Written by Richard Merrin, Managing Director, Spreckley.
Looking back on Lockdown #1, I cannot help but think it was something akin to a weird dream. Glorious weather, warm spring and summer evenings and – despite being trapped in back-to-back Zoom meetings in our home offices nine-to-five - lovely long ‘mandated’ early evening walks on the heath.
It was of course far from ideal, as the pandemic exposed work colleagues’ private lives in ways we simply had not experienced before. As a result, mental health shot up the agency ‘to-do’ list. This soon became a ‘must-have’ not a ‘nice-to-have’. And, as we moved into Lockdown 2, the lessons learned need to be put in place.
Mental health support services should be made available for all employees. From something as simple as letting staff know of the many useful services available and how they can access them, through to full support provided by experts and mental health professionals.
In a time of unprecedented change and upheaval, PR agency employers have a responsibility to their staff to do everything within their power to maintain a sense of order to the working day and week. Maintaining business continuity throughout the pandemic has been one of the toughest challenges I have ever faced as an agency MD.
Yet we have done it, not least to ensure that each member of staff is fully capable of managing their daily, weekly and monthly workflows. And, most importantly of all, to let them know that they are not alone if they are struggling. If anybody has a problem, we’ve put a peer-to-peer buddy system in place, which enables and encourages staff to discuss any potential issues or stresses they are experiencing with a workmate.
If I were to offer three practical tips to other agency MDs on maintaining and managing mental health in the PR workplace throughout these incredibly trying times they would be as follows.
#1 Keep the office open. Keeping our office open throughout Lockdown #2 is a deliberate strategy to support employee’s mental health. Make sure your team know that it is being kept open for those who, for whatever reason, cannot work properly from home. Never underestimate just how important it is for some to work in a different environment.
#2 Encourage peer-to-peer support. At Spreckley, we quickly realised throughout Lockdown #1 that, if and when individual members of staff were struggling with their mental health, they wouldn’t necessarily bring these issues up with their line-manager or in our daily group catch-ups. That’s why we decided to implement regular peer-to-peer buddy catchups, which offer a really great, open and supportive 1-1 forum to talk freely about any potential workplace concerns, stresses or struggles.
#3 Never underestimate the power of ‘virtual socials’. Traditionally, the space to air workplace grievances has often been over a few pints or G‘n’Ts at the Hat and Tun pub, right next-door to the office. And trust me, we are counting the days until we can do that again! As soon as Lockdown #1 hit back in March we instituted daily update calls, weekly quizzes, games and more. Then, as lockdown lifted and the nights got lighter, these tailed off. Much to my surprise when we held an office ‘Town Hall’ meeting in September the one thing everyone wanted back was the weekly meetings. So we are now back to games, quizzes and drinks on a Friday. This was an important part of our culture in 2019 and guess what – it still is. And why? Because the culture, companionship and camaraderie is critical to positive mental health.
In my mind, this last piece of advice is perhaps the most vital, because socialising as a team has genuinely held us together throughout the pandemic. Not only as a group of PRs trying their hardest to service clients through trying times, but our ‘virtual socials’ also act as a regular reminder that, despite most of us working alone in our homes for much of the working week, none of us need ever feel ‘alone’.
It’s a cliché, I do realise, but we work hard and we play hard. Socialising together has always been an important part of any vibrant, creative and committed PR agency culture. And it’s never been more important than it has over the last eight months, because nurturing a culture of companionship and camaraderie is absolutely critical to positive mental health.