Communicators in Crisis: Workplace anxiety as a professional hazard

Categories: News

By Anthea Rowe, President, IABC London

“I feel like I’m failing at everything in my life,” Vicky confided one busy afternoon two years ago.

I’ve often felt the same.

Vicky and I (her name is changed to protect her privacy) were discussing the challenges of communicating in the 21st century. I was preparing a lesson for a comms graduate course at Western and had called her for subject matter expertise on corporate social responsibility.

But our conversation quickly shifted to commiserating about our shared challenges navigating comms work in the 21st century. Why did it feel like things were getting harder? Why were we questioning our expertise, our intelligence, our ability to manage projects… even as we were objectively getting better and more experienced at our roles?

Vicky is a 34-year old communications professional based in Ottawa. She has a stellar work history and a stable communications role at a mid-size organization. She likes the type of work she does day-to-day and is good at it.

I’m slightly older than Vicky but have a similar track record of varied comms roles, volunteerism within the profession, professional awards and honours, and glowing performance reviews (with one notable exception, which I discuss below).

In my 20s I had immense confidence in my skills, my capacity and my intelligence.

I could do anything! Looking back, I realize some of that confidence was misplaced. I made a ton of mistakes during that period of my life. And I often took on more than I could handle – with the untenable workload serving as a source of stress.

But during that period I also did much of the work I’m most proud of.

in my early 30s I noticed a creeping anxiety – a fear of failure that made me afraid to take risks. Even as I got objectively better at predicting, avoiding and mitigating mistakes, my fear of making mistakes got irrationally higher. Vickey’s experience echoed mine.

We wondered… who else was facing work-related anxiety?

According to a 2017 Globe and Mail article on workplace mental health, it’s estimated 500,000 employees call in sick every day in Canada due to mental illness. Depression and anxiety cost the Canadian economy at least $32.3-billion a year.

Over the last 10 years, there’s been an explosion of management books, self-help books, TED talks, workshops, podcasts and webinars dedicated to boosting confidence, overcoming anxiety, “faking it ‘til you make it,” acknowledging shame and more.

I take two things from this proliferation of self-help resources. First, there are many people in Canada and beyond struggling with mental health issues at work and at home. Second, the tools we’ve developed through neuroscience, medicine and psychology are still nowhere close to unlocking the mysteries of how our brains and bodies function.

As the Globe article showed, many people experience mental health issues in the workplace. Mental health issues don’t discriminate – they appear in all professions, at every level of seniority, in both genders and across every age group.

Organizations now have policies to accommodate and support employees experiencing unmanageable levels of stress, anxiety, depression, etc. Even colleges and universities have developed mental health services to help students deal with debilitating anxiety, exam stress and fear of failure.

Communicators are experiencing work-related anxiety and stress as much as – or more than – the general population.

Ask any communicator how she’s doing. She’ll likely tell you she feels overworked, under-valued, stressed out and struggling to keep up. In an informal poll this November, I asked 12 communicators to describe in one word how they were feeling. The responses: “Frantic.” “Stressed.” “Screaming busy.” “Overwhelmed.” “Busy.” “Tired.”

This reality is not limited to the London communications community.

The “crazy stressed” sentiment is echoed by communications clients I work with across Canada and the US. People are so stressed, so worried, so anxious that they practically vibrate. The term “frenetic” comes to mind.

PR professional is one of the “worst jobs.”

In a CareerCast study, the job board company ranked “PR Executive” as the eighth most stressful job in North America. The same study ranked “Event Coordinator” – a role often held by communicators when they’re not generating PR – as fifth most stressful.

Journalists – the yin to communicators’ yang – didn’t fare much better than PR pros. “Broadcaster” ranked tenth most stressful and “Newspaper Reporter” sixth.

To be clear, CareerCast’s study wasn’t an assessment of the most stressful corporate jobs. This was an assessment of all jobs. Job rankings two, three and four are held by Firefighters, Airline Pilots, and Police Officers, respectively. The number one most stressful job? Enlisted Military Personnel.

To compile the list, CareerCast measured jobs using “11 factors that might induce tension, fear and discomfort.” The factors included physical demands, travel, hazards, the possibility of death (!), deadlines and competition.

Granted, the list leaves something to be desired as far as rigour is concerned. It’s not the most scientific study. Still… Consider the occupations absent from this list. Where are the Emergency Room Doctors? Oil rig workers? Electricians? Subway Train Operators? These people are responsible for other people’s lives or regularly put their own at risk. And they don’t even make the list.

Why are communicators especially prone to work-related anxiety?

Communications ranks high for work-related anxiety because it exists at a confluence of professional, technical, economic and societal factors. Each of these factors on its own is likely to cause stress among people in other fields.

But combined, the factors create a perfect storm.

First, we’ve built a poor brand for the comms profession.

Communications as a profession is broad and ill-defined. Comms encompasses a range of roles – from website manager and social media coordinator to speech writer, media relations officer and employees comms coordinator. The range of roles is broad, and the scope of responsibilities within a given role is often broad.

Most people have a general understanding of what an accountant, architect, electrical engineer, HR manager or health and safety manager does in a given day. But few people outside the profession know instinctively what a communicator does. My mother-in-law still thinks I’m an event planner.

No one understands what we do.

Because our profession is broad and ill-defined, other people simply don’t know what we do. And that’s dangerous. It leaves us susceptible to having additional workloads dumped on our plates, having our work undermined by non-subject matter experts, and – in the worst-case scenario – having our roles eliminated because we couldn’t show how we create value.

I once had the president I reported to look me in the eye and say: “I don’t understand what you do.” He was president of a 500-person company. I had presented to him repeatedly about my role and my projects. I had delivered weekly summaries of activities and results. I had developed sound bites to bring my role to life.

And still he couldn’t wrap his head around what I was doing for the company – let alone explain it to someone else. Suffice to say – you can’t thrive in your role when your leader doesn’t understand how you add value for your organization.

No one will give you power or the ability influence strategic direction if they fail to understand what you do. And according to the American Psychological Association, “a feeling of powerlessness” is a universal cause of job stress.

As a profession we must build a better brand. We must build brand for ourselves, for our roles and for our profession!

Our work is open to regular public criticism.

By definition, the majority of the work we do is available for public consumption – and criticism.

Few people see the planning and research that happen behind the scenes. The majority of stakeholders only ever see the final communication campaign. But everyone certainly has an opinion on the campaign.

We don’t typically walk into the CFO’s office and critique the way he or she prepares a budget forecast. We don’t lean over a product engineer’s cubicle and say: “You should add a DC outlet to that fast-charging external adapter.”

Most people’s work is done behind closed doors and shared only with peers, project members, direct reports and managers on an as-needed basis. By definition, the majority of what we do is publicly visible. It’s on display either inside or outside our organization. And EVERYONE has an opinion about it.

The logo should be red. The website should include a widget with real-time price updates. The employees receiving service awards at the Town Hall should have been invited to speak. The new ad campaign is uninspiring.

The relentless tide of criticism is EXHAUSTING.

The work we do appears subjective. But if we’re doing it right, it’s grounded in research and best practice. The challenge of handling criticism has two parts: 1) educating people about the process that goes into communications planning; and 2) caring less what everyone thinks.

Is it possible for communicators to care less about what others think?

Communicators are people-pleasers.

In my unscientific assessment, communicators tend to be affable relationship-builders. They are capable of forging personal connections across the organization, up and down the org chart, with industry contacts outside the organization, with media representatives and with community stakeholders.

Communicators generally like people, like to interact with people and like to make people happy. Liking people and being able to get along with them is a valuable skill set for keeping a finger on the pulse of a stakeholder group, channeling the language of your stakeholders, or fostering buy-in for a project.

But overly valuing interpersonal relationships can makes communicators susceptible to people-pleasing and over-commitment.

In the past, I’ve been guilty of accepting projects because I didn’t want to say no. I’ve since gotten better at realistically assessing my capacity. But it still KILLS me to say no to a project, a client, a speaking request, a volunteer engagement… you name it.

There are many examples of how communicator personality traits serve as double-edged swords.

Many communicators are deadline-driven.

Some communicators are former journalists. Others are journalists at heart. But the majority of us are most productive and most energized when working to a deadline. The tighter the better. (Hello, Gold Quill extensions from IABC!)

The problem is that, as projects increase and budgets dwindle, the number of deadlines go up while the resources available to meet those deadlines go down. This leaves communicators scrambling to juggle many conflicting deadlines all the time.

You can’t feel successful, calm, or relaxed when you’re constantly bumping up against multiple conflicting deadlines. The default solution becomes less sleep – and we all know that’s an unhealthy option.

Many of us are also Type A personalities – we like to control outputs and can err on the side of perfectionism.

Sometimes our attention to detail is critical. We do several rounds of edits to catch grammar and spelling mistakes. We review internal comms plans with HR to ensure no employee group gets missed from a communication. We polish executive presentations to ensure they send a message that’s polished and on brand.

But in today’s climate, we must be selective about our perfectionism.

We can no longer afford to strive for perfection in every aspect of our roles. A senior executive once told a global gathering of 120 high potential leaders from their Fortune 500 consulting firm: “Aim for 80%. We no longer have the time or resources to achieve 100% every time.”

And a former colleague, who is now president of a national sustainability consultancy, once advised me: “Don’t waste time making it pretty.”

It breaks our hearts to hear this. And it pains me to write it. But it’s the truth. We need to spend our energy on the things that matter – and let the other stuff drop.

These leaders are not encouraging people to deliver sloppy work or to execute projects that fail to meet objectives. They are encouraging professionals to focus obsessively on the objectives, and – once those objectives are met – to move on.

This “80%” approach itself causes anxiety because we fear we’ll get criticized for the 20% we ignore. (Pro tip: No one but us will ever know what more could have gone into that slide deck, executive speech, media release or presentation. If it got the job done, it’s done.)

“Three factors undermine confidence: Overthinking, people pleasing and dwelling on past failures.”

In their book The Confidence Code, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman suggest three factors are associated with lack of confidence: “overthinking, people pleasing and dwelling on past failures.”

Their book combines academic research from psychology and neuroscience with hundreds of interviews with successful men and women. I highly recommend it.

Technology means we’re always available.

Much has been said about the down-sides of our “always-on, plugged-in” society. I won’t rehash it here.

The key for communicators is this… the very tools we rely on to do our jobs also increase our anxiety and stress. Being reachable at all times – and having work at your fingertips at all times – causes anxiety. But, like a person with an eating disorder who cannot opt to stop eating, communicators cannot opt to stop using communication tools.

(Trust me, I’ve spent hours figuring out whether it’s possible to abandon my digital footprint entirely while still remaining a credible communications consultant. The closest I came was deleting the Facebook and Instagram apps from my phone.)

While we can’t give up technology cold turkey, we can become more aware of the impact technologies have on our well-being. Notice: Did reading that article from Advertising Age enrich my life? Did the post I just made to the IABC LinkedIn group benefit me? Did it benefit others? Does responding to my boss’ emails at 6 a.m. make me feel in control of my day? Or does it stress me out more than waiting until 9?

With awareness of the impact technology has on our wellbeing, we can set boundaries for technology interactions that fulfill our job requirements without draining our souls.

Still, everyone is expected to do more with less.

It’s old news. Expectations are rising even as resources continue to shrink.

The phenomenon of having more work than time is not unique to communicators. Everyone is trying to do more with less. We’ve been trying to do more with less for the last 20 years.

For any communicator unaffected by the factors listed so far, this one is likely to get them.

The sheer volume of work, combined with increased demands outside work – maintaining a household, shuttling kids to activities, building more and better career skills through ongoing professional development, pursuing Instagram-worthy leisure activities, supporting non-profit causes around the world – is enough to make anyone anxious.

We’re simply doing too much. And the epidemic of stressed-out communicators threatens to undermine our profession.

Suffering from chronic stress or anxiety is unhealthy and unproductive. It’s dangerous to the affected individuals. And it signals a larger problem for our profession.

The individual and the profession suffer when communicators stop taking creative risks, when talented communicators step away from their comms careers – temporarily or permanently – because of stress.

We have a collective obligation to address the crippling effect of work-related stress and anxiety in the communications profession.

Comms leaders, business leaders, and communications professionals all need to ask ourselves:
•How did we get to this point?

•What am I doing to exacerbate the problem?

•And what can I do to fix it?


Comment for a chance to win “The Confidence Code

Post a comment and share your thoughts on work-related anxiety in communications.
The IABC Board will vote for the top three comments and draw one winner to receive a copy of “The Confidence Code” by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman

5 Responses to "Communicators in Crisis: Workplace anxiety as a professional hazard"

  1. Keith Marnoch Posted on December 18, 2017 at 12:06 pm

    Not much I can dispute here, Anthea. I sense you took a long and deserved sigh when you finished writing this. Almost too many issues for a single piece, but that’s the point. All that communicators we are responsible for, how much those contributions are noted or valued, and the fact that communications aren’t that noticeable until they are noticed, are all elements of a landscape that we continually have to grapple with when reflecting on our work, and careers more generally. There is strength and confidence in numbers. One of the underlying benefits of IABC is the opportunity for us to share our experiences, to commiserate, as well as recognize possibilities to advance that which we are charged to communicate. This is a great piece for everyone to heed, but also take solace in, as we collectively ride the ever-evolving roller coaster known simply as ‘Communications’. Sorry – no snappy resolutions or fixes to offer from this ‘comms guy’ at present.

  2. Andrew Kaszowski Posted on December 19, 2017 at 9:45 am

    Anthea, this is a powerful piece. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Nadine Reeves Posted on December 19, 2017 at 11:22 am

    I can relate to all of this as a one-person Comms team!

  4. Stephanie Winterton Posted on December 20, 2017 at 3:39 pm

    Wow. Not only is this well-crafted, but incredibly easy to relate to. I sat here reading and found myself chuckling as I related to the times I called in sick to take a mental health day, felt like I didn’t have enough time (which, truthfully, is almost daily), and having people not fully understand my role.

    My organization comms team has been one person for years, recently becoming 1.5, and finally in 2018 we’ll have two full-time staff dedicated to it. When you look over the responsibilities of these positions, it’s in awe that one person ever tried to juggle it all. The 80%/20% split is a sad reality, as many things fall to the wayside as other priorities take precedence. I think that the pressure to adapt and be flexible as new projects and tasks arise (like those last minute social media requests in your perfectly crafted content calendar) creates additional stress, too.

    Yet, despite it all, I love what I do and I love the organization I’m a part of.

  5. Liisa Sheldrick Posted on December 20, 2017 at 11:08 pm

    In short, I can relate.
    There has been a lot of discussion about resiliency and the positive and negative affects of stress; as well as coping strategies. I have my own personal theories on information inundation and what that’s doing to anxiety levels, not to mention short-term memory and that ‘busy’ feeling. I do believe we are architects of our own circus at times; by not protecting our calendars, learning to say no, and effectively prioritizing (which means some things actually don’t get done). It’s a challenge when you set high expectations; as one great leader once said to me, letting the right things get dropped. I’m not sure I have answers either, but I know my message light on my desk phone is always on; I have more unread email that ever in my life; and I too have removed the facebook app from my phone (can’t delete twitter and instagram yet). One book I read that also helped was called Essentialism:

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