As I stood checking in VIP celebrity guests at an exclusive red carpet New York Fashion Week event, I couldn’t stop thinking about the blisters and blood-soaked bandages on both my feet. Exhausted and emotionally depleted, I tried to fake a Colgate smile through the pain and thought to myself, “Nabeela, you’ve always wanted this. Be happy.” Little did I know, this wouldn’t be the last time I would experience burnout in my PR career. 
Growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, I always dreamt of moving to New York City. Although I did not know exactly what I wanted to do in the city that never sleeps, I knew I needed to end up there one day. My love for New York started young as I watched Mary Kate & Ashley movies, then the Sex and the City series as I grew older. After completing my undergraduate degree in Marketing/Public Relations at university in London, I set my eyes on the Big Apple. Eight years ago, I booked a one-way ticket to New York City in the hopes of chasing my dreams but was unaware of the hurdles I’d have to overcome to make them reality. 

The Internships and Side Hustles 

At the first company I worked for — a fashion clothing line — all the permanent employees had body scales under their desks, which should’ve been an immediate red flag. The company forced interns to wear their size 0 showroom clothes. If we couldn’t fit in a size 0, we had to either lose weight or risk losing our jobs. 
At the first company I worked for — a fashion clothing line — all the permanent employees had body scales under their desks, which should’ve been an immediate red flag.
Before New York Fashion Week, I ate only salads for 10 days. I still couldn’t fit into their clothes, and therefore couldn’t attend fashion week. I called my mum and quit that day. You are not a true New Yorker unless you’ve bawled out on the streets in the middle of rush hour foot traffic. I’m not usually a crier but little did I know that this would not be the first time random strangers experienced a public meltdown of mine due to an unhealthy work environment. 
The very next day, with puffy eyes, I started applying to internships, restaurants, and babysitting jobs to make some extra cash on the side. Internships were easy to get (as most of them were unpaid or paid very little), however landing something full time was the struggle. I wish I’d reached out to a PR mentor on Linkedin to help guide me through the trenches, but now I can proudly say that I am self-made. 
After almost two years of interning at four organizations, one of those internships turned into a full-time job. It was for a position at a travel PR firm and the British founder of the company understood the hustle. I worked late every night, did jobs people didn’t want to do, and proved my worth. My love for travel grew and I moved to a few other agencies after collecting experience in the wine/spirits, lifestyle, product, tech, and influencer/celeb space. 

The PR Industry Burnout 

Over the last seven years, I attended and executed multiple New York Fashion Week parties (while working for companies that did not require me to fit in a size 0), album launches, and multi-million dollar product launches. I also traveled on the company’s dime and experienced more of the world. On paper, it looked like I was living my best life and at times, I felt that way too. The verbal abuse from my bosses was all worth it, I told myself.
I realized I was burnt out as I walked myself to a hospital emergency room, where I was diagnosed with pneumonia and put on a breathing machine. 
While I was in the hospital, my boss asked me to change the format of a deck, but I had no laptop, so my boss had to do it. Even though everything in the deck was accurate, I was put on probation because the deck was in a format that I hadn’t been told was outdated. I quit the next day. Working 20-hour days, almost 7 days a week, for someone who expected me to work while hospitalized was unhealthy and unsustainable. In true Nabeela rebellious fashion, I decided to invite one of my best friends to Yacht Week in Greece to truly enjoy my summer before starting another job after my return. 
I made multiple friends in PR (some who turned into my best friends), and they all experienced burnout too. We were each other's crutches and support. I am so grateful for each and every person who rode the wave with me. 
My love for managing teams stems from my experience with bosses who were not capable. I enjoy leading by example and fostering a healthy environment for the people under me so they also learn how to be great managers and continue to fall in love with the PR industry. For all of you PR pros reading this, please remember, it is not the industry that’s the issue, you’ve just had bad experiences with your previous bosses. Please don’t quit! Instead, try these tips to help make PR work better for you.
For all of you PR pros reading this, please remember, it is not the industry that’s the issue, you’ve just had bad experiences with your previous bosses. 

Tips to Help Overcome Burnout 

If you’re in the PR industry, you already know this is not a typical 9-5 job. As long as I’m avoiding burnout, I personally enjoy some of the chaos that comes with being a PR pro — as many of you know, the news cycle waits for no one. You might have to work long hours or even weekends, but it’s important to set boundaries and listen to your body to avoid burnout. A few practices have helped me over the years.
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We are so technologically connected and even more so during the pandemic, which comes with benefits but can also lead to distractions. To avoid  interruptions, I block off time in my calendar so no one can book me while I’m in “the zone.” If I know I need to do a lot of pitching or finish a new business deck, I’ll block off two hours and let my colleagues know I’m busy. Scheduling my time helps me focus and not jump around or procrastinate. If you can, put your phone on silent during your blocked-off time, not checking it until you’re done with the tasks you need to accomplish. 
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Even though the life of a PR person is busy,  it’s important to stick to your health-promoting routines as best you can. If you are a person that works out in the morning, make sure you block off time to do that. If you walk your dog or meditate at a certain time, make sure you stick to that time. You don’t need to divulge what you’re doing in your public calendar — just add a “block” event to make clear you’re unavailable. Healthy routines have helped me so much and allow me to feel like my life is in control even when my workday seems out of control, especially during a client crisis or a breaking news day. 
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I made the mistake of not speaking up in the beginning of my career and I’m so glad I quickly got over that. Being a natural over-communicator has served me well in my  PR industry career. If you are feeling overwhelmed by your workload, or if you have an idea that would work more efficiently and be less time-consuming — speak up! No one is a mind reader and you’ll feel so much better that you did it. This reduces anxiety and allows you to work to the best of your ability. 
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I can’t emphasize this enough. Self-care is so important when you’re in the PR industry. Self-care can look like grabbing dinner with a friend, jogging, going to the spa, or even redecorating your apartment. Self-care is whatever makes YOU feel good. We each have one body, one vessel that is supposed to take us through life. Self-care is not selfish and is non-negotiable. If you are unwell, you can’t do your job properly. 
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In many U.S. companies, if you request to take time off, your boss gives you a side-eye. If this is the case, then you’re not at the right company. If you are doing your work well and request PTO, there should never be an issue. We have PTO days for a reason — use them! Equip your team with the right tools they would need while you are away and enjoy that holiday. We are not robots and deserve to live life to the fullest.
COVID-19 has shown us that life is short and can be taken in an instant. Because of this, we need to do our best to enjoy every living second of this one life we’ve been given.

WRITTEN BY

Nabeela Aysen