A wellbeing guide for comms professionals
Taking care of our mental health should not be something that falls down the list of priorities, especially when working in the ‘always on’ culture of comms. So how do we make sure we are taking steps to protect ourselves and others?
Kirsty is a copywriter, accredited trainer and consultant working in the charity sector. She has a regular column in Third Sector where she writes about all things digital and was named one of the 100 most influential people in the charity sector.
Lightful is a technology company for social good, helping good people and great causes better realise their purpose and ambitions. Lightful’s social media management platform helps charities raise more awareness and funds for their work. Alongside this, Lightful Labs is a full-service, creative technology consultancy working with great charities across multiple cause areas transform their approach to digital.
Wellbeing in a social media age
I’ve been working in charity communications since 2009, just as social media was becoming mainstream and gaining recognition as a channel that charities needed to be on. Over the years, the growth of social media has meant that we are closer to our supporters, volunteers, beneficiaries and even our colleagues than ever before. But with this growth comes the pressure of being ‘always on’, the expectation of needing to respond instantly and the increasing inability to switch off.
It’s not just those of us who work in social media who feel this. How often do you check your work email outside of work hours? If you work in PR, media, or any other form of direct or indirect communications, no doubt you are also ‘always on’. Technology has made it easier to check in at any time of the day or night – whether it’s emails, social media channels, WhatsApp or Slack – work is never far away. Back in 2009 I certainly didn’t have access to work emails on my phone, nor would I check social media out of office hours. So much has changed in just ten years but how much has changed when it comes to looking after our wellbeing?
In the last couple of years, there’s been a noticeable increase in charity communications crises that have both started and gained pace on social media. Most recently a children’s charity experienced one that lasted for several days. It was the relentlessness of this crisis that made me really think about the wellbeing of the teams involved and what support they were being offered. I think most organisations don’t recognise that those who manage their social media are on the frontline and are often the first point of contact for someone, whether they’re simply asking for help or support or whether they’re trolling the organisation. I wrote about it in Third Sector and the response was overwhelming, which led to the creation of this guide.
I’ve worked in a variety of organisations, from small charities to large and the range of support on offer varies hugely. With one in four of us experiencing a mental health problem, it’s imperative that we put in place tools, techniques and frameworks to help ourselves and our colleagues. In this guide, you’ll find case studies from charities on how they look after wellbeing in their organisation. There are also tips and techniques from wellbeing experts and counsellors to help you build resilience and look after your mental health.
Wellbeing is all of our responsibility. This guide is for everyone – whether you’re a sole communicator or you work in a team of twenty. Every article is written to help anyone, at any stage of their career, and with every organisation in mind. It’s also a living guide, meaning that it can be added to over time. If you’re a charity leading the way when it comes to staff wellbeing, or you’re a mental health professional, get in touch to share your tips.
A word from our sponsor…
CEO and Co-Founder of Lightful
At Lightful we passionately believe that those doing the greatest good deserve the best technology.
Having worked closely with Kirsty and our friends and colleagues at CharityComms for some time, we have been very happy to support this guide, which comes at a vital time for individuals and organisations in the sector.
Social media offers us an amazing opportunity to get to know our supporters and to have meaningful conversations with them. But we also know that there is a lot of negativity on social media, and it’s important that we know how to deal with it, and address it head-on. We started a campaign to #ReclaimSocial in 2018 as a way to counteract that negativity and to spread more positivity. So far the campaign has reached 40 million people and every month on our Reclaim Social podcast, we speak to inspiring people who are making social media more positive, one post at a time.
Collectively, we can – and must – do more to focus on that positivity and wellbeing in a rapidly evolving digital age. We are delighted to sponsor this guide; we hope it is of use to you and that it will also trigger further initiatives to support those working in charity communications to look after their wellbeing.
Tips to improve mental health
Warning signs and advice
When we think about wellbeing at work, we tend to think about it in the context of crisis situations. Yet as a charity communication professional you are dealing with challenging situations every day – whether it’s listening to someone who has a terminal illness tell their story or seeing abusive messages from people who don’t agree with what your organisation does.
The scale of what communications professionals deal with is vast. There are obvious causes that we would expect to bring up heightened emotions, such as charities who support people with life-limiting diseases or support those who are bereaved. And then there are charities who fight for human rights, and support refugees, who are subjected to racist abuse on an almost daily basis. Even animal welfare charities are criticised for certain policies that some people don’t agree with. Every charity is affected and so too are their staff.
It’s important to recognise the daily, ‘business as usual’ situations that you as a communications professional consistently face, that could be impacting on your mental health. Just because it’s not about you personally, doesn’t mean that it’s not internalised and won’t impact your wellbeing. Over time, the effect of hearing and seeing emotionally distressing or even abusive messages, will take its toll.
That’s why knowing the signs or common indicators of mental health issues is really important so that you can spot them and address them. Just as you might provide a duty of care to your beneficiaries or case studies, you need to be supported too.
Helen Breakwell is a qualified counsellor who previously worked in the communications team at a leading cancer charity for 15 years. Helen shares what you should be looking out for when it comes to the signs and symptoms of mental health problems – which can in some cases manifest physically – and offers seven tips to look after your wellbeing.
How to recognise and look after your mental health
Counsellor, Wellspring Therapy Service
When people are working in the charity communications sector, they are often inspired to perform well and tasked with unrelenting deadlines. This combination of feeling motivated and pressured to keep working hard for the cause can be rewarding but can also lead to stress and burnout.
Recently there has been a bigger focus on the impact of mental health at work. In 2017 the Government-backed ‘Thriving at work report’ identified that poor mental health costs employers up to £42 billion a year. And the report recommends that all employers should adopt six mental health core standards, including charities. It’s important to remember that you have a responsibility for your mental health, but your employer should be effectively supporting this too.
Here are common indicators of poor mental health:
Stress and anxiety
When you feel stressed, your body is triggering an internal response to push you to take action. The brain is activating nerves and hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to protect you against a potential threat. In modern life these threats could include a big deadline or having to give a presentation. Some degree of life pressure is normal and helps you get up in the morning but when a large amount of stress is happening on a daily basis, this can be damaging.
What are some of the common warning signs of stress? Being unable to wind down or relax, feeling anxious, working every day (including weekends), and dreading work. Physical symptoms could include headaches, stomach problems, tight chest, throat or jaw.
If you’re being affected by a number of these regularly, your body is telling you that you need to make some healthy long-term changes (read on for tips).
The culture of your organisation can have a big impact on how you’re feeling. You may be working in an environment where there is a sense of cohesion and people feel able to speak up and be supported. Having trusted conversations where you can share openly is really helpful. If you don’t feel you can trust anyone where you work, then this is a warning sign that either you’re not in a safe trusting environment (which is concerning) or this could be a pattern of how you relate to people – maybe see a counsellor about this.
Workplace bullying can be defined as spreading a malicious rumour or regularly undermining a colleague. The key thing to look out for is a pattern of behaviour. If you notice that a colleague is repeatedly, unfairly treated this could be bullying or harassment (which in some cases, is unlawful). You can help by listening to your colleague, suggest they make a note of dates, what happened, and how they felt about it. If they gather information (by recording face-to-face meetings or email etc) they could approach their line manager, HR or ACAS if they are unable to resolve things informally.
You are part of developing the culture of the organisation you work for. By supporting your colleagues and speaking up on ethical matters, you’re influencing your environment.
The content that people are working with can often produce strong reactions. Sometimes it’s specifically created to encourage people to donate or raise awareness, such as posts on social media or working with case studies. These feelings can be intensified if it’s a particularly harrowing subject or the issues have personally affected you. Having personal experience can give you valuable insight but if it’s not approached thoughtfully it could have a harmful impact and, in extreme cases, be re-traumatising. Try and be conscious of what you’re feeling when working on particular campaigns and take time to reflect and support yourself.
Now that you have some insight into the indicators of poor mental health, how can you ensure that you look after your mental health?
Seven tips for better mental health
Take breaks from work and try not to get caught up in emails when you have time off. Consciously create spaces where you feel safe. Find activities outside of work that you enjoy and help you not to think about work (eg. yoga or running).
Support at work
When people are experiencing mental health issues (such as depression) four in five UK workers say that support from their employer could help them recover more quickly. Think about the support network that’s in place and what else could be offered. Charities could adopt a tiered approach depending on the severity of the issue. From line manager training and formalised peer support, to a high-quality employee assistance programme and counselling.
Ask if this gives you a chance to escape or if this also feels troublingly pressured?
Consider your go-to’s in your day-to-day life, especially when you’re stressed. If you’re regularly reaching for things that probably won’t help in the long-term – like alcohol, drugs, junk food and even work itself – think about how you can address this. Try not to be afraid to ask if you need more support – Adfam.org has a list of useful organisations.
Having a healthy diet and taking part in regular exercise can help improve your wellbeing. Sleep is another important factor and preparing to sleep (eg. through guided meditation or a regular routine) is really beneficial.
A recent landmark study showed the benefits of having 120 minutes a week in nature for improved health and wellbeing. A research base is growing to show how important it is to get outside and into green spaces.
If your role involves a lot of digital technology then allowing yourself to take breaks is important. If you find that you’re closing your laptop to then just pick up your phone, your brain is not getting much of a break from the onslaught of information. If your role involves ‘on call’ work, then it’s even more vital that you take breaks from the screen because your brain is frequently being alerted to potential threats –such as a troll.
Try turning off your phone at 9pm, not having it in your bedroom and having a screen-free day on Sunday. Getting into a routine and adjusting your lifestyle is a much easier way to make a long-term change.
Consider work as part of the picture of your overall mental health. What’s good, what’s not and how can you influence this? Try and put down the unrealistic expectation of being perfect or always doing more. Remember you are a finite resource that needs support to thrive too!
About the author:
Helen is a qualified counsellor (face-to-face, online and phone) and a member of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy. She has worked in the charity/not for profit sector for 18 years, with over 15 years experience in communications.
Charities do amazing work and those who work for them often feel like they want to do as much they can, which can lead to stress and sometimes burnout. It’s not uncommon for charity communications professionals to work beyond their required hours but this doesn’t lead to a healthy work-life balance. Nor does it help the charity if you are then signed off for stress. When you really care about the cause it can become all consuming but it’s important to make time for interests outside of work, such as a hobby or just meeting up with non-work friends.
Beyond just the internalised effects of stress and burnout, there can also be clear physical indicators as this is our body’s way of warning us that things may be amiss. Try to be more in tune with what is happening with your body so that you can spot when something isn’t quite right and you can address what’s really going on.
Consciously choosing to really switch off is highly beneficial because we need to give our minds time to rest. If you’re worried about how much screen time you’re getting, there are apps that can switch off when you put a time limit on them, or at a certain time of the day or night.
By investing some time in yourself, you’ll be better equipped to deal with stress and also to recognise it in others.
Looking after each other
Benefits of team support
Most charities deal with challenging issues. It’s the job of a communications professional to tell the stories of those in need, and those that charities help, in a compelling and emotional way so that people will feel motivated to take action. This may be ‘business as usual’ but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take its toll.
The value of support in distressing situations cannot be underestimated because, over time, the exposure to emotionally challenging content will start to affect your own wellbeing if you don’t find an outlet to share and talk about your feelings.
One of the best ways to do this is to talk to a colleague or a manager about how you’re feeling, because they understand your situation as they are in it themselves. Being honest about whether something is troubling or affecting you is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. Being able to share and unburden with your team will also bring you closer together and help improve your working relationship.
One charity who knows this all too well is Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity. The communications and digital teams work closely together to build resilience and to support each other, particularly when they’re in the media spotlight. In this case study they share six ways that they support staff wellbeing on a daily basis.
Six ways Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity is supporting staff wellbeing every day
Dr Heather Morgan
Director of People and Planning
Senior Press Officer at GOSH
Head of Digital Engagement at GOSH
Every day 619 seriously ill children from across the UK come through the doors of Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH).
GOSH Charity exists to raise vital funds to support the hospital’s most urgent needs and support the hospital to give seriously ill children who need help the most, the best chance for life.
The communications and digital teams tell the stories of these incredible children and their families, who are going through some of the most challenging times. These are often very sensitive and emotional stories and both teams have a variety of systems and resources in place to ensure they are supported through their work. It’s our resilience and ways of working in these ‘business as usual’ times which have strengthened the teams and enabled us to support each other during periods of heightened activity or “crisis”.
Being ‘one team’
The communications and digital engagement teams have cultivated a way of working where we operate as one team, despite sitting in two departments. The social media manager and digital content manager take turns to join the Monday morning press team huddle, and this information is shared with the digital engagement team in their stand-up. These are the diarised moments, but the teams do informally check-in with each other throughout the week – ensuring PR or celebrity moments are amplified online, or content creation for digital also works for press.
Working as one team has created an easy and transparent flow of information between the two teams. During times of crisis these huddles happen daily – or even hourly! These offer an opportunity to update everyone at the same time, share content plans, workload and the chance to identify any themes coming from external audiences that could affect the content coming out of and into GOSH Charity channels.
Upskilling each other
Being one team also means recognising that sometimes your area of expertise is completely different to your colleagues. Through our huddles and collaborative working, we’ve upskilled each other in PR and digital, which means that when a crisis does occur, we are all more clued up about how it may play out across media and digital.
An example of this in action is sharing lines from press releases on social media – previously, we would have used the same language as the release, but from closer working and understanding of the different audiences and tone, we now collaboratively tailor the language and content to ensure it’s not jarring and is offering the information a public audience would want, rather than a journalist.
Sharing the workload
As part of upskilling, we’re also prepared to get stuck into work that doesn’t naturally fall into our job roles – especially during crisis periods. There have been times where teams have supported each other to ease the workload and pressures of dealing with difficult content. For example, taking shifts to monitor social media channels in order to provide a break for colleagues.
We have formal support available through Care First for staff who feel affected by any of the stories they hear, or as a result of online comments. Care First provide independent counsellors who we can speak to in confidence, and their phone line is open 24 hours a day. In particularly difficult situations, staff have been offered one-to-one counselling. Quarterly workshops are run for charity staff on self-care and coping with bereavement by the Hospital Bereavement team. Charity staff are able to access this support on an individual basis. Individual support is also available from trained HR colleagues.
The charity also has a wider reaching health and wellbeing programme. This includes access to mindfulness app Headspace and an option to select a mental health drop down on absence recording to encourage greater understanding and openness around mental health. The Staff Representation Group at the charity are looking to set up a wellbeing week, which will encourage staff to take part in activities focused towards mindfulness, learning and connection.
Accessing internal expertise
We are lucky enough to have a dedicated member of the team who acts as lead contact point for all patient family outreach and stewardship. This provides a level of consistency for the GOSH families who work with the comms and digital teams and wider charity, and tell their stories through external channels – whether it is social media or print and broadcast media. This role is integral; it’s someone who works with our families every day, understands the audience more and can provide insight into how requests might be received by families, especially when dealing with sensitive issues.
The role also provides advice and resources to staff in the comms and digital teams who work closely with these families, such as shaping the right questions to ask of families going through a difficult time or advising when they might need space. This role also leads on our consenting processes and helps the communications and digital teams understand GDPR and how it applies to content we get from families. Advice and guidance through this ensures that the teams can be confident in collecting and sharing what is often very sensitive information.
Looking out for each other
We are all too aware of the challenges of working with sensitive stories and are incredibly supportive of each other –a cup of tea or quick walk in the local park is a valued offer from our colleagues!
About the authors:
Heather is a board-level senior international human resources director and consultant with experience across a range of sectors and organisations including FMCG, telecoms, private equity, risk advisory and not-for profit. Experienced in developing and implementing HR strategies and leading teams to deliver business-relevant HR solutions and services, she has particular expertise in leadership development and coaching, leading complex change programmes, and developing and building high-performing teams.
Ruth has been part of the communications team at GOSH Charity for the last three years, developing and delivering comms strategies for a wide variety of fundraising activity across the organisation. Ruth has driven high profile, positive coverage through strong media relations and the handling of sensitive stories to demonstrate the impact of the charity, whilst also managing risk and reputational issues.
Yasmin heads up a high-performing, creative and insight-driven team at GOSH Charity, looking after websites, social media, email marketing, analytics and digital content. Yasmin is passionate about storytelling and insight, and how they can be woven together to create campaigns that drive digital fundraising and raise brand profile. She has experience in both not-for-profit and commercial organisations.
It’s so important to look after yourself and to look out for your colleagues. When you work for a cause that is highly sensitive and emotional it’s imperative to put some processes in place to ensure that the wellbeing of staff is not an afterthought.
Whilst GOSH is a large charity with access to formal support, there are lots of tips that smaller charities can take away and implement immediately. One of which is being ‘one team’. Even if you’re a communications team of one or two people, it’s so important to chat regularly with colleagues in other departments and to understand what’s going on in the organisation. With small charities in particular, upskilling others is really important too. Could you upskill volunteers to help you monitor your social media channels or plan content so that you’re sharing the workload?
It’s up to all of us to support our colleagues, as well as ourselves. If you need support or you think a colleague needs support, have a chat. A sympathetic ear can go a long way. If you yourself need support but you feel like you can’t talk to a colleague, for whatever reason, then please call the Samaritans on 116 123.
Frameworks to protect wellbeing
Putting a plan in place
For those of us who work in social media or in community management, sometimes it can be difficult to not take things personally. When people are upset or angry, they often forget that they are talking to a person and not an organisation. In crisis situations people can become ‘keyboard warriors’ and say hurtful and abusive things. Although it’s tough, it’s still our job to respond.
Usually in those situations you will have a prepared, signed-off statement and pre-agreed responses. But what about everyday situations?
Having a framework can be so important for a wide range of situations – from dealing with crisis communications to managing everyday conversations that may be difficult. A framework will give you a structured approach to manage how you respond to handling issues and a way to deal with your own emotional response.
Having structure can help you to look at situations objectively and to formulate the best response for the situation. Serena Snoad is an online community manager at the Alzheimer’s Society and manages the Dementia Talking Point peer support community. Serena talks us through the three stages she uses to build her framework to help deal with difficult situations.
How to put together a framework to handle issues
Online Community Manager, Alzheimer’s Society
No day in community or social media management is the same. When you’re faced with a crisis it can feel overwhelming and stressful, especially when you’re also dealing with a wide range of enquiries. Having some frameworks to hand will help you to work through the issues stage by stage and provide a helpful way to learn.
I run a large peer support community for a charity and have found it helpful to put frameworks in place to ensure that issues are dealt with consistently and that everyone knows the approach to take.
A framework gives you a supporting structure that you can use to build your approach to handling issues that come up when managing online spaces.
When building a framework, it’s helpful to include three key stages: research, respond and review. This will provide a good rhythm as you handle each issue.
When you’re planning a campaign or post, it’s helpful to spend some time considering any issues that could come up and the type of responses that would be appropriate. This could include hot topic issues for your organisation or campaigns that are likely to be political or emotive. Drawing upon previous experience can help.
When you’re preparing to respond to an emotive message, spend some research time to look carefully at the message. Consider what the language shows about how the person is feeling, consider their circumstances, and determine if there’s a key question or need that they have.
When you respond, you’ll need to consider how to balance showing understanding, whilst also giving a response appropriate for your organisation.
You’ll need to balance offering support or information whilst also managing expectations on what you can realistically say. Drawing upon position statements and key messages can be helpful when handling issues, but this will need to avoid sounding too ‘corporate’.
Here’s an example of how I used a framework to craft a response to a person with dementia who was upset with a content request that we had posted on the forum.
If you’re handling an emotive message, using empathic communication techniques will help you to learn how to acknowledge the person’s feelings and give them options in a supportive way. If you have a Helpline, they can give you advice on how to apply these techniques.
Take some time to review so that you can build on what went well, or adapt your approach for future issues.
Consider how the message was received and if there’s anything you or your organisation can learn. Are your position statements or key messages landing well with people and if not, what could you do to improve them? You may not be able to change your position, but you could change how you explain it.
When you receive an angry or abusive message, you may find it difficult to return to it. If an issue has hit you hard, you may find you keep thinking about it and that can become unhealthy. Spend some time with a colleague walking through what happened and if anything could have been done differently. It’s important to remember that a person’s anger or hurt may have very little to do with you or your organisation. Put in place some ‘go to’ people for support including a peer, manager and if possible, access to a counsellor.
Remember to spend time reviewing the positive messages too. Keep the ‘thank you’ or ‘wow’ messages by taking a screenshot or copying the link and saving them into a folder. If you’re in a team, regularly share them. This will help you to remember what matters most – the positive impact our organisations make.
About the author:
Serena has been building and managing online communities for eleven years. She is currently working to oversee Dementia Talking Point, a peer support community for Alzheimer’s Society. As part of this work, Serena has received training from the Helplines Partnership and Samaritans to support vulnerable people and those facing difficult situations. Prior to this, Serena worked in PR at a cancer charity. She also has a CIPR qualification in Public Relations.
Similarly being able to refer to tools like the Samaritans’ Listening Wheel can be useful in terms of providing structural support when dealing with challenging situations and difficult conversations.
Staff across the board at Samaritans make use of this handy tool to teach them to “actively listen” as it reminds them how techniques such as open questions, reflection and summarising can help guide then through the conversations they are having.
Tips on having and managing difficult conversations
Senior L&D Officer, Samaritans
Samaritans has over 65 years of expertise when it comes to listening. When people join us as volunteers, we teach them to “actively listen” using techniques such as open questions, reflection, summarising, to name a few. It’s amazing just how many people who do train with us say that not only do these skills benefit their volunteering, but they begin to see an impact in their work and family life too. We believe that the skills we teach are life skills; not ones just specific to Samaritans volunteers but ones that stand you in good stead for most situations in life. This includes having difficult conversations.
A difficult conversation is something none of us relish, however having a few tools and techniques to help you navigate that conversation can make a world of difference. Our volunteers never know who they will pick the phone up to, answer the door to, or read a text or email from. The same can be said for some of our staff teams who might be public facing, such as our media, social media and comms teams who sometimes need to deal with situations where they face someone being upset or perhaps aggressive and angry.
The foundation of all our listening skills is Samaritans’ Listening Wheel (above). Each segment can be used in any conversation to help it flow, encourage someone to open up, diffuse anger, calm distress and to show the person we are talking to that we are really listening to them.
A key technique is to try to stay calm and remember that you are not responsible for the other person’s actions – whatever the situation or scenario they are presented with.
If they are very angry, perhaps even shouting and swearing, it’s best not to interrupt them initially, but to allow them to let off steam. Unless they are abusive towards you, in which case you are perfectly within your right to end that conversation.
Giving someone the time and space to vent their feelings often leads to being able to have a much calmer conversation. Silence is a very powerful tool. By not trying to interrupt – or question – you are not feeding their anger and eventually they will realise that you are not responding and so they stop. A good thing here is to react and empathise with them because it acknowledges that you have heard how they feel and are listening to them. Something as simple as “I’m really sorry to hear that, it sounds like a very difficult situation” can help the conversation open up and allow you to follow up with a more open question about what they feel their options are. For example, asking them “what would you like to change?” or “what would you like to do?”
When someone is very distressed, it can be hard for them to express exactly what is going on or how they feel. Open questions can be a useful aid here, for example asking, “what’s happened to make you get in touch?”, “How can I best support or help you?”. Giving reassurance here is also key; you might say to someone to take their time, let them know that you’re still there whenever they are ready. It means you keep a human connection and that can be just what’s needed to encourage someone to talk.
One last piece of guidance would be that, if you have had a difficult conversation, talk to someone else about it. Don’t bottle it up. At Samaritans we talk to our fellow Samaritan on duty after every contact and we have a Leader for every shift that we have access to during and after to debrief to if we need to. We often don’t recognise the impact on ourselves when we have a difficult conversation but, just like the person we have been speaking to initially, we also need to express our thoughts and feelings so that we can stay resilient and feel able to cope with the next conversation that comes along.
About the author:
Lucia Capobianco is a Senior L&D Officer with Samaritans. She has worked for the Central Office of Samaritans for 13 years and has been part of various projects during that time including the change programme, There for Everyone which includes a refresh of Samaritans initial training offering to new volunteers; the Network Rail partnership working to reduce suicide on the railways; and the Chad Varah Appeal. Lucia has also been a listening volunteer with her local Samaritans branch for 10 years.
When faced with an upsetting message or response from someone, it can bring up a range of emotions. We may feel upset, sad or perhaps even angry. It can be tempting to just fire off an immediate response but we need to take the time to assess the situation and to give ourselves space to take a breath and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes.
As Serena points out, a framework can help you to balance your response so that it shows understanding, whilst also giving a response appropriate for your organisation.
It’s also healthy to debrief with your manager or a colleague after an upsetting incident, so that you can walk through the issue, reflect on how you dealt with it and what you could maybe do differently the next time. By sharing your experience openly, it will help you to move forward and not be consumed by what happened.
Building personal resilience
Strategies for self-care
Due to the nature of working in communications and particularly in this fast-paced digital age, we will experience stressful times. Whether that’s working hard to meet a deadline, dealing with unexpected crisis communications or even unexpected opportunities that may arise – stress is inevitable. With social media and the ability to access everything via your phone, it’s also harder to switch off and so we feel like we’re ‘always on’.
To help us cope with stress and the pace of change, it’s important that we build resilience and prioritise self care. The first step to doing this is to identify your inner critic, acknowledge it and change those negative thoughts and doubts into more positive ones.
Try practicing mindfulness to help you feel truly present in the moment, which can help reduce stress and anxiety. Consider downloading an app, such as Headspace, to help practice mindfulness and to make it a daily habit. In this chapter, Hannah Massarella, a certified co-active coach, shares five strategies to help you build personal resilience.
Whilst it’s important to build personal resilience, it’s also important to create a culture of openness where staff feel they can speak honestly about mental health. Try to embed a culture of self-care in your team so it’s practiced every day.
Five strategies to build personal resilience
Founder of Bird
Stress is one of the leading causes of long-term workplace absence, according to reports such as that by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Directors (CIPD). For those working in charities, stress can be exacerbated because employees are often more invested in their jobs emotionally than those who work in the corporate sector. They are also likely to receive less support due to lack of budget, time and resources to address workplace wellbeing.
Communications professionals in the charity sector often deal with emotionally sensitive or emotionally charged issues – whether they’re dealing with those who are bereaved, children with cancer, supporting carers of people with complex needs or fighting against injustice. Without the right support in place, staff can experience issues with their mental health and even burnout, and this can have devastating consequences.
Mental and emotional wellbeing at work should be a priority for both the individual and the employer. We live in a fast-paced world and for those who work in PR, social media or online communities, there is the added stress of communications being all consuming and a feeling of not being able to ‘switch off’. In today’s world people expect instant answers to their questions, and this can put huge strain on communications professionals.
This pace of change can be difficult for people to deal with, but change is inevitable because we live in VUCA times. VUCA stands for: volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity and it was introduced by the U.S. Army War College to describe the world after the end of the Cold War. In order to navigate VUCA times, we have to be ‘anti-fragile’, which means prioritising self-care strategies to build resilience.
Five strategies to help build personal resilience and prioritise self-care
1. Identify your inner critic
We all have an internal negative voice. Often this voice is unconscious, but if we pay attention it is probably saying things like ‘oh I should have done this…’ or ‘I ought to go and be like this…’ or ‘everything is going to go wrong…’ or ‘I’m not intelligent/old/young/interesting/attractive enough…’.
This unconscious voice is our inner critic and when we don’t shine a light on what the inner critic is saying to us it runs the show and erodes our self-esteem. Identifying what your inner critic is saying, and then acknowledging that you can create and believe a different story (‘I am attractive enough/ I choose to do X, Y or Z/ Everything is going to be alright’) can be a huge resilience builder.
2. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is a type of meditation and a technique where you focus on being truly aware of the present moment and how you’re feeling, in terms of your thoughts and feelings, and what you’re sensing, in terms of bodily sensations. Regularly practicing mindfulness and learning how to ‘be in the moment’, can help reduce stress and anxiety.
3. Give yourself a permission slip
This is a simple but effective way to build resilience by being kind to yourself. It comes from the research of Dr Brené Brown. Often when we are busy and stressed, we prioritise everything above ourselves. The concept of a permission slip is to give you a nudge to put yourself first. Take a piece of paper and write down, “I give myself permission to…”.
Some examples are:
- spend 20 minutes reading a book
- watch a show on Netflix
- go for a run
- arrange lunch with a friend
4. Be your own cheerleader
In contrast to listening to your inner critic, being your own cheerleader involves talking to yourself regularly in a positive way. A key resilience building strategy, as identified by Dr Rick Hanson, is to champion yourself the moment after you’ve achieved something great. According to his research, this builds new neural pathways which over time lead to a greater sense of wellbeing and high self-esteem.
5. Practice gratitude
Our brains cannot worry about things and be grateful at the same time. It isn’t physically possible for us to do this. Therefore, being grateful helps us two-fold. It takes us away from the inner critic, whilst simultaneously reminding us that there is so much for us to feel joyful about. We can be grateful for the small stuff and the big stuff, as all of it helps us to increase our resilience and overall wellbeing.
Wellbeing is inherently about people, who are critical to the successful functioning of charities. It’s imperative therefore that mental health and wellbeing is seen as a priority, both by leadership and by the individual. Building a culture that supports and encourages self-care, wellbeing and positive mental health is crucial, but it also requires a fundamental change in organisational culture. Self-care is also something that needs to be continually practiced so make commitments with your staff and colleagues to use ‘anchors’ to remember to practice self-care. Mental wellbeing doesn’t come down to what’s written in policies, it’s about how you behave as an organisation. Creating a culture of openness, where staff feel it’s ok to talk about mental health is crucial. Self-care is just one of the tools towards good mental health.
Hannah is a certified professional co-active coach and has been coaching and facilitating resiliency workshops for the past ten years. Hannah began her career coaching and facilitating workshops for the beneficiaries of two domestic violence charities. Whilst doing the work, Hannah ended up burning out and having to leave the sector. Thus, Bird was created to support others doing vital work in the not-for-profit sector, to educate and empower them to prioritise their own wellbeing and resilience so that they can support others.
As Hannah says, ‘wellbeing is inherently about people’. This is so important to recognise and acknowledge as it’s up to us to not only look after ourselves but to look out for our colleagues too. Before we can help our colleagues, we need to help ourselves so remember to address that inner critic and to replace those negative and disruptive thoughts with positive ones. Take the advice of Dr Hanson and praise yourself after something goes well. You could even keep a notebook of these moments and refer to them when you need a lift.
If your organisation doesn’t have a culture that is open about wellbeing in the workplace, perhaps it’s time to address this. Who in your organisation do you think shares your views and who could you work with to research and put together a plan that could be taken to senior management or your trustee board? There are so many examples in this guide that you can draw on and that will help provide a case for support.
In section six there is an inspiring example of a charity who is putting staff wellbeing at the heart of what they do and in section seven there are lots of tips and resources to help you support your colleagues.
Investing in staff wellbeing
Leadership from the top
There are many times in our professional lives, perhaps even daily, where we may have to deal with situations that really affect us. You may not even notice it until it builds up over time, or it hits you when you least expect it – like whilst you’re cooking dinner or putting a wash on. If not addressed, these feelings can start to take an emotional toll on your wellbeing.
Two charities who have been addressing this head on are Sarcoma UK and Trinity Hospice.
First up is Sarcoma UK, who for the last eight years have made sure staff have had access to a counsellor to help them build resilience and learn how to process their feelings. They have also received training to help them learn how to draw an emotional line between work and life outside of work.
It’s an investment that’s hard to measure in numbers but it is clearly money well spent. As Bevis Man explains in this section, having access to a counsellor not only helps individuals but also makes a difference to the overall mood and atmosphere in the office. Creating a culture of talking openly and honestly about how something is affecting you, helps improve wellbeing and mental health.
Charities often offer support to supporters, but who supports them? Why talking is a good start
Communications Director, Sarcoma UK
Working in the third sector generally means getting to work alongside a vibrant mix of people and some incredible causes. But how do you best protect staff when work starts to take an emotional toll on the team?
Sarcoma UK is a cancer charity that funds research, offers support, provides information and runs a support line for people affected by this niche, but aggressive, cancer. Awareness is low, treatment options are limited, and misdiagnoses are not uncommon. As a result, the subject of death is sadly never too far away.
Thankfully, we’ve had the guidance and expertise of counsellor Jo Ham to help staff at the charity draw those emotional lines between work and life outside of work, for the past eight years. Our previous chief executive had the foresight to see that bringing her in on a monthly basis would be of real benefit to staff right across the charity.
Our team naturally become more resilient with more exposure, but it is never easy to digest the fact that someone you’ve been working with for weeks, months, maybe even years, is now deteriorating or has passed away. You’re in an odd relationship bubble of not being family or a close friend, yet have a relationship to an individual where they may find it easier to talk to you than those closest to them.
Every department is, in its own way, on the front line, dealing with people who have been affected by sarcoma. There’s the support line team who do an amazing job of listening and guiding people through the harrowing maze of anxiety and confusion of living with sarcoma; from frank conversations about amputation to how to talk to children about cancer. There’s also the communications and fundraising teams who naturally deal with supporters and their stories and motivations for supporting the charity. But then there’s also Steve and Natalie who work in our finance and operations team and are often a first point of contact, whether that’s a phone call or email.
Having these 45 minute one-to-one sessions with Jo is more than just an outlet. Knowing that a professional is available can make a noticeable difference to staff mood and the atmosphere in the office as a whole. As much as it is about talking to get those work-related feelings off our chest, it’s also very much about arming staff at the charity with the tools to acknowledge, distance and process those powerful emotions that come with working in a cancer charity. These sessions are compulsory for the three staff members who make up the support line team, with free slots available for the rest of the charity if people need them. These sessions with Jo rarely go unfilled.
At the start of the year, we asked Jo to run a workshop for the whole charity around building resilience. We recognised that the charity had expanded to 20 members of staff who were all being exposed in some shape or form to such contact with callers and supporters.
Sometimes it can be hard to reconcile the contrast between work hours and life outside of the 9 to 5. It’s often the processing that takes place afterwards on the commute home or cooking, when there is more time and space to reflect on the day, that things start to properly sink in. We attend funerals, sit in on cancer support groups and spend a lot of time just listening. In many ways, it’s a lovely position to be in, having that trust for people to open up to you. Similarly, having someone you can trust, like Jo, is such a benefit, regardless of how many sessions you end up going to. It’s a statement from the employer that your wellbeing matters and this can add to that pool of motivation. It’s a different kind of investment in the team that isn’t easily measured in numbers, but is worth every penny.
We are by no means in a unique situation and we do actively celebrate the positives and successes as much as we need support for the more challenging moments of the job. However, not every charity has the luxury of a counsellor. There are support staff out there who work remotely and are left to deal with the potential cocktail of emotions by themselves, and that inevitably will have an impact further down the line.
About the author:
Bevis has more than 14 years of experience working in media and communications within the third sector. A firm believer in the power of a good story, he cares about using communications in the right way to do good and frequently has his head buried in impact reporting metrics.
Next we have Trinity Hospice who have worked hard to embed a culture of community, based on the core principles of outstanding mutual support and care. Drawing on the lessons from front line clinical and medical teams, counsellors and support staff, Trinity Hospice has managed to create the most fantastic comfort blanket for staff as well as making a concerted effort to throw a spotlight on self-care. Here’s how they have done it…
From yoga and reiki to relaxation groups and lunchtime meditation sessions there are lots of ways to help encourage friends and colleagues to be mindful, something Trinity Hospice takes very seriously
Communications Manager, Trinity Hospice on the Fylde Coast
I work in a place where people die. I sometimes talk to them (and their loved ones) shortly before they pass away, or occasionally I might be a guest at their wedding; I might take photos of them with their children, or as they meet their precious pet for the last time.
I work in a hospice.
But far from it being a strain both mentally and physically, it’s actually the most inspiring place I have ever worked in a 35 year career spanning newspaper journalism and corporate communications. It has put me into situations I could never have imagined, it has made me think about my own life and allowed me to meet some memorable people who have (very occasionally) made me cry.
Of course I didn’t know what to expect when I started working at Trinity Hospice, Blackpool, seven years ago. I did wonder if it would be emotionally draining. A couple of friends said the job would give me sleepless nights and my teenage sons said it didn’t exactly sound like a laugh a minute.
They were wrong. There are tough times, but the community here is one of outstanding mutual support and care, and there’s an emphasis on personal and group resilience that gets us all through the occasional ‘bad day’ and makes the role truly fulfilling.
I honestly believe that as a result of being here, my own emotional wellbeing is stronger than it has ever been. Yes, it’s undoubtedly an advantage being a comms person surrounded by professional care givers. The people right on the front line – the clinical and medical teams, the counsellors and support staff – create the most fantastic comfort blanket which other charities outside the care sector will not have. But there’s another dimension that I’m convinced is within reach of everyone.
Early morning pilates or yoga for a small sign-up fee; regular staff ‘wellbeing days’ where treatments such as reiki, massage and crystal therapy are provided by volunteers for free – all you have to do is book a slot and turn up. There are relaxation groups for staff and, most importantly, a focus on the personal side of resilience in encouraging each of us to be mindful; to regularly take a few minutes to reflect, relax, and focus positively on the here and now, rather than worry about the yet-to-be.
Our complementary therapist describes it in simple terms: ‘Mindfulness requires no special location or equipment. Just sit at your desk and watch the raindrops run down the window, or go for a lunchtime walk and kick the autumn leaves. Think about you, about your posture and breathing. Use nature as a point of focus, a ten minute reminder that whatever else is happening, there’s a place of calm and contentment within each of us that is untouched by emails, meetings and phone calls…’
Wellbeing at work can only thrive in an environment where we each take responsibility for those around us – being a good listener, giving advice if someone asks for it. We use Sage & Thyme training – an evidence-based communication skills model based around providing person-centred support to those with emotional concerns – for support staff as well as clinicians, and it shows us how to notice someone’s distress, hear concerns and respond helpfully.
I am pretty resilient and have always bounced – you had to if you worked in a 1980s newsroom – but bouncing back time and again can be hard, and the stress that today’s communicators experience is different from that I grew up with. The essential need for speed, reacting to events in a minute rather than in a day, and the fear of being left behind as opinions race through social media is utterly exhausting.
Be honest. Do you check your emails in the night? Do you really take a break from work when you are on leave? Mobile phones and laptops mean that for many comms people there is no down time and that can be damaging, especially when a personal setback comes along; a bereavement, a broken friendship or a missed job opportunity.
Be mindful. Talk to your colleagues. Start a relaxation group or a lunchtime meditation session. Develop your listening skills and never be too busy to hear the concerns of others.
Working at a hospice reminds me to make the most of every minute and not put off the things that really matter. It reminds me that I’m pretty lucky, and it has stopped me taking things for granted. It would be a tough decision to leave but if I did, would the things I’ve experienced here around wellbeing translate to other settings? Yes, I think many of them would, and I would try to take them with me.
About the author:
Shirley Morgan is a Communications Manager at Trinity Hospice on the Fylde Coast. She spent a decade on regional newspapers before moving into the aircraft industry; she ran her own communications consultancy for 14 years and is a published author of both fact and fiction.
The majority of charities are funded by donors or grants, so are very careful about what they spend their money on. Many may feel that spending money on a counsellor, or wellness activities, is an extravagance or a luxury and not a necessity. I’d argue that this investment saves money in the long run.
As Hannah mentioned in section five, stress is one of the leading causes of long-term workplace absence, which ultimately costs the charity. Being able to speak to a counsellor and having an open culture around wellbeing and mental health means that staff are able to deal with, and process, their feelings better. This results in less stress and a happier workplace. It’s an investment that’s hard to measure the return on, however the benefits will be clearly felt.
A top tip to get buy-in for this kind of professional support is to put together a robust business case. Research which charities have access to professional support and ask a few of them to have a chat with you about it. Include quotes from them in your proposal to bring it to life and add a human touch. It’s important to also research all the options available and the associated costs. For example, your board may say no to a counsellor coming in to do one-on-one sessions but they may approve having access to counsellors over the phone, through a third party.
How to help those around you
Checking in with colleagues
As we’ve mentioned in previous chapters, it’s so important to be able to spot the warning signs and symptoms of mental health issues and to build resilience so that you can better manage your mental health.
No doubt you work with others in your charity – even if you’re a sole communicator, you will work with colleagues in other departments or even with volunteers. If you’re a freelancer, you probably have a network of fellow freelancers with whom you can bounce ideas with or even partner with on projects. If you think that a team member or a peer is struggling or is very stressed, what can you do to help them?
The first thing you can do is just have a conversation with them and open the lines of communication. One of the simplest ways is to simply ask them how they’re doing. Be mindful of your environment when asking them though as if it’s in the office in front of others, they may not feel comfortable to open up. Why not go for a coffee or even a walk outside to have a talk instead?
Creating a culture of being able to speak openly about mental health in the workplace is so important. If you’re a manager, in your one-to-ones with your staff, start by asking how they are instead of asking where they are with something or what they’ve achieved.
Having permission to be honest – and having appropriate processes and support in place – means that it should never get to a stage where a lack of support contributes to having to sign someone off or even them leaving. Don’t feel you need to be an expert. Simply listening and not judging can be one of the most significant things you can do.
Four ways to support a colleague with a mental health problem
Communications Manager, Time to Change
As communications professionals we’re often called upon in a crisis and thought of as the creative problem solvers who can handle anything thrown our way.
While many of us thrive on the ever-changing expectations of our working day, we all know that some days can be more difficult than others. And when one in four of us experiences a mental health problem in any given year, it’s vital that we can have open conversations about mental health at work.
Here are four ways to support a colleague
1. Having that first conversation about mental health
It may seem difficult to broach the subject of mental health with a colleague but it’s very important. Here are some tips to make it less daunting:
- Find ways to talk about mental health that work for you. Do you have a friend or family member who has a mental health problem? Then talking about them might be a good way of starting a dialogue, or you could discuss celebrities who are talking about their mental health in the media.
- Often, it’s easier to talk side by side, rather than face-to-face as it feels more informal. You could suggest going for a walk outside the office so you’re walking side by side. Being in a neutral surrounding could help them to be more open to talking about mental health away from other colleagues.
- Talking about mental health problems won’t make them any more likely to experience it. Actually, being open about it might mean they feel comfortable asking for help sooner, even with relatively sensitive subjects like self-harm and suicide. But also do be respectful if they don’t want to talk about it.
2. What to say when a colleague comes back to work after time off
It can feel awkward to ask a colleague about their time off work but actually it’s likely your colleague will be grateful that you’ve brought it up as ignoring it can make them feel more isolated. Here are some tips:
- Simply asking how they are can really help
- Be respectful if they don’t want to talk about it
- If they’re not ready to open up, small, kind gestures like making them a cup of tea can help them feel part of the team again
3. How to help if a colleague seems stressed
We all respond to stress in different ways and some express it more outwardly than others. If you feel like a colleague is more stressed than usual, and it’s been going on a while, it could be a sign of a mental health problem. Here’s how you can help:
- Simply ask how they’re doing. In fact, ask twice. Many people feel that just because someone asks them how they are it doesn’t mean they really want to know, and some just don’t want to be a burden. That’s why we launched our ‘Ask Twice’ campaign – the simple act of asking again, with interest, shows a genuine willingness to talk and listen.
- You may want to ask them how they’re doing away from other people. Why not ask them to join you for a cup of tea in the kitchen or outside the office?
- If you have a good relationship, try to find out what changes you as a manager, or your organisation could make to help them manage their stress.
4. What to do when someone you manage has a mental health problem
Almost one in three of us has experienced a mental health problem whilst in employment. Here are some tips on how you can help them:
- Don’t feel you need to be an expert. Simply listening and not judging can be one of the most significant things you can do.
- Take their lead; show an interest but respect that they may not be ready to have this conversation so be patient.
- In the longer term, regular catch ups and supervision can help you both to recognise stress or other warning signs. Consider any adjustments you may need to make to support them, such as flexible working.
About the author:
Lara is the communication manager at Time to Change, a social movement campaigning to change the way we all think and act about mental health problems. She has worked in communications for more than 15 years in the private, public and charity sectors.
About the organisation:
Time to Change is a campaign run by mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness which is changing the way we all think and act about mental health problems. Although attitudes are changing, we know that most people taking time off due to stress would still give a different reason for their absence. That’s why we established the Time to Change Employer Pledge, to ensure that people experiencing mental health problems are better supported in the workplace. More than 1,000 employers have signed up so far and if your charity has yet to do so it’s worth having a look at the support, resources and training that are on offer.
It can be difficult to take that first step in speaking to a colleague or peer about their mental health but it’s so important. The more open we can be, the more we normalise conversations around mental health. It will become less of a stigma or a taboo topic. But we have to start that initial conversation!
The ‘Ask Twice’ campaign is genius because it’s so simple. It’s almost a habit or an instinctive response to simply answer, “I’m fine, thanks” when someone asks you how you are. But if they asked again, your answer would probably be different.
Don’t forget though that your environment is important too when trying to start that conversation. If you think someone might want to talk, ensure you’re in a safe space away from other colleagues. Also think about what support you could put in place to help them. Perhaps it’s being flexible on the hours they work or where they work. Lastly, don’t forget that simply listening and not judging can be one of the most significant things you can do.
Wellbeing links and resources
Wellbeing is such a vast and complicated topic that we believe the more resources you have access to the better. There are a number of organisations, in and out of the charity sector, doing wonderful work when it comes to helping us help ourselves, but navigating a path through them all can be tough.
We asked the CharityComms network for their recommendations of the best resources out there and we did some research ourselves to produce this list to help get you started.
Mental health charity Mind has a wide range of useful resources to choose from, one that kept cropping up time and again when we asked was its taking care of yourself advice.
Samaritans have a useful wellbeing in the workplace online learning resource that’s worth checking out.
Mental Health First Aid have a section of their website dedicated specifically to managing stress in a workplace environment.
Check out the Mental Health Foundation’s handy A-Z of all things mental health.
For an easy way to find mental health services near you take a look at Hub of Hope.
A website providing lots of resources for both individuals and workplaces specifically is Time to Change.
The NHS recommend a starting point of 5 steps to mental wellbeing.
Work specific mental health resources
Mind has an area on mental health at work.
Mental Health at Work has a whole toolkit on supporting staff with mental health in the voluntary sector.
Free video training that was designed for Mind and FSB by Forster Communications is available here.
The Team have written a useful blog on how workspaces can help improve productivity and wellbeing.
Advice for self care
One piece of advice that has come up time and again is to try out the Headspace app which provides guided meditation techniques.
Another tip from members has been to take time to go for a walk and spend some time outside to give yourself a break and to help your mind switch off from work. You could check out this list of canals near you for some routes that include water and greenery, courtesy of the Canal and River Trust .
The Prince’s Trust’s Lizzie Dougherty recommends blogger and author Jenny Lawson’s books ‘Lets pretend this never happened’ and ‘Furiously Happy’ and Sarah Wilson’s ‘First, we make the beast beautiful’. She says:
“The books are about the authors’ experiences of living with a mental health condition and they are very uplifting as they frame mental health in a positive light.” – Lizzie Dougherty, Prince’s Trust
Maggie’s’ Graeme Manuel-Jones recommends Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman’s book ‘The Happy, Healthy Non-Profit’.
This Huffington Post article provides insight into how mental health experts are affected by their jobs.
The wonderful Zoe Amar has written a great piece for Third Sector about ‘How to deal with online trolls’.
Michelle Kim’s Medium post on ‘How to manage your team in times of political trauma’ provides some food for thought around ensuring psychological safety in these turbulent times.
Lola Phoenix’s great advice based on first-hand experience: Tips to protect the mental wellbeing of social media managers
Zoe William’s article sharing Kidscape’s Practical tips for dealing with trolling online
Hannah Massarella’s resiliency focused tips: Calling all senior leaders: you deserve to feel well at work too
Trina Wallace’s advice for Five ways charity communicators can emotionally protect themselves
Do you have a wellbeing or mental health resource you’d like to share with us? Email us and we’ll add it to the resources page.