels to understand the symptoms of poor mental health, to recognise it in others or themselves, and to be able to act on it for the benefit of everyone.
The service takes the form of five key steps broken into analysis and action. The first three steps look at a risk assessment (reviewing a variety of indicators like working hours, holidays, travel, absenteeism etc), a corporate assessment (reporting lines, processes etc) and an employee assessment.
The latter is an anonymous survey of all relevant personnel to try and uncover the true story, rather than the front that people put on in the workplace. This is, arguably, the most important of the three analysis steps.
Following this, the next two steps create an action plan. Step four is training to help people to understand and identify stress, anxiety and depression as they’re widely misunderstood, and step five involves the creation of a set of guidelines and procedures that help anyone suffering understand where they can get help, anyone noticing anything in others to raise it in a helpful manner, and anyone managing people to understand how they should treat them and their obligations.
What’s the business case?
The costs to the communications industry of this ‘epidemic’ are huge.
Mental health issues cost the UK £70 billion per year in lost productivity, recruitment, training, and in healthcare. 2015 PRCA data showed that one in three public relations practitioners have been diagnosed with or experienced some form of mental ill health, and 30% of respondents in the 2016 CIPR State of the Profession Survey stated that they are ‘somewhat unhappy’ or ‘not at all happy’ in their jobs.
In a less scientific study, 60% of respondents in a recent Twitter poll by Comms2Point0 stated they are ‘stressed’ or ‘very stressed’ at work.
The CIPD says that one in three UK staff persistently turn up to work ill, and that the annual cost of presenteeism is twice that of absenteeism. The overall level of staff turnover within the public relations industry is around 25% per year, and the cost of losing a single employee can be as much as 60% of that employee’s salary.
The statistics are damning, and the financial impact on companies of failing to handle mental well-being adequately are massive. It makes no financial sense to ignore this issue.
How do you price the service?
Being completely honest, I’ve wrestled with this.
On the one hand, launching this service was driven by the fact that I really want to do something to help people. I can’t change the nature of communications work, but my ultimate aim is to try and do something to lessen the impact of all that pressure, making people healthier and companies more profitable as a result. It’s a personal mission and I’d do it for free it I could.
On the other hand though, I’ve got three young kids and I do need to make a living!
The fee is dependent on a number of different factors, not least the size of the team or agency and the complexity of the organisation. It’s an investment in productivity and staff well-being. As with any contract, I cost according to what the project requires.
What qualifies you to offer this service?
I’m not a counsellor, nor do I have any professional qualifications in the field of mental health. But I’ve suffered with depression for twelve years diagnosed, and probably double that in reality.
During all that time I’ve experienced first-hand, witnessed and heard from third parties about all sorts of approaches to handling mental well-being, from the progressive approach to the lip-service approach to the downright negligent approach.
I’ve run two businesses and I understand the pressures of doing that. But I also understand what it’s like to try and motivate yourself to work when all you want to do is curl up by yourself.
In short, I’ve lived it. I also understand how public relations teams and organisations work.