Recommendation No.14. On how journalists can overcome professional burnout and form the sources of support

October 8, 2021

Journalism is a profession associated with an increased risk of burnout. Burnout is a systemic issue needing systemic solutions that depend on various participants in the process: the management (editor’s office), the team, and the journalists themselves. Burnout is a significant problem that can cause physical and mental health problems and negatively affect all areas of life, including reduced quality and productivity. It is important to focus not only on “firefighting” (overcoming the consequences of burnout) but also on “planting a forest” by fostering the newsroom’s atmosphere and corporate policies leading to “burning anew,” i.e., the psychological wealth and well-being of employees.

So what is burnout?

It is a psychological state associated with feelings of exhaustion, a loss of enthusiasm, a negative perception of your productivity or job as a whole, your colleagues, or the people you interact with. Burnout is a chronic depletion of your energy resources, manifesting as a prolonged feeling of emotional exhaustion and physical and cognitive fatigue. In the absence of a proper response, all this could lead to severe mental health disorders (including depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol abuse) or physical disorders (increased risk of cardiovascular and musculoskeletal diseases).

There are several objective reasons for the increased risk of burnout among journalists.

What are the burnout symptoms?

The first burnout stage is the feeling of not being efficient: all your achievements seem insignificant, run-of-the-mill, and any new project or task looks too big and/or not worth the effort.

The second stage is the state one could describe as “leave me in peace.” Individuals distance themselves, ignore their own and other people’s needs minimizing contact. And as for work issues, employees become indifferent, reducing their involvement in work-related events.

At this stage, emotional and psychophysiological symptoms are especially noticeable: a lack of energy, memory impairment, increased difficulty in concentrating, sleep problems, changes in eating habits, a depressed mood, an unwillingness to start something new, and, overall, move forward.

It may seem to some that burnout is only the responsibility of a particular individual, who is weak or does not know how to/cannot take proper care of themselves. In reality, however, it is one of the common misconceptions about burnout. The social context affects us more often than we care to admit. Therefore, it is essential to pay due attention and make your own contribution to creating a work environment that would add to the well-being of employees.

Among the key stressors at the workplace are:

  • a toxic atmosphere (in which sexism, racism, ageism, mobbing and/or active or passive aggression are present);
  • incorrect management (a disproportionate number of requirements for employees’ abilities, poor working conditions, inappropriate pay, erratic work schedules).

Naturally, the following is also essential:

  • individual traits (perfectionism, self-criticism, hyper-responsibility, constant dissatisfaction, and evaluating everything as “not how it should be”);
  • the presence or absence of resources for support and the extent to which work values ​​are in line with internal values.

Professional burnout is a significant problem. It devastates and “suffocates” you with apathy, leads to psychological imbalance, impairs your ability to work. It can cause physical and mental health problems, affecting all spheres of life. In organizations, professional burnout is associated with reduced quality and productivity, distorting the psychological atmosphere in the team, losing employees, and high staff turnover.

Thus, burnout is a condition, not a mental disorder. Such systemic issues as burnout need systemic solutions that depend on the various participants in the process: the employer, the team, and the employee. So let’s take a look at lies within the power of the manager/editor, the team, and the journalist to prevent/overcome burnout.

What can managers/editors do?

Give a sense of freedom of choice, when your employees know that what they do matters and have the freedom to choose how to do it. They also know that they are an important part of something bigger. A good manager values ​​individuals and their work, making sure no one goes unnoticed. A good manager helps measure results and impact, shows development progress, helping to see the big picture. The ability to provide regular quality feedbacks plays just as significant a role in this. Below, we offer one of the viable options.

Offer training opportunities to raise awareness of mental health issues, particularly in building stress resilience and protection from psychological trauma, the ability to recognize symptoms of traumatic stress in themselves and properly interact with those who experienced them. Novice journalists are mostly unaware that they are not ready to face trauma until they have this experience. Psychological trauma makes a person more vulnerable to burnout, depressive disorder, PTSD, and unhealthy coping habits. Besides training, it is important to provide your employees with telephone numbers of round-the-clock psychological support services and inform them about employee assistance programs.

Share your experiences, create an environment in which journalists will feel safe, talking openly about emotional stress. To accomplish that, it is vital to develop a newsroom culture that de-stigmatizes psychological needs and experiences and encourages additional learning in mental health.

Review your employees’ workload and their engagement. Is there any living space left “outside of work”?

Review your employees’ compensation levels. Two points stand out here: even that the rate of compensation does not directly affect the risk of burnout and that money is no guarantee of being highly motivated at work, the salary levels should be fair and proportionate to the effort. According to research, focusing on the financial side of work reduces creativity and overall job satisfaction. Yet only those completely satisfied with a basic level of income cannot focus on money.

What can teams/communities do?

They can provide support for one another and a source of external stability. And they can create peer-to-peer support groups, i.e. meetings involving sharing knowledge, experience, and practical help among those facing similar challenges. Such meetings should be held regularly and have a specific format of interaction. Studies show that such groups increase their participants’ ability to cope with difficulties by increasing their psychological competence and resilience.

Importantly, there is no need to create peer support groups within your team/newsroom. It is often more comfortable for journalists to be members of a community-based peer support group comprised of journalists from other newsrooms and freelancers. In this way, the participants can feel freer to discuss the difficulties they face in their professional activities. It is more appropriate, especially if the journalist is a newcomer to the team, does not feel safe discussing mental health issues, or does not belong to this newsroom’s team (freelancers).

In 2021, the 12 Months of Resilience program started. It aims to begin the tradition of creating peer support groups among journalists working together to find answers to professional challenges to support each other in a safe environment.

We will illustrate the basic principles of creating a peer support group meeting below.

What can we do ourselves?

1. Increase enjoyment of work

It is possible when:

  • our work makes sense (what is the meaning of your work for you, for others?);
  • our work is interesting, bears good fruit and rewards (do you celebrate your successes?);
  • our work is relatively safe and harmless (do you have stress management skills in the context of your work?);
  • we do it well (do you improve your work skills, acquire new knowledge/skills?);
  • we have good working conditions (do you care to make your workspace comfortable and pleasant?);
  • we work in a good team (what do you do to strengthen relationships with your colleagues?);
  • the work we love is not a burden but a source of joy and inspiration, and, with a proper workload, also a source of development.

2. Regulate energy input and replenishment

It is important to do it not only on weekends or holidays but every day. The more complicated the period is (at work or in your life as a whole), the more pleasant things you should include in your day – those that give you joy. Rest is not a waste of time, but an investment in your well-being. Work breaks are not distractions. On the contrary, they provide an opportunity to focus better.

3. Know basic stress management techniques and, more importantly, apply them. The simplest ones that you can use anywhere are physical and breathing exercises.

● Any sort of physical exercise is good, even if done for a few minutes at a time. They regulate the physiological effects of stress (a chain of reactions triggering over-activated brain areas to release stress hormones) and help recover. Physical activity is a natural antidepressant improving your emotional state.

Deep conscious breathing reduces tension and stress. Just five deep inhales and longer exhalations, and you will feel better. Particularly, the recommendation is to inhale, hold your breath and exhale, counting to four at each stage (i.e. on the inhale, when holding your breath and on the exhale).

We also recommend taking a complete course of self-regulation and stress management techniques to be able to apply a broader range of techniques and choose the ones that suit you best, depending on the circumstances. Knowing the rules of conduct in any situation involving trauma (when working with a complex topic or with people who experienced traumatic events) will enable you to be more mentally stable.

4. Your own safety comes first

If you’ve identified your state based on the aforementioned burnout symptoms, seek professional help and see to it you take a long rest. We can only attend to others when we can take care of ourselves.

Talking about self-care, it’s not too hard to take care of your mental health. The main thing is consistency and diversity. To help you, we offer a self-care calendar and checklist, listing simple and effective things to do.

Burnout is a systemic issue, and its solution also must be systemic, comprising changes both at the personal level and at the team/community level.

It is salient to monitor your fatigue, emotional overload, and self-criticism. It is crucial to notice the first signs and act because psychological well-being is not an abstraction but concrete action. And the main guarantee of your well-being is a continuous exchange of support and mutual help.