The World As It Should Be…

Last weekend I went to a festival. An actual, proper festival, with camping and everything – which if you know me even slightly, is somewhat out of character, seeing as I am the fluffy towel, chocolate on the pillow kind of traveller. I should point out that I glamped – so got there to find the tent already set up, complete with bed, duvet, pillows etc, so it’s probably cheating if you’re a ‘real’ camper.

The reason I was prepared to camp/glamp (although there was the option to stay in a hotel nearby and take a minibus to and from the campsite) was the nature of the festival itself. Oh, didn’t I say? I went to the Primadonna Festival – the very first one, as it happens, created to celebrate brilliant writing, music and ideas. Catherine Mayer, one of the Primadonnas (a handful of fabulous women behind the Festival, including Sabeena Akhtar, Joanna Baker, Jane Dyball, Shona Abhyankar, Jude Kelly, Alexis Kirschbaum, Lisa Milton, Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, Sonia Purnell, Catherine Riley, Monisha Rajesh, Athena Stevens, Cathryn Summerhayes, Sandi Toksvig and Sioned Wiliam) described it as “the world as it should be for one weekend”, and it was the most extraordinarily warm, welcoming and inspiring experience.

The Primadonna Festival was designed to give ‘prominence to work by women’ and introduced ‘fresh voices alongside famous names in a fun and welcoming environment’. It totally lived up to and in many ways exceeded my expectations, for a number of reasons. Even from the beginning, it encouraged participants to be generous – at every stage there were opportunities to support others, whether it was the ability to donate a ticket for those who couldn’t stretch to it, donating fees for writers to enter the Primadonna Prize (so proud to be one of those longlisted), or donating against the cost of the minibus.

This generosity of spirit was embedded in everything about the Festival. Speakers were from varied backgrounds, opinions in discussion sessions were listened to, properly responded to whether agreed with or not, and everywhere, all the time, participants said hello to each other, made new friends and celebrated successes, large and small. I saw performance poets, met writers and agents, sang along with Ukelele karaoke, watched films by the campfire and laughed my socks off at Katy Brand, Sandi Toksvig and Ada Campe. But most of all, I came away feeling hopeful and energised for the first time in a long time, given what’s going on culturally and politically in the UK in recent years. It was the most fantastic example of female leadership in action – empowering, inspiring and engaging across the board. And what’s most interesting is that whether you attended or not, there’s been a ripple of extended engagement post the event on Twitter, so the spirit of Primadonna is being extended.

Fingers and toes crossed that this Festival runs again next year, because it’s an oasis of fabulousness in a world that feels increasingly claustrophobic.

Workplace Wellbeing

It’s unlikely that you’ll have missed it, but just in case, today is World Mental Health Day and the theme this year is all about wellbeing in the workplace. To their credit, numerous high profile individuals, including Lloyds Bank chief executive Antonio Horta-Osorio and Geoff McDonald from Minds at Work (and former Global VP of Human Resources at Unilever) have been open about the difficulties they’ve encountered, largely driven by stress in the workplace.

Many big companies and professional organisations have called for a greater focus on mental wellbeing, but the stigma associated with asking for help is enormous. According to the PRCA, 59% of PR and communications practitioners say they’ve experienced mental illness, yet only 37% would approach their managers to talk about the challenges they’re facing.

As leaders, we have a responsibility to create the right environment for people to flourish and that means cultures which enable individuals to openly seek help when they need it, hopefully before they reach a crisis point.  It’s not rocket science – to be compassionate, to look out for people’s welfare and to identify those who need support – but it’s also not something that’s focused on in management skills training. There’s always an element on how to manage performance (usually how to give constructive feedback, swiftly followed by how to manage underperformers out of the business), but not on how to help people who really need it.

And, because once the subject of mental ill-health comes up in businesses, HR departments get anxious about legal liabilities and confidentiality in a way that physical illness doesn’t seem to provoke, it’s all conducted behind closed doors. People ‘disappear’ from work, returning a few weeks later surrounded by rumours, unless they decide to be open themselves about what’s happened to them, all of which adds to the stigma.

Let’s train our young managers and leaders on how to spot people who’re burning out, but more than that, we need to keep talking and sharing our experiences. Presenteeism continues to be a curse in our industry, particularly for the ambitious, so highlighting the successes of flexible working and insisting that people balance their lives is an important leadership task. Yes, we can lead by example, but we also need to take action so that at all levels, our teams are able to manage their working pattern and preserve their physical and mental health as they build their careers.

Want to take that first step? Having been fortunate enough to hear Geoff McDonald speak very eloquently about how to create “mentally and emotionally healthy and human workplaces where individuals can flourish and organisations prosper” I can thoroughly recommend Minds at Work as a good place to start:

Let me know how you get on.


Under pressure?

Our industry is populated by bright, driven individuals who often work stupidly long hours to meet client demands and who take their work incredibly seriously. The pressures can sometimes feel overwhelming and I know I am not alone in having worked with colleagues who’ve come close to burning out simply because they have worked themselves to a standstill.

It’s not just about the client who calls at 4pm on a Friday afternoon with a crisis that simply MUST be worked on late into the evening or over the weekend though. Sometimes it’s about an individual who finds it hard to delegate because they are so anxious that their work is perfect that they have to do everything (yes, I’ve been there in my earlier years), or who has to check and double check the work of others (also been there) to make sure that they don’t fall foul of a client who’s similarly driven (oh yeah, I’ve definitely been there too).

This week there has been much discussion about mental health in the workplace to coincide with World Mental Health Day on Monday, and I do believe that as an industry we are much more sensitised to this issue than we were in the past. As leaders and managers, we’re more able to spot the individual most at risk of burning out because they’re often our best performers, the ones whose clients depend on them utterly and whose teams love them because they’re always picking up the pieces.

The bigger question for me is how we, as practitioners, can help ourselves. Not just in terms of managing our mental health but also our physical health, because people who work too many hours for too long struggle physically too. Not enough time for exercise, not eating properly, and most important of all, not taking care of ourselves when we are sick. I know I’m not alone in repeatedly struggling into the office when really I should have been at home under the duvet, and I can think of many high performers who push themselves far too hard physically as well as mentally.

The nature of our business is that it is not a 9-5 environment, and we need to encourage each other to look after ourselves, to give ourselves permission to recover properly from physical illness by taking appropriate rest and pacing ourselves.  Too often physical illness is the harbinger of mental health problems, with the body breaking down because the mind won’t allow sufficient rest or relaxation.

So this year, as the evenings draw in, and coughs, colds and flu start to spread (not to mention norovirus), give yourself permission to take a couple of days off to properly rest, to consider what your body needs rather than what your team or your client needs. We are none of us superhuman – and you can’t lead a team from a hospital bed. Too extreme? Maybe, but as leaders, one of the examples we need to set is that of how to build a career with longevity – one where you can still get to the top but in a way that’s more sustainable. Don’t just think about the wellbeing of your teams, make your own wellbeing another one of the touchpoints you review when you’re thinking about the health of your business.