Mental Health in the ...


Last week signaled “World Mental Health Day.”

We know mental health is an issue in the communications industry. The PRCA just released a study that showed 48% of PR practitioners in Asia say they’re “going through a particularly stressful period in life right now, and more than a third say the pandemic has worsened their mental health.” The PRCA conducted the same research in Europe with similar results. I’m sure if the questions were asked to PR practitioners in the U.S., the input would follow this pattern.

Obviously, this is a complicated issue.

We don’t pretend to have all the answers. We also recognize that this isn’t just a workplace issue; many variables that have nothing to do with one’s job impact mental health.

Still, as a company we believe we can be a force for good when it comes to our staff’s mental health. Let me take a shot at sharing how this plays out in reality.

The hiring of an employee immediately establishes “trust.” Rather than expect a new person to earn our trust, we start from a place of trust. The individual needs to do something foolish to lose our trust.

This puts more control in the hands of the employee. If the person says they’re jammed and can’t take on that research for a new-biz opportunity, we believe them. If the person is going to be offline for two hours for an airport pickup, we believe them.

Turning to the mission that underpins our culture, the focus is on serving our clients. Sure, every consultancy with a pulse — and perhaps a few without one — say the same thing, but their actions and behavior don’t align with the words. Virtually all PR consultancies measure their account professionals by billability, often including a billing quota. This doesn’t serve the client; it’s a way to optimize financial performance and bolster the bottom-line.

This doesn’t mean we don’t care about financial performance. Of course, we do, allowing us to reward our staff and invest in the company. But it’s not the lead pin that alleviates some of the pressure for the folks on the front line of service delivery.

It’s also fair to say that we are a culture of nice. This adjective has a bad rep as if success and nice are mutually exclusive. Contrary to the infamous words from baseball manager Leo Durocher, “Nice guys can finish first.”

Leo Durocher quote

We are ambitious. We are striving to be the best in the world at what we do. And we can do this while caring about our colleagues and contributing to their success.

How did we end up with “nice” as an attribute of our culture?

We look for this quality during the interviewing process, but I don’t think that’s the overriding reason. No matter how onerous the interviewing process, an individual can put forward a different face. It’s the modeling of the behavior in the day-to-day work that’s created our culture of nice, and not just from the senior leaders. We both celebrate and reward these types of actions.

Given a choice between nice behavior and nasty behavior, what’s easier on the soul?

Client behavior factors into this equation. Our internal employee surveys over the years show that our client contacts have the second most impact on the experience of our employees after the person’s direct manager. We don’t seek out clients with the backbone of a marshmallow. We expect our clients to have high standards. We have high standards. And if something goes awry, it should be brought to our attention with the expectation of a course correction. You just don’t have to be a jerk in communicating the issue to our team. If it turns out that client contact is a jerkaholic, we’ll try to steer the situation between the lines. If that doesn’t work, we’re OK with walking away from the business. We did this in Asia a couple months ago. We’ve done this in the U.S. and Europe. We don’t have to deal with the suits in Chicago or New York or London flinging spreadsheets at us each quarter. We can take a short-term hit to serve our staff even if that means exiting from a mega consumer brand.

Being a diverse and inclusive organization fits into the picture. Our operations in Asia, Europe and the U.S. have taken actions that have had a positive impact on our hiring practices.

Keeping an ear to the ground is equally important. As we’ve experienced a fair amount of growth in the U.S. — for that matter in Europe and Asia as well — during the second half of this year, we didn’t realize that some of our younger professionals had been assigned to four or even five accounts. That’s too much. Some fraying at the edges of service delivery and internal chatter brought this to leadership’s attention prompting a reshaping of account teams and a rethinking of our hiring roadmap.

In response to the pandemic, we made changes last year like the “Going the Extra Kilometer” in the U.S. Realizing that working from home 100% of time was causing a blurring of work/personal boundaries, we wanted to help our staff feel more in control of their time and schedule. The program allows any employee who puts in extra time to get back that time as PTO by putting it in our timekeeping system as “Extra Kilometer.” To make this as easy as possible, it doesn’t require a manager’s approval — completely on the honor system.

When our European team switched to working from home, we gave employees the chance to choose something that would add a special touch to the home office. Choices ranged from a desk to a coffee machine to plants to a ukulele (let’s not evaluate the effect that this last one had on the housemates of the employee in question).

To this point I haven’t even touched on our benefits package which has a role to play in the mental being of our staff such as:

  • Four Strikes and You’re Out Sabbatical (four years of employment qualifies for four weeks off on top of PTO).
  • Mentor program
  • Plenty of time off from Day 1 in all geographies.
  • The Building Bridges program allows a staffer to experience another culture, working in another country for two or three months. For example, before the pandemic, Cecilia Zhong who’s based in our Silicon Valley office spent time in four different offices in Asia.
Travel gif
  • HAAnywhere is a way to extend a personal trip. The Agency picks up the tab for a hotel and other expenses so the person can work out of a different agency office for a day or two.
  • HA Moments allows teams to step away from the day-to-day work to do something fun. For example, one of our offices in Asia took the team on a virtual tour to New Zealand during a HA Moment (rugby jerseys were optional)

Addressing mental health is a never-ending process.

This means being in listening mode — informal day-to-day as well periodically conducting employee surveys — so we understand what our staff is experiencing and how we can get better. In line with this, an internal survey just went out the door in the U.S.

The communications consultancy biz is a tough racket. Pressure on our clients often finds its way to our doorstep.

Still, there’s huge variability in how we handle this with the dots connecting to mental health.

I’ve mentioned before the book by Randy Komisar, “The Monk and the Riddle.” Komisar points out that businesses “are like the laws of physics, neither inherently good nor evil …”

I would add that the quest for “good” requires a continual and purposeful effort.

P.S. Our Asia Pacific MD Caroline Hsu also wrote a post on the topic for the PRCA which you can find here.



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