Tools & Practices

Navigating burnout: A guide for journalists

AX Mina (Ana), Leadership Trainer and Coach at The Self Investigation offers her insights into burnout in journalism and some tips on how to tackle it in a culture that requires us to be on 24/7.

On the last day of iMEdD International Journalism Forum 2023, in a small classroom located at Piraeus 260, Ana kicked off her workshop Avoiding burnout in an always-on culture by introducing some meditation exercises. Given the early morning and the intense previous days at the Forum, this short meditation session was enough to make us realize how often we tend to neglect our own emotional wellbeing due to professional or other obligations. The question of how many of us have experienced burnout at least once in our lives was received with hesitation at first, but soon we realized that our own struggles are others’ struggles too.

According to reports from Canada, Ecuador and Spain published in 2022, “60% of journalists reported high levels of anxiety, while one out of five reported signs of depression”. Research also indicates that burnout rates are increasing every year, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to a mass phenomenon called “new epidemic”. Additionally, rising burnout rates have led to a mass exodus from the workforce, known as “The Great Resignation“. Notably, not only have journalists, among other professionals, been quitting their jobs in large numbers since the onset of the pandemic, but also, they are publicly acknowledging their decision to do so due to burnout. This openness challenges the stigma around mental health issues, which previously deterred many professionals from discussing the significant emotional and physical strain their jobs caused to them.

Ana framed the content of the session with the following questions:

  1. Why should we talk about mental health?
  2. Who is experiencing mental health issues and where? (Traditionally, stories of underrepresented journalists outside the Global North remain underreported.)
  3. What is burnout and how can we avoid it?
  4. How can we manage stress?
  5. Do we actually need to be on 24/7?

In the background AX Mina (Ana) is sitting on stage with her eyes closed giving instructions for the meditation exercises. She wears glasses and a black T-shirt and holds a microphone in her hand. The audience is shown in the foreground, where the back of a girl can be seen. Photo: Alex Grymanis
AX Mina (Ana) performing meditation exercises at the beginning of the workshop “Avoiding burnout in an always-on culture”. Photo: Alex Grymanis

Some of the signs that suggest someone may be at risk of burnout include a persistent sense of tiredness and restlessness, irritability, excessive emotionality, lack of concentration, loss of control and physical pain for six months or longer.

The Self Investigation

Definition of burnout

According to the World Health Organization, burnout is an occupational phenomenon, therefore not applicable to other areas of life, classified in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). After brainstorming in the classroom, we came up with a definition pretty much the same as the one given in the report: “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. The three dimensions that define this condition are the following:

  • Chronic fatigue and physical and emotional exhaustion. 
  • Cynicism and detachment from one’s job.  
  • A lack of accomplishment and feeling of ineffectiveness at work. 

The Self-Investigation, a non-profit organization in which Ana is involved as Leadership Trainer and Coach, has developed a toolkit that helps professionals realize whether they are running a risk of burnout. Some of the signs that suggest someone may be at risk of burnout include a persistent sense of tiredness and restlessness, irritability, excessive emotionality, lack of concentration, loss of control and physical pain for six months or longer. 

Interesting is the fact that managers are among the first ones to experience burnout, even though they are expected to get the job done “no matter what”. As far as their symptoms are concerned, a vast majority of them report mental and/or physical exhaustion at the end of the workday, while over half of them are unable to relax or pause activity. Approximately 45% of senior leaders face sleeping disorders, increasing irritability, reduced energy and/ or rapid emotional changes.

Five Top Factors Leading to Burnout

After realizing the symptoms of chronic stress, and maybe after finding ourselves in some of them, the focus shifted to identifying the main factors that drain journalists and other professionals emotionally and physically.

According to Gallup, these are the drivers of excessively high stress levels at work:

  1. Unfair treatment at work. 
  1. Unmanageable workload. 
  1. Lack of role clarity. 
  1. Lack of communication and support from manager. 
  1. Unreasonable time pressure.

We could also add the working relationship among the colleagues, which shape the working environment, as well as the financial insecurity experienced by many journalists working in newsrooms, since they do not feel fairly compensated for the work they produce.

Other amplifiers of stress levels include our mind’s rumination and fearful or negative thinking, interruptions and distractions, as well as messages out of office hours, especially if not urgent, which intensify our stress levels and make us feel overwhelmed and worried that we are not doing enough.

AX Mina (Ana) stands in front of a screen that displays the word "Solutions". To the left of the photo is a white board with notes and yellow post-its. She is holding a microphone in one hand and some post-its in the other. The audience is shown in the foreground, out of focus. She wears glasses and is dressed in simple black clothing. Photo: Alex Grymanis
AX Mina (Ana) suggesting solutions on how to deal with burnout. Photo: Alex Grymanis

To sustain good journalism, we need healthy journalists.

AX Mina

Solutions/ Actions

At individual level:

  • Fight perfectionist standards by trying to find joy in every task. 
  • Exercise and mediate regularly. 
  • Overcome the shame and stigma over mental health issues by seeking out help. 
  • Set communication boundaries with your colleagues. 
  • Include positive messages and stories in the news. 
  • Exit the working environment that does not appreciate your value. 

At communal level:

  • Create spaces within the community in which professionals can express their feelings and ask for help. 
  • Realize that burnout is a structural phenomenon that requires reformulation of the whole working culture. 
  • Increase employees’ capacity, raise salaries, and offer more friendly working conditions. 

Three additional evidence-based interventions recommended by WHO:

  • manager training for mental health, 
  • training for workers in mental health literacy and awareness, 
  • individual interventions delivered directly to workers. 

Regular 1:1 meetings

According to a study conducted by Harvard Business Review, regular one-on-one meetings foster employees’ motivation and engagement at work and help build trust, along with psychological safety.

The importance of taking breaks

The importance of taking breaks between meetings is highlighted by a study led by Microsoft Human Factors Lab, which indicates that breaks between meetings allow the brain to “reset” and reduce the inevitable accumulation of stress when jumping in from one meeting to another. Besides, back-to-back meetings can decrease our ability to focus and engage.

Organization of communication

Organizing our communication in a meaningful way is of paramount importance for the preservation and enhancement of our mental health. Professionals need to agree on a “communication pyramid” classifying the various types of communication from the most urgent (phone calls) at the top of the pyramid to the ones that can wait for 24 hours or more (emails) at the bottom of the pyramid. This will lead to better time management and reduction of stress arising from the allocation of many different tasks to one person.

“To sustain good journalism, we need healthy journalists”, Ana continued to stress throughout the session. Especially in the fast-paced world of journalism, the urgency of recognizing, preventing, and managing burnout should not be neglected. The significance of creating spaces in our working environment, where we can openly express our emotions and seek support from both our managers and colleagues is great. This means that structural challenges can be overcome not only with individual, but also with communal practices that influence the working culture of journalists in a positive way. Finally, our session couldn’t end with a more self-evident, but at the same time overlooked note than that: “You are as important as your work!”