Skip to content

Turning policy into living, breathing practice

By Beth Gaudin

31 January 2018
, ,

Being a PR professional can be hard. No one really understands what we do; and those that have some idea often don’t like the sound of it. We tend to have clients on one side and journalists on the other. We’re a service industry with deadlines and jobs that don’t always fit into the 9-5 model. So, it’s probably not really a surprise that we also often end up on the most stressful jobs in the UK lists. Last year CareerCast featured PR Profession at number 9 on its list. This, obviously, can put an enormous strain on the wellbeing of those employed in the industry.

This is not news to anyone who runs a PR agency. But, the issue of what we do in response can often seem difficult to grapple with. It remains vital that we consider the ramifications and potential mitigations of a stressful and difficult job, and indeed, those that go with any job where sitting at a desk for eight hours a day is required.  We must tackle these issues not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because we’re an industry built entirely on our people. We are no more and no less than the people we employ and therefore they should be our first priority.

Issues with poor physical and mental health cause a multitude of problems from sick-leave to presenteeism. Recent research found £35 billion* is lost every year due to poor health – if you break that down, it equates to £10.6bn in sickness absence, £21.2bn in reduced productivity and £3.1bn in replacing staff who leave their jobs because of mental health-related reasons. A separate report by Prime Minister Theresa May in October found a staggering 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lose their job every year. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the problem actually seems to be getting worse. Gallop found there has been a 15% drop in people reporting being happy or thriving over the past two years. This is the biggest drop they have ever recorded.

It’s a daunting problem with no easy solution, given the nature of the work we do and the need to ‘always-on’ for our clients. Progress has been made and many businesses and agencies specifically, now have mental health policies. But it is one thing to have a policy, it’s another to put it into practice.

At Forster we’ve been grappling with that challenge since we were founded in 1996 and recently used our experience from behaviour change campaigns to turn policy into practice.  We started with a policy built around the “six ways to wellbeing” (be active, eat well, connect, take notice, learn, give back) with a specific focus on mental health.

We then did what we are constantly telling our clients to do and listened to the people that mattered – our employees. We built up a picture of the barriers and motivators for our employees when it came to wellbeing and put them in charge of developing the approaches we would take as a business.

The end result is a policy that is knitted into how we operate as a business. Exercise is a key component of wellbeing but our team said they often didn’t have the time to be active during the working day. So we put the focus on building exercise into our working day and offering incentives for getting involved – we give the equivalent of two days annual leave for everyone who walks or cycles to work every day and pay 50p a mile for cycling or walking to and from meetings. Breakfast was a key battleground for our team when it came to eating well so we also offer healthy breakfasts and fruit to snack on for free, making healthier decisions easier. We’re pleased to say it’s working, as we’ve been named Britain’s Healthiest workplace for two consecutive years. We’ve also embedded truly flexible working into our day-to-day for every level of our workforce.

But it’s also important to remain at the forefront of issues, so we constantly review our policies to see if they could be better. That’s why this summer, we decided to take the step to extend paid leave to all employees at Forster who are new parents, not just mums. We’re now offering up to 20 weeks of paid leave to all parents, any time in the first year after their child is born. This means that not only are we supporting our employees financially, but also giving them the flexibility to take advantage of that benefit at a time that suits them. So if, for example, fathers want to take their 20 weeks 6 months in, they can.

For our industry, and many others, mental health remains a growing issue. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the impact of mental health as well as uncertainty amongst businesses about how to tackle it. Which is why we’re so proud of our work with BITC and PHE to create three toolkits for employers, to help them better understand the issues around mental health and how to create a culture that supports those who are suffering. These are around mental health, sleep, suicide prevention and post-vention. These are free to access, and give businesses of all sizes the information they need to create a healthier workplace.

It’s not a simple one size fits all and policies and issues will continue to evolve. That’s why it’s important to keep the conversation going. Listening and reacting is what we as an industry do best, but it’s time to turn that inwards and see how we can best support our employees.

*MHFA England