Three Most Common Misconceptions About Journalist Burnout

During the Outriders Network Stage 2019 event last November, I had an opportunity to meet a group of amazing journalists participating in that event and during an anti-burnout workshop we discussed how difficult their job in 2019 was. The workshop was also summarising lessons learned as a coach working in the Outrider’s Media Garage Project

Here are the three most common threads of that meeting.

#1 Burnout is just being tired… or is it?

From being temporarily overworked through being exhausted up to the point of not recognizing what is the point any more. Nowadays, if work makes you unhappy, everything is called “burnout”, just like some time ago, depression was a synonym to sadness.

How does it look like in reality? The diagnosis should be made by a professional, but let’s make a few distinctions. 

Professor Christina Maslach recognizes three sets of signs of burnout, and it is best to look at the symptoms from all three sets together.

The first set of symptoms of burnout: sense of lack of efficiency

First set is the sense of lack of efficiency — the irony of this one makes you trivialize all your achievements, but at the same time you feel like any new project seems too big, the voice in your head screams that “nothing is worth any effort any more”.

The second set is about depersonalisation and disconnection — it describes the connections to other humans and the level of engagement in your work. If the burnout is happening it can be summarised as: leave me in peace (colleagues, heroes of my stories — people in general) and in regards to work the dominant feeling is: “whatever”.

The last bucket is about emotional and psychophysical symptoms — this one is especially tricky and requires attention as it is the set of symptoms that can be found in many other mental and physical health issues. Depression, insomnia, impossibility to regenerate can be signs of different problems, not only burnout. That is why it is essential to analyze all the sets together and see them as a combination.

 

The root cause of burnout is prolonged stress. And the stress can come from many different sources, so that each individual can sense it differently, there is no one template. In journalism, you can recognize burning out when creativity doesn’t come to you as easily, all stories seem derivative, and the reasons you wanted to do this job in the first place seem distant and unclear.

That is why even before analyzing the set of symptoms, most of all, it’s worth to ask yourself a question: “No matter how hard it is, do I still see the sense in what I do?”

The difference between being tired and burnt out is mostly noticeable in being able to find meaning in your job, even if it is making you exhausted. If you can answer: “yes, it is still worth it” — it is probably being very tired than being physically, emotionally, interhuman-ly drained of energy and the will to carry on. (but do address tiredness! Find good ways to relax and regenerate!)

Let’s look at the two other most common misconceptions about burnout and journalists:

#2 If you burned out, it’s your fault, you are too weak, or you don’t know how to do the self-care properly

It is one of the most common misconceptions about burnout, putting the responsibility for all the bad things that can happen on the individual that is just too weak to be part of some prestigious workplace, challenge or job. And this one is especially popular among journalists. After all, traditionally, a good journalist — a lone wolf — is tough, tenacious, he (of course it is a “he”) is not interested in worldly goods and his meaning of life is a good story.

But a toxic newsroom atmosphere can kill creativity, and bad editors can kill your will to live, no matter how self-driven you are. How to recognize a toxic workplace? Excluding the obvious like sexism (#metoo is as common in newsrooms as anywhere else), racism, ageism, mobbing, and any active or passive aggression, experts claim that factors contributing to burnout are also consequences of bad management.

The most important thing a good manager can do is to give a sense of agency. That means that you know that what you do matters, and that you have the freedom to choose how you do it. Ultimately you know that you are an important part of something bigger. A good manager appreciates you and your work, making sure no one stays anonymous. Finally, a great manager helps in measuring the effects, showing progress in growth and also in contribution to the big picture.

The question is: how many of you have managers, editors, bosses like this? How many great potential managers in newsrooms have the space to learn and practice managerial skills and implement them, instead of focusing on the clicks and bringing more ads? 

A lone wolf with an “I don’t care” attitude is a beautiful vision, but only a myth. In the end, we are all humans, and we need a sense of belonging and doing something important. At work, only occasionally we get it from sources other than from our colleagues and supervisors.

The bottom line is, social contexts influence us more than we often care to admit. And even if you are the most amazing self-care wizard, in an ongoing toxic atmosphere you can at best survive, not thrive.

The third misconception is about the broader context and the notion of:

#3 “Millennials are lazy, entitled snowflakes, aka “in my times…”

There is also a generational issue because recently, we can see a shift in the general working culture and speaking up about injustice and not treating work as a religion. The generation of 80′ and 90′ is not accepting old patterns of abuse, lack of work-life balance, and is speaking out loud about it. Many times it is being called out as laziness and entitlement, while the truth is they are only naming issues that were there for a long time, and they are the first ones to say “that is not ok”. 

Previous generations were often pretending everything was as it was supposed to be, and at the same time developing destructive coping mechanisms like abusing drugs, alcoholism and cynicism. The new generation of journalists wants it differently. Being weak has nothing to do with it; the opposite fighting against a normalised culture is a rare act of bravery.

That is why during the Outriders Network Stage 2019 we talked not only about stress management and anti-burnout strategies for individuals but also about quality management in newsrooms, as well as about community care and the responsibility we all have for changing the whole culture.