It’s time to talk: Why better communication between agency and in-house professionals can improve mental health

Earlier this month, mental health network, State of Us, staged a panel event to explore how to open up the conversation about mental health between agencies and in-house teams. Working on each side of the fence brings many challenges, some quite unique. I invited two of my long-time client partners, Runa Macleod (Vice President Marketing, Westcon-Comstor) and Anushia Nair (Senior Global Communications Manager, to dig into topic with me – and talk about how we could work together to improve experiences with all of our teams.

We ran research with Coleman Parkes across 2000 comms professionals a few months back, to understand the state of play around mental health. What we learned is that one in two have experienced burnout in the last 12 months, which is three times on average every year. These figures are far too high.

We then asked what caused that burnout – the overriding answer was too many demands on my time. What came in second, was client/corporate bullies. This came above commute time, poor pay and poor culture, which shows just how much of an issue it is, for professionals on both sides of the fence.

A ‘them and us’ culture sometimes exists between agencies and in-house teams, which can exacerbate stress, anxiety, and indeed burnout. Here are three key takeaways from the event:

Makes sure trust is the foundation for your partnership

As Runa said ‘trust should be the currency for any positive, healthy relationship’. That extends beyond personal relationships and into the business world, too. By working together in true partnership, ensuring that there is mutual respect between every member of the team and the right level of expectation-setting on both sides, fair deadlines and reasonable budgets – everyone will be set up for the most positive experience possible. It’s all about creating human connections. What’s more, there will be bumps in the road and problems to tackle. If trust is the bedrock, it’ll be much easier to have those conversations and navigate the challenges.

Communicate, and then communicate some more

Quite often, stress and anxiety can appear as the result of our own individual perception of a situation. How often have we spent the night or weekend worrying about an issue, to discover the next morning, or a few days later that it wasn’t actually that bad? Getting ahead of an issue, (or a potential issue) and facing it immediately, will reduce the stress and worry later down the line. By getting on top of the situation, your client (or corporate stakeholder) will appreciate the action. Anushia made the vital point that there is a lost art around communication. She urged “Just pick up the phone. Have a conversation”. Speaking directly, not only gives us a chance to build trust more effectively, but there’s something about hearing someone’s voice which enables you to get a read on a situation, and immediately feel better.

Open up and be honest about issues

While there’s a broader, workplace shift to normalise the conversation around mental health, many businesses are doing this in an insular way. But the more open and honest we are with each other, in agency and client relationships – the better. So, for example, if a team member is taking time off work, because of mental health, rather than physical health challenges, it can help to say that. Not only does it help break down the stigma that exists, it shows that your business (and you!) are normalising the conversation. Runa put it perfectly when she said “This is the reality of our lives and it’s not something we can ignore, so I would encourage individuals in my team and your team to feel they can talk around these issues”.

In this new world of open conversation around mental health, we’ve got to get comfortable talking to everyone – not just the people within our own businesses. As the client/agency relationship is such a critical one for all comms folk, it’s really important to double down on making it as positive as possible.

Written by Katie De Cozar


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