PR Pros and Agencies Cope With COVID Stress

working mom at home distracted by kids

COVID is a new breed of crisis for PR professionals. Coronavirus not only affects the work of PR practitioners, but their home and family life, financial future and overall health.

It’s easy to see why some, if not all, comms pros may be suffering from stress or anxiety induced by the virus. Longer hours and larger workloads while handling childcare or spending days in isolation can have tremendous negative effects on mental health and well-being. We spoke to several agencies and practitioners to see how they are supporting staff and themselves during this time. We also connected with a mental health professional for tips on identifying underlying stressors, and what to do to regroup in a challenging time.

Identifying Stress

Dr. Wayne Jonas is the executive director of Samueli Foundation Integrative Health Programs, which specialize in chronic illness, and the former director of NIH's Office of Alternative Medicine. (Integrative health combines well-being and lifestyle changes with conventional medicine.) Dr. Jonas argues that pushing yourself through stress can lead to physical, emotional and mental burnout.

"The saying 'No pain, no gain' does not apply to stress," Dr. Jonas says. "Your stress response can get stuck in the 'on' position, so you are always in a stressed and anxious state. It is likely that many communications professionals feel this stress but may not recognize the impact prolonged exposure to this 'crisis mode' is creating."

Dr. Jonas noted that signs of burnout can vary, but employees should keep an eye out for behavioral signs such as "poor sleep, apathy, feeling isolated and being overly reactive or tearful." He also said to look for emotional and cognitive signs such as "constant anxiety, fear, sadness and irritability or anger, as well as difficulty concentrating and over-analysis." Physical signs like "pain and fatigue" also play a role.

Communication With Employees

At the beginning of week four of working from home for many SHIFT Communications employees, managing partner Rick Murray shared some inspiring words with staff.

How an employer communicates with staff during the COVID crisis can have a serious impact on an employee’s comfort and interest level. Many agencies and PR departments are taking a look at what they can do to support employees who may be struggling during this time.

"This pandemic has identified gaps in our employee wellbeing strategies," Dr. Jonas says. "I don't believe enough employers had stopped to think about the mental wellbeing of their staffs. Are they encouraging mindfulness strategies and meditation to reduce stress overall? Are they encouraging employees to take breaks or are they expected to answer messages within minutes? Do employees feel like they can ask for help and be vulnerable during this time, or do they feel they need to be multitasking superheroes?"

Kim Sample, PR Council president, organizes a thrice-weekly call with human resources agency leaders to talk about strategies regarding caring for the mental health of employees.

"Young people are living alone and would like to be back with family, but might not be able to travel. Parents of school-aged kids are working while homeschooling; folks are caring for elderly family members. [It] adds this new layer of stress, along with everything virus-related," Sample says.

On Sample's call, she discusses everything from how to encourage staff to take advantage of PTO days in creative ways, to helping employees understand the Families First Act.

"Companies are looking at what [employees] need right now," Sample says.

FleishmanHillard is one example of a company putting employees' needs first. The agency encourages staff to take the crisis step-by-step rather than becoming overwhelmed by the big picture.

"We are working from a mindset that life is not defined by what happens to you, but rather by how you react to what happens," says Emily Frager, senior partner, member of FleishmanHillard's leadership Cabinet and general manager of the firm's Los Angeles and Orange County operations. "We are encouraging people to take it one day at a time and make the best decisions you can for today…for clients and themselves. Just giving people permission to take it one day at a time seems to go a long way."

BerlinRosen looks to make their staff the facilitators of well-being initiatives, as well as providing them with resources they need. Activities include "Core O'Clock" (daily video exercises), guided meditation sessions facilitated by employees, a March Madness-style pet photo contest and story time led by employees' kids.

"Mental health and employee wellbeing are a top priority for us, especially as we've shifted to remote work," says COO David Levine. "We've provided options for staff to receive remote therapy sessions with a mental health provider and are also coordinating remote group sessions for those interested. We've encouraged staff to take breaks during the day, take PTO for mental health, share best practices to adapt to WFH and keep doing all we can to maintain a sense of normalcy during these extraordinary times."

At Red Havas, managers share their own needs with staff to promote transparency, as well as showcasing the benefits of stepping away from what can be daunting work.

"We encourage our team to take wellness breaks through the day, working around client and family commitments," says Linda Descano, executive vice president at Red Havas. "Many of us on the leadership team are taking these breaks ourselves—and being transparent about them—to reinforce the importance of finding balance and stepping away."

Winding Down

Communicators can be so focused on meeting client and organizational needs that they can forget the importance of taking a breath and unplugging when the day is over.

Gene Grabowski, partner at Washington, D.C.-based firm kglobal, says he's found sticking to a schedule to be effective in terms of productivity.

"For the first two weeks of the lockdown, I was disoriented and easily distracted from my work at home," Grabowski says. "But last week I decided to maintain my regular work schedule and it's made all the difference." Grabowski ends his work day at 5 p.m. and takes a 30-minute walk, followed by cocktails and dinner with his wife in their dining room. (After-dinner activities include a Netflix movie or game of Scrabble.)

"Work and recreation during the lockdown has become a routine for me," he says. "It will take some time to transition back to the 'real world' once this is over."

For others, maintaining a traditional work-from-home schedule has been a challenge, but movement and breaks during the day have helped.

"It's hard to step away [from work], especially during times of crisis," says Emily Ciraolo, assistant director, corporate communications at National Fuel. "I've committed to walking the dogs every day and cooking my meals as it forces me to stand up and move around for a bit, even if I'm listening to a webinar as I do it. It's been stressful, but I'm also grateful to have an opportunity to put my skills to work–especially some that have been sleeping–and help usher the company into a virtual new normal."

Bethany Evans, director of digital marketing and loyalty at The North Face, juggles work with childcare, but also finds the time for movement after she puts her boys to bed.

"I've been unwinding with a virtual yoga class followed by a short Core meditation," Evans says. "It's helping to clear my mind so I can actually get some sleep."

And of course reaching out to coworkers, family and friends remains paramount as social distancing and isolation continue to take their toll.

"Staying in touch with family and friends has been key, whether it's a video chat, phone call or text message," says Erin Collins, social media and content strategist at Gelia. "Some of my co-workers and I watched a movie together using Netflix Party, and it was great to reconnect on a social level—something we are all missing right now!"

Jennifer Fisher, chief well-being officer at Deloitte LLP, reminds us that it's also okay to reach out to these connections on "down" days.

"I think it's really important to say when we aren't doing OK—I have certainly had these moments—and when I do, I reach out to family or friends to talk it through," Fisher says. "Although right now the pandemic may feel endless, we need to remind ourselves and each other that it won't be. The need for social distancing and the disruption to life as we know it isn't permanent, and knowing that makes it easier to cope."