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Stressed for Success: How to Remain Calm and in Control

I organised a lively networking event at the British Library this week, about how to remain calm as a PR and create a balance between work and life.

I want to share some thoughts from the night because I reckon most of the advice would be equally suitable for any type of job.

But why hold an event about stress? The main reason I chose the topic was because we are building a positive and compassionate culture at the new agency I have co-founded, Campbell Brown PR, and yet of course we do not want this to compromise the quality of our work. So we are looking at how this balance can be achieved against a backdrop of 24-hour news and media. The room was packed, so presumably we’re not alone in being stressed about stress.

It happened to be a rainy Tuesday night and the event was after work, so we tried to make it as relaxing and ‘non work-like’ as possible, with plenty of refreshments and some superb live acoustic music by Sebastian Blake. The specific question we aimed to answer was: Are we working ourselves to death or can other industries learn from our ‘always-on’ PR culture?

I chaired the event and we brought together a panel of three other speakers: Lisa Moore, journalist, media consultant and author of a recent PR Week feature, ‘An Industry Stressed to Kill’; Alison Kerry, Head of Media at Mind, the biggest mental health charity in England and Wales; and Chris Andrews, MD of Personal Touch Fitness.

Lisa gave us a very honest account of why she wrote the ‘stressed to kill’ article, and really got under the skin of some of the issues that can cause our industry to be so consuming.

Apparently stress is the top reason for absenteeism at work – although, as Alison pointed out, most people don’t admit it to their bosses. To compound this, PR was recently identified as one of the top 10 most stressful jobs to work in according to an article by Forbes. Alison made us all laugh by reminding the group that we work “in PR, not ER”, and so lives are generally not at risk if we don’t answer an email or pick up the phone at midnight. But of course we all want to do the best job we can and it’s a super competitive industry, so while admitting that it is a 24-hour culture we discussed ways to avoid burn out and promote balance.

Our speakers totally ‘got’ that the weight of our clients’ reputation often balances on our shoulders; that our failures can be highly public (e.g. the hijacking of Waitrose’s Twitter account) and that we’re fundamentally an industry of deadlines, deadlines and more deadlines. Adding to this, the explosion of the internet and the onslaught of our 24 hour global society means it’s often difficult to switch off: whether you’re watching Eastenders or the 10 o’clock news – either can be relevant to a client – which may make the TV experience less than relaxing.

We also heard how symptoms of stress often include self-medicating with excessive alcohol or other substances, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, a long term change in behaviour, losing enjoyment of your job and life in general, as well as physical warning signs such as headaches, sickness and dizziness, which can mask the fact that stress is the underlying cause.

Of course it’s not just down to the employee themselves. It’s also important for companies to create a culture where stress can be discussed, and Alison pointed out some of the great resources available for employers and employees.

Advice from the panel included the following practical tips:

  1. Create a barrier so you can ‘switch off’ – literally. That means switching off your phone so you’re not constantly checking your emails, and making this clear to your colleagues and clients. In effect, manage their expectations. Make it a rule that you don’t check your electronic devices for at least an hour before you go to bed.
  2. Have a to-do list so that you’re not overwhelmed by tasks.
  3. Take breaks during your work day – lunch isn’t just for wimps! Taking time away from your desk is important and being outside is vital to good health, physical and mental.
  4. Walk somewhere (to your next meeting, perhaps?) and, when you do, take in your environment: look at the sky, the trees, the architecture. Maybe even smile at a fellow pedestrian!
  5. Take time for yourself every day – 10 minutes is enough. Reflect on the good things that you’ve done during the week (at home and work), and give yourself a pat on the back.
  6. Be aware. Make sure you make good choices about your lifestyle, and most importantly take control. Don’t feel pressured to stay for ‘just another glass of wine’ with a client or journalist if you know you’ve got a tough day ahead of you – you’re being professional after all.
  7. It’s really important that you eat regularly and don’t skip meals (porridge is a good slow release breakfast that will keep you going!). And, while you’re at it, try to reduce the amount of junk you consume – from crisps and sugar to coffee – and substitute it with something a little healthier instead.
  8. Sit up straight. This helps bring exercise into your day, even if you’re too busy to go to the gym, by strengthening your stomach and back muscles, as well as easing tension in your shoulders. Have you ever considered getting a Swiss ball for the office? Great for your core strength, but it might be a bit dangerous after a late night out…!
  9. Be creative with your meetings. Can you hold them outside, in the fresh air and sunshine (remember the sun cream!)?
  10. As summer starts (hopefully in earnest!), introduce more activity into your life – this will make it easier when the days become shorter and colder because you’ll already be in a routine. Start by making small changes… every little will help!

The final point of the evening, which I deliberately brought into play, was that while stress can be debilitating it can also be positive – the rush of adrenaline when you get the lead story, the pride when you’ve achieved against the odds. PR is undoubtedly a stressful career, but it is also fulfilling and most of us choose to be in it; it was not forced on us!

The event was organised on behalf of CIPR Greater London Group, of which I’m a member. It was my first one so ironically I was freaking out before I took the chairing role – but I’m glad we picked such an emotive topic as it prompted so much interaction and positive feedback, as well as some extremely honest and open input on the night itself.

Thanks to Tricia Defty of Thinc PR for taking detailed notes, some of which I have definitely plagiarised for this article!

Image Credit: AAAARRRGGGHHH via photopin

Written by:

Seriously passionate about all things PR, Helen has 14 years of comms experience. Having worked across charity, public sector, business, personal finance and consumer PR, Helen brings a rare fusion of academic thought and practical application to clients’ issues and produces solutions which are fresh, creative, contemporary and, above all, successful.

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