Helping the workforce to maintain their wellbeing and have happy, stress-free days at work is part of the remit of any internal comms team. But what are the tensions IC practitioners face themselves and how do they handle the strain?

13th June 2019

“I don’t sleep. I make mistakes because there’s no time to think or research – it’s just get-it-out,get-it-out, get-it-out. Then I isolate myself and go into my shell and start thinking I’m a failure.”

That’s what workplace stress feels like, in the words of one internal communication professional. Sound familiar?

Another recalls “waking up at 3am thinking about a project, dwelling on comments and feedback”. And for another, “I couldn’t turn on my computer because I was so paralysed by anxiety.”

Even with tight deadlines, big responsibilities and a healthy dose of pressure, we must find ways  to keep stress under control. If not, the effects can be serious. Stress affects everything from our sleep to our blood pressure and mental health. The signs, according to another IC professional, include “over-eating, under-eating, opening a bottle of wine on a Monday night, poor-quality sleep, becoming irritable, and not spending enough time with the kids”. Not surprisingly, stressed workers are likely to feel disengaged and dissatisfied, and not perform at their best.

Bad news for both employees and employers.

So how stressed are internal comms professionals? There’s not much hard evidence to compare objectively with other professions, but the related discipline of PR is often ranked as one of the most stressful jobs you can do. The CIPR’s latest State of the Profession survey found that most PR professionals gave their job a score of at least seven out of 10 for stress. And nearly a quarter had taken time off work for stress, anxiety or depression.

More from less

For internal comms people, workplace stress has a particular character and particular causes. As owner of Creative Communicators, Darren Caveney trains and advises organisations on their internal comms every day. His stress levels are “pretty good”, he says, but the same can’t be said of everyone in the profession.

“There are teams and individuals out there who are really up against it,” says Darren. “The biggest challenge facing the teams I’ve worked with lately is time pressure and work demands – for many against a backdrop of smaller teams and smaller budgets.”

Particularly in the UK’s public sector, budget cuts over the past 10 years have been tough on comms teams, says Darren. He also worries about the always-on culture and the amount of time comms people spend staring at screens.

“I don’t think we’ve been brilliant at tackling that and managing it from a wellbeing point of view,” says Darren. “We need to be more aware of stress levels and find better ways to manage them.”


Internal communicators who have taken some time off work due to stress over the past two years – 18% have taken more than two days off.
IoIC poll, 2019

Tough conversations

Harriet Small is internal communications manager in the strategic insight team at Sky. How are her stress levels? Well, considering she’s still relatively new in the job, “actually OK” – and certainly better than in some of her previous jobs. In the past, says Harriet, stress has come from excessive workloads, poor line management and roles that weren’t clearly enough defined.

Then there are the challenges that are particular to internal comms – like giving candid feedback to senior people.

“There is a lot of emotional intelligence needed when explaining things to people in a way that won’t make them feel personally attacked,” says Harriet.

“At times, we need to have difficult conversations with leaders about how they are perceived and what the impact of specific actions will be. There is quite a bit of anxiety that comes before, during and after some of these conversations.”

Rachel Fraser, head of internal communications and engagement at Manchester Airport Group (MAG), started out in management consultancy before realising that work-life balance was more important to her than money – so she switched careers.

These days, Rachel’s stress levels are “mixed” she says. “I absolutely love the job, and MAG is an organisation that respects its comms people, but it’s the competing priorities that make me tired. Your brain is constantly having to fire on all cylinders. But I’m getting better at dealing with it.”

Feeling alone

Rachel believes internal comms can be a lonely job sometimes. “You’re potentially dealing with confidential information, so it’s not easy to find someone to talk to. You don’t want to go back home to your partner with huge descriptions of difficult meetings. And if you’re in a more senior role, you don’t always have a team to share it with.”

When times are tough, it gets even lonelier, says Darren.

“The double whammy for the internal comms person is that they’re affected by the cuts and restructures themselves. Your job is personally at risk, yet you’re the person who’s got to inform the rest of the workforce about those changes. And you’re under pressure to make that sound positive, when very often it’s not positive.”

Vision and reality

Based in Dallas, Texas, Bill Maselunas has held senior IC roles for large organisations, including Interstate Batteries and Austin Industries. His stress levels? Better than they used to be, as, in Bill’s words, “I’ve got better at managing my own feelings”.
One cause of stress for Bill over the years has been a lack of support from company leaders.

“Often there’s someone in leadership who has a particular passion for what they want to do in communications and engagement. But their direct lieutenants are really about running the business, so that vision often meets resistance,” says Bill.

When the boss doesn’t see his or her vision reflected in how comms performs, they’ll assume something’s wrong with the comms and that creates stress.

Another major stress factor, says Bill, is “being invited to handle comms for a project right at the end, or when something is about to go live”. It’s a common bugbear for internal comms professionals everywhere, and hopefully one that will get better as the IC function moves up the value chain. Of course, getting in early on a project means taking on work, but it also gives you the chance to manage it better and do the best job you can.

Managing mental health

Jo Hooper used to be head of corporate communications at Which?, but recently left to set up her own business, mad and sad club, helping organisations deal better with mental health in the workplace – something she knows all about first-hand.

“I’m constantly actively managing my mental health,” says Jo. “I take medication and see a therapist. I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression two years ago, but I think, in reality, it’s something I’ve been struggling with for years before that, and I just didn’t realise that it was a thing.”

Jobs in comms can be “phenomenally stressful”, says Jo.

“For me, my work is a huge part of my identity, my self-worth, my confidence. So when I started to feel like my capability was slipping due to my mental health issues, it also then compounded those mental health issues because I started to feel like I wasn’t any good.”

Look after yourself

If you can feel your own stress levels rising as you read all this, perhaps it’s time to take a deep breath and start looking at some practical ways of dealing with it.

A good start is to recognise the signs, says Jo. “There are symptoms that you may not think are symptoms of stress: replaying work scenarios when trying to sleep, or struggling to concentrate on writing some copy because you’re trying to answer emails at the same time. It can make you irritable, and make you second-guess decisions, which affects your productivity and self-confidence. A lot of people don’t recognise signs of stress in themselves because it’s so normal – you feel it a lot of the time.”

If you do feel stressed, it’s important to learn to look after yourself properly. That means taking relaxation seriously. In your own time, find what relaxes you – books, baths, yoga, mountain biking, making ships out of matchsticks… whatever works for you, do it, enjoy it, and dedicate time to it.

Go easy on yourself when you’re at work too. Darren’s advice is: “Take a lunch break, go for a walk and get some fresh air for half an hour. The temptation to stay at your desk to try and keep up with the demands is strong, and I did it for two years without pause. Then one day I looked around the office and realised that my team were all doing the same and that I was setting a bad example. So, I began going for a walk or going for a coffee and encouraged my team to do the same.

“For me, exercise plays a big part, going for a run or going to the gym. I notice that when I am under pressure I have a tendency to do this less in an attempt to manage my workload. But it is self-defeating and doesn’t help me in the longer term.”

Prioritising what's important

For Jo, “setting boundaries” was key to managing stress and anxiety while she was working in-house. She saw it as her service level agreement with her employer.

“What times would I work, when would I look at email, what would I push back on… I started changing my working pattern: going in for 9:30, always taking a lunchbreak, working from home once a week and not looking at my email out of hours unless there was a real reason to.”

Prioritising work is another key consideration. Not everything is urgent and important. If it’s urgent but not important, delegate it; if it’s important but not urgent, do it later.

Darren’s advice is to watch out for what he calls the “comms side-wash” – the constant flow of demands for work that is not an organisational priority. Decide what really matters and focus on that.

Jo says: “One thing that was revolutionary for me was figuring out what my niche was. I took three months off with anxiety and depression and came back and thought, what am I here for? What do I bring? What’s my niche? When I started to focus on that, it really cut out the noise. I could delegate the rest of this stuff and develop my team in areas that weren’t my niche. I focused on where I added value, giving the organisation more value and making myself feel more valued.

“A lot of what has helped me manage my stress levels is getting to know myself.

“I didn’t realise for years that I was mentally unwell and, once I did realise, it took me a long time to learn what made me unwell and what made me happy, calm and contented. Getting to know yourself is a huge part of understanding your mental health and how to manage it.”

It’s not personal

When stress arises from interactions with colleagues, Bill Maselunas’ first tip is not to take it personally.

“The important thing about work is that, no matter who may be upset or angry or putting pressure on you, it really isn’t personal. People may have things going on that you don’t know and don’t understand. I learned that the hard way as a young people manager. I got very caught up in the emotional reactions of my direct reports. I took it personally more often than I should.

“Part of it was just finding out what my direct reports want. When I first started, I was nervous, so I focused on command and control. I never really asked people, how are you and what do you want out of this job? It was an amazing revelation to me to get those answers.”

Similarly, when stress arises from last-minute demands, or learning about projects at the eleventh our, Bill says it’s important “to assume positive intent”.

“Everyone wants their project to be a success,” he says. “They aren’t excluding the communications team on purpose, or to ruin the project – even though it’s tempting to think that. Everybody wants to do a good job – they just may not know how ‘good’ happens. Of course, our perspective is that it would be so much better if we were involved at the beginning, but when I need something from accounting or operations, they probably say the same thing about me.”

A helping hand

Everyone agrees that support from others can make a big difference – particularly people who are a little removed from the situation you’re in, whether that’s a mentor, or just peers and friends.

Harriet says it’s important to have that degree of “psychological safety” to freely discuss how you feel. “It helps to have a really good network of people both in and out of the industry,” she says, “so you can tell people what you’re dealing with. It’s about finding people you can really be honest with.”

Rachel Fraser says: “Most of my mentors have been unofficial – generally people in the business who I’ve got good relations with, who I respect and who have approached worklife in a way that I would want to. When I’m in an anxiety spiral, they bring me back to reality.”

Rachel says she tries to get to IoIC’s regional hub events as often as possible.

“You might think, I’ve not got time to travel somewhere to talk to a load of people I don’t know. But I’ve found they’re really good sessions for sharing ideas and sharing problems and I always come away from them thinking things aren’t as bad as I thought, because others have the same issues. They’re like therapy sessions.

“Boxing off time is difficult, but I do get the benefits.”

If you need help from line managers, ask for it. Harriet recalls a time when a colleague insisted on calling her the wrong name. She told a line manager who challenged the person the next time it happened, and it stopped.

“It took a lot of stress off, just knowing that somebody else has your back and sees what you’re going through,” says Harriet.

While it’s vital for employees to look after themselves, the employers need to step up too. Jo says businesses need to understand mental health and its effects better, make sure employees are able to have open conversations about it when they need to, and then put concrete measures in place to support people.

“Mental health is such a zeitgeisty issue,” says Jo, “which is great, and raising awareness is important, but there are simple things companies can do to improve the mental health of employees – and actions speak louder than words.”

What can employers do?

Some steps for easing employees’ stress levels are simple, says Jo, and cost nothing – like “having a clear role, boundaries and accountability, and guidelines that make it clear to somebody who’s struggling with mental health, how the company will support and engage them”.

For example, when people take time off work for their health, a simple plan of when the company will contact them and what will happen on their return to work is easy to implement and can help prevent unnecessary worry and uncertainty.

Training for managers is important too, Jo says. “Lots of people have good intentions, but they don’t know what to do. I think managers want to support their team, but they just don’t know how, and it shouldn’t be on them to go and find out. Companies should provide that.”

Other steps relate to the culture of an organisation. Employers should avoid allowing a culture of long hours and presenteeism to take hold, which Jo describes as “wildly unhealthy”, as well as unnecessary. 

A culture that supports feedback is also vital. Managers can make a big difference by simply saying thank you, says Rachel. 

“I think sometimes with communications, you just push things out and you’re always on that wheel, and it helps to have someone just say a piece of work went well or it didn’t go well, but here’s why, so you know what your perception is in the business. You just need to say it – and hear it – sometimes.”


Time to turn off?

The average person in the UK spends more than a day a week online. Darren Caveney, one of the event organisers of Comms Unplugged, an annual retreat away from the distraction of phones, email and technology, offers some tips for escaping life’s digital tentacles.

Switch off social media at 9pm.
Scrolling through Facebook at night, you will see work-related content, which can hurtle you straight back into the workplace stresses you are trying to avoid. 

Go for a run or to the gym.

Keep an exercise diary as motivation and to see how it varies across the month.

Have a social-media-free day once a week.
I do this on Sundays and I take a week-long screen break twice a year for holidays and over Christmas.

Go to events.
Meet like-minded people and have more offline conversations with  people who you can learn and get support from.

Take lunch breaks.
Go for a walk and get some fresh air for half an hour – and encourage your team to do the same. If you’re heading up a comms team, don’t set a bad example of sitting at your desk at lunch trying to keep up with everything. 


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