by Daniel Ziegele
Institute of Communication and Media Studies
Leipzig University, Germany

Working in the communications industry is fulfilling, exciting, and fun. But it can also be tough and stressful at times. Complex tasks, tight deadlines, and recurring uncertainty are common. This was so before the COVID-19 pandemic. But stress is hardly ever talked about. It is a taboo subject; people do not like to talk about it. Its true extent becomes apparent only when the bare figures are examined. In the European Communication Monitor (ECM) 2018, more than a quarter of respondents said they suffered from stress, and they found it difficult to cope with. This is reason enough to break the taboo and begin to discuss the issue. In a study awarded best paper at the EUPRERA Conference 2020 and published subsequently in the Journal of Communication Management, Ansgar Zerfass and I (both of Leipzig University) investigated the underlying causes of stress, why some communicators are more resilient than others, and what organisations do to keep their employees mentally healthy.

We interviewed 40 communicators working for PR agencies, half of them in Germany and the other half in the United States. They were young professionals and senior managers. Below are three key findings of our study.

  1. Multiple factors. We identified 17 different stress factors. The most common one (and typical in PR agencies) was client and project responsibility. Time pressure, work-life balance, workload, the need to be always available, and salary were also cited. Some stressors were more common than others; some were typically found amongst senior staff while others were specific to juniors. However, focusing on individual factors does not get us very far; the variety and differences are simply too great. This again shows why stress needs to be talked about.
  2. Resilience must be learnt. Resilience means bouncing back – in the present instance, from stress. Resilient people deal with stress more successfully. They are protected from its negative consequences, like burnout. What characterises resilient communicators? First, they deal consciously with their personal stress factors. Second, they are confident in their ability to deal with any situation – often because they attribute more luck to themselves than to others. Third, they are very solution-orientated. Rather than postpone problems, they tackle them directly. We identified 10 highly resilient communicators in our study. Nine were senior professionals – no wonder: a certain degree of control, authority, and experience is needed to cancel a client, change priorities, or simply not be permanently available.
  3. Agencies have recognised the need to address the problem. But not all of them have the right solutions. The most common resilience builders are health-related programmes such as gym sessions, yoga classes, or happy hours. These can help strengthen self-confidence and enable people to exchange their experience of stress management in an informal setting. However, such provision is often seen as compensatory and palliative. Organisations would be advised to tackle the root cause head-on, as their resilient employees do.

Our study shows the multifaceted nature of the topic and offers insights into the various levers for a healthier approach to stress in the industry. But it is only a start. Stress needs to be discussed more before the taboo around it can be broken. Our paper, “Stress resilience: Researching a key competence for professionals in communication management” is a starting point.

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