The importance of good mental health has escaped nobody these past few years. Director of comms Kate Reynolds explains how she approaches looking after herself and her team.
When the going gets tough, how are you managing the mental health of your comms team?
Heart racing, adrenaline pumping, sweaty palms…an entirely normal, evolutionary and human response to extreme stress. But what happens when extreme stress becomes your day-to-day reality as you deal with multiple crises?
Many communications practitioners love the buzz of a good crisis – and I would absolutely place myself in that camp. When a crisis hits, it’s an opportunity to step up, use your skills and build unbreakable bonds with your team. But when there is a long spell of extreme stress, it begins to have a frazzling effect. Believe me, I’ve been there.
So what can you do when you’re feeling like Cruella DeVil in the meme above and how can you help your teams?
Be cognisant of your own mental health
As a leader, you have a long shadow. If you’re in a good place with your mental health, feeling balanced and calm, you’ll be in a much better place to support others so workout what you need to feel that way. I know I need a good night’s sleep and regular exercise, but it might be something else for you. Be a keen observer of your own state of mind, and you’ll be in a better position to support others.
Create a culture of openness around mental health
Thankfully any stigma around mental health is starting to dissipate, but we’re still not where we should be. As leaders of teams, the more we speak about mental health – both generally and specifically our own – the more we create a healthy, open culture. I’m open with my team about my mental health, I feel closer to them as a result, and they feel they can trust me if they are having a hard time too.
Notice when you’re feeling those adrenaline/cortisol spikes
Get good at spotting when you are having a spike of stress hormones in response to something. It’ll mean you’re able to take positive action like deep breathing or going for a walk to help clear your head.
Notice when others are having a spike too
The more you notice those spikes in your own physiology, the more you’ll be able to notice them in others. If someone comes to me with an issue, and they’re speaking fast or are a bit breathless, I know they’re experiencing a spike. I try to slow my own breathing and speech to bring the pace of the conversation down and help them relax. I aim to move into coaching mode, making the person feel supported while helping them think openly about solutions. I wouldn’t claim to get it right 100% of the time, but the more I practice, the easier it becomes.
Get your structures right
It would be disingenuous to talk about the mental health of comms teams during crises without talking about the volume and nature of the work. Sometimes the volume of enquiries can feel like a flood and we can be exposed to awful, and quite frankly harrowing, situations. We often see the worst of things, but are also privileged to see the very best. Over my 20 year career, I’ve seen the media speed up and pressure on journalists increase dramatically which has led to greater demand on comms teams. There’s no perfect answer to this but ultimately your team’s health has to be your number one priority. As a leader, you need to continually be managing the expectations on your team, ensuring they are and feel valued and that you’ve got the right resource in place. A crisis reveals how well-functioning your structures, systems and processes are – or not. You know the saying ‘it’s a marathon not a sprint’? Sometimes, in a crisis, it can feel like a marathon run at sprint pace. But you need to resource up so it becomes more like a 4 x 400m relay race, and people have a chance to switch off, recharge so they can come back refreshed to run their leg.
Encourage healthy boundaries
The next thing you can do is encourage and role model healthy boundaries. As far as possible, I try to work my hours without going wildly over. I don’t want my team seeing that to be in a senior role you have to regularly do 60-hour weeks, which is just not sustainable. Evidently in a crisis, you won’t be neatly clocking in at 9 and out at 5, but you need to draw boundaries that allow people to switch off. In a crisis that might mean creating an A team and a B team working in shifts so everyone gets some rest.
In a crisis it’s easy to forget to celebrate successes, but that’s exactly when you need to. Recognise and reward the good stuff, and move on from the things that haven’t gone as well – there’ll be plenty of time for analysis after the fact. Remind your team that they can handle anything that comes their way because of the resilience they’ve already built up.
Managing crisis communications is a tough gig but it’s also when you get the opportunity to really test your mettle, and it is entirely possible to come out of a crisis with enhanced skills and knowledge, and as a stronger, more resilient team.
If you want to read more on this subject, I highly recommend Chapter 7 of Crisis Communications Strategies by the brilliant Amanda Coleman.
Kate Reynolds is Director of Communications at Sanctuary, a housing and care provider.