Creating ‘sustainable journalists’: Six steps you can take to prevent burnout

 
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Journalists are no strangers to pressure. The high stakes and fast pace of the job can be exhilarating, but also very stressful and, in some cases, unsustainable.

Many journalists, especially in the past year, have stepped back or quit due to the constant pressure and stress of the work. Their main reason for leaving? Burnout.

For this edition of Navigator, we talked to Kim Brice, stress reduction coach and co-founder of The Self-Investigation, an online stress management program for journalists, and Tom Hourigan, a senior journalist at the BBC and founder of newsbreak, to ask their advice on how to properly manage work-related stressors and prevent burnout. Dean Yates, former journalist and mental health advocate for Reuters, also weighed in with his experience of trying to foster a culture of well-being within the newsroom.

Journalists are especially at risk of burning out

Declared an “occupational phenomenon” by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2019, burnout is characterized as feelings of exhaustion and cynicism related to one’s job that ultimately reduces productivity. According to WHO, burnout is caused by “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Sounds familiar?

Journalists normally face the pressure of a nonstop news cycle and the competition to break stories before competitors, but the job has become more demanding: “Burnout was obviously an issue before COVID came along – in the UK, like in the US, news teams have generally reduced in size in recent years, with staff members being asked to do more with less,” Hourigan said.

One key tool in preventing burnout among journalists is education. An important aspect of this is understanding why journalists are especially at risk of burning out, so that prevention steps can be catered towards tackling the root causes of chronic stress.

While at Reuters, Yates interviewed around 50 journalists about their mental health. Nearly all of them reported feeling overwhelmed and stressed.

“There was this feeling that they’re on a treadmill,” Yates said. “And I even had people who had covered some really major distressing events, like wars and tsunamis and earthquakes. But they told me that the worst thing for them was that treadmill, that it just never stopped.”

This feeling is only amplified in the age of digital media, Brice said. Journalists have to balance the additional responsibility of managing social media – often on multiple different platforms and devices.

All of these factors contribute to the “toxic culture” Brice said is present in many newsrooms, where journalists feel the need to always be available for their sources and their editors.

“There’s a real fear of admitting that you’re tired or exhausted, or having difficulty focusing, and a real fear that if you admit that, then either you won’t be given interesting assignments anymore or you risk losing your job,” she said.

Both Brice and Yates see this primarily as a mindset held by older generations of journalists, who often hold management positions in newsrooms. Because of this, there is a lack of conversation about burnout, and resistance to enacting the fundamental changes in how newsrooms function that it would take to address it, Yates said.

“If you’re going to address burnout in the media industry, you have to look at the hours that journalists are putting in, how often they’re working weekends, and just how connected they are to their phones and to stories and to sources from the minute they wake up to the minute they go to bed,” he said. “And I know, from my own experience, that is something that news organizations don’t want to address.”

Steps you can take to prevent burnout

Despite the lack of institutional support at most news organizations, there are actions you can take to protect your mental well-being while remaining a productive member of your team.

  • Know the symptoms 

Journalists need to learn the way that burnout presents itself in the human body to know when they are at risk, Brice said.

“If you’re really feeling like your ability to focus and concentrate has changed pretty significantly, if you’re getting overly emotional, angry, or irritated, if you’re having digestive problems, if you’re suddenly getting a skin rash, headaches, sleeping issues, these are telltale signs that you’re either in overwhelm or approaching overwhelm – and you need to do something about it,” Brice said.

These physical reactions are just the beginning of the effects of burnout, but they are critical to notice so journalists can prevent further damage.

  • Know your limits, and respect them 

Journalists also need to take the time to learn about their own mental limits, especially knowing the difference between feeling challenged and feeling overwhelmed, Brice said.

“This is something we need to teach ourselves, and it requires some body awareness, but it also requires some understanding of how stress works and the things that are stressing us,” she said. “On an individual basis, it’s really about learning to pace ourselves.”

Part of this means fighting our own instincts to over-work now, in order to preserve our ability to work in the future.

“Journalists are their own worst enemy. They will work those extra hours, they will work those extra days,” Yates said. “But over the long term, this just doesn’t work. You cannot produce top quality journalism if you’re exhausted, if your brain is not getting the opportunity to refresh.”

  • Vacation won’t cut it: Incorporate breaks into your daily routine

Many have the instinct to take a vacation when feeling overwhelmed. But this does less good than people realize, Hourigan said.

Most journalists will find that all the benefits of a relaxing weekend away are quickly undone within hours of stepping back into the newsroom, where they’re facing all the pressures they’ve spent two days trying to forget about.” 

That is why journalists need to regularly create moments to allow their minds and bodies to recover, Brice said. “Mini breaks” throughout the day, as short as five minutes, can make a big difference – if done right.

“It’s not a break drinking another coffee. It’s not a break to plan or look at your to-do list. It’s literally stopping. Bringing your attention inward. Taking some breaths, maybe stretching,” Brice said.

Incorporating these breaks into a routine, complete with consistent sleep and regular exercise, is key, Hourigan added.

  • Take a hiatus from technology 

One of the most important characteristics of a successful break is unplugging – turning on “do not disturb,” deleting apps when not in office and setting honest “out-of-office for mental health” messages are a few recommended techniques.

Brice also advocated for spending a full or half day, when you have it, without your devices on or nearby. She also recommends designating chunks of time for each specific digital platform to improve focus and attention.

“Organize blocks so that you have time to focus on your work, and then you have time to focus on your email, and then you have time to focus on social media,” Brice said. “Having all of [the content] constantly coming in and out, the distraction has an enormous effect on the health of our brains.”

  • Strength in numbers: Talk to fellow journalists to help yourself and others

When Hourigan started newsbreak in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, he had been bottling up feelings of stress and fatigue for months. Then, at the start of 2021, other journalists started to open up about their mental health on social media.

“It made me wonder how many other journalists were suffering in silence, and whether I could do something about it – which is where newsbreak came in,” he said.

Young journalists can be a force of change in the mental health culture of newsrooms, according to Yates – especially if they band together as advocates and support systems.

“If you’re a young journalist in a newsroom, I really encourage you to talk openly about the need to look after mental health and normalize that conversation, and you might find a like-minded group,” Yates said. “I think pulling together ideas, resources, and coming up with ways to collectively look after one’s mental health can make a real difference.”

  • Seek professional help

When you cross the threshold from experiencing the warning signs described above to actually experiencing burnout, prevention strategies will likely not work any more.

“This is not something you can easily recover from without professional support,” Brice said. “So go to the doctor, and then from there, see if they can refer you to a specialist. There are specialists now in [burnout]. Do not wait.”

To maintain quality reporting and coverage, silence on mental health in newsrooms is no longer an option, Hourigan said.

“At the end of the day, the journalism industry is only as good as the people working in it – and if those people are exhausted, stressed out and unable to cope with an ever-intensifying volume of information being thrown at them, that’s not in anyone’s interest,” he said.

Addressing burnout is a critical part of efforts to revive and support journalism, according to Brice, because newsrooms can not afford to lose more good journalists for mental health reasons.

“If you want to talk about the sustainability of the media, which everybody does, there’s the economic part of it, but there’s the human part of it,” she said.

“We can’t sustain journalism unless we have sustainable journalists.”

 

Additional Resources 

The Reuters Mental Health and Resilience Resource shares advice and guidance for journalists on how to navigate mental health issues, including stress and burnout, as well as personal stories from Reuters reporters.

The International Journalists’ Network’s Mental Health and Journalism Toolkit offers a collection of resources about causes and solutions for a variety of conditions related to mental health, from PTSD to digital wellness.