CommsCon: ‘I was in such a dark place.’ How AZK Media’s MD overcame burnout

CommsCon award-winner and managing director of AZK Media, Azadeh Williams, shared her tips on fighting burnout at last week’s Mumbrella CommsCon.

Taking to the stage at the Four Seasons Hotel in Sydney, Williams used her career as a case study on the good and bad realities of burnout in the public relations (PR) and communications industry.

“A lot of people see the gloss and the media headlines, they see the campaigns,” Williams acknowledged to a packed room. “But they don’t see the hard grunt that goes on behind the scenes.”

Azadeh Williams

Citing Harvard research to lay the groundwork of her session, Williams explained that “half of PR pros suffer from severe stress, anxiety and burnout”.

“And eight out of 10 PR professionals felt they were discriminated against when they raised these issues with their employer. Nine out of 10 were dissatisfied with the intervention that was provided.

“And 67 percent felt there was poor support overall within the company that they worked for.”

They were statistics that Williams herself could relate to, having experienced a severe burnout that she said affected her personal and professional relationships. Having fully moved into the PR space after working as a journalist for over 10 years, Williams admitted that there was already a learning curve she had to follow.

But the Covid pandemic exacerbated any feelings of stress felt by the former IDG Communications’ senior journalist.

“Our agency was only two years young. We were growing at a rapid pace,” Williams started, before continuing, “when Covid hit, everything, the pressure, just mounted.”

“I was working over 70 hours a week. I had little to no breaks.

“I was basically chained to my desk. Zoom call after Zoom call. Someone who used to run marathons and exercised eight hours a week at minimum suddenly went from that to little to no breaks and no exercise.

“I was constantly wired on caffeine and chocolate. Um, I was on about six to seven cups a day of coffee at least.”

But thanks to a set of tricks and tips she garnered along the way, Williams was not only able to emerge from “a point where [she] totally crashed and burned”, but to come back thriving.

Williams advocates for flexible working arrangements, drawing boundaries, and the right to disconnect.

“…Inflexibility is immediately going to fragment your sense of self and your career. There has to be a sense of flexibility within your work environment and likewise with your home environment,” she insisted.

“Draw boundaries between your personal life and your work life.

“And we all know that the federal government is introducing that right to disconnect legislation, and it’s there for a reason, because our brains actually need to rest, to build up those feel good chemicals to make us feel better, and be more productive, and be happier individuals.”

Later on, Williams explained that understanding operational processes and systems, and reinforcing strict communication hours, are essential for achieving greater project efficiency and work/life balance, respectively.

On the concept of grasping operations, particularly for projects, PR and communications professionals “have to be very clear on the scope”.

Williams speaks to the crowd

“Put that scope into all the collaborative project documents. So, everybody that’s working on that project can see the scope, and they’re very clear on the rounds of revisions, who’s doing what, and all the deadlines.”

And while the concept of adhering to set contact times may be wishful thinking in a sector where employees “pretty much have to be on call 24/7, or at least feel that [they] have to” (as phrased by one delegate when asking a question in the session’s Q&A segment), Williams argued that setting boundaries is achievable and already being done.

“Some agencies, and we have done this on occasion for certain clients, put their ‘out of office’ on a Friday,” Williams said, before hammering home the words, “This is our weekend time. We’re not going to respond to you. We’ll respond to you first thing Monday.”

“[Set] those expectations to your clients. That you are not available to them 24/7.”

Hours later, Williams won the trophy for PR Professional of the Year at the 2024 Mumbrella CommsCon Awards, a testament to the phrase that helped kick off her presentation, “…As PR professionals and those in the comms industry, we work a lot harder than what people give us credit for.”


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