Sincerely, Leaders of Color: Burnout culture is everywhere
But it starts at the top, and you need to have a hand in the solution.
About this series: Sincerely, Leaders of Color is written for everyone in the journalism industry who cares about creating a more supportive environment for journalists of color to do their best work. Have a question for the team? Drop it here and watch for it in a future column.
Yup. It’s everywhere. 2020 burned us all to the quick and now we are running on fumes until we are not running at all. People are quitting. In droves. They are leaving their jobs and industries, they are traveling and trying to figure out who they are.
Being stuck in your home for a year and change makes you re-evaluate what is important. And you may have come to surprising conclusions. We are finding that work should not and does not define who we are as people. We missed our family. We spent more time with our pets and kids. We explored the outdoors. I learned to weave and not stare at a screen for a little bit.
All of this adds up to a difficult quandary for leadership. If you are running an organization and people are leaving in droves because of burnout, what can you do? Do you wait until the bleeding stops and hire from there? Do you give out therapy and more days off in hopes that will help? Is it your fault? Can you do anything better? (These are all legitimate thoughts that have crossed my mind).
One thing leaders can do: Stop “fixing” burnout with time off.
There are cases of burnout from long hours and working too much, especially at organizations that are not vacation friendly. But, when I have burned out, it was not about the amount of time I spent working, it was the toll and the heaviness of the work.
I have come to think of my energy and wellbeing as a gas tank. There are days where it is full. Days where it is empty. Depending on what is going on in my life, each day starts at varying levels. Burnout is when there is a big leak and no gas station in sight.
Understanding that gas tank, and understanding what fuels your team is crucial to working on burnout.
- Ask your team what energizes them. Not what gets them out of bed, but what stories, actions, or discussions excite them and fill up their tank.
- Some possibilities: Getting an answer to a tough question, seeing your name on A1, getting an email from a source or a boss, a shoutout at an all-hands, hearing that your story changed someone’s mind, going on a run, speaking on a panel.
- Take note of what drains your team. Take note, not ask. It’s hard to tell your boss you are struggling. Few people can be candid and identify what is draining them, but if you are paying attention you’ll notice what hits them harder.
After you know these things, you can work on short- and long-term fixes. Fixing the balance of work and making sure you have energizing projects is only one of many tactics. There are systemic issues in every workplace that also need to be tackled, like your culture, hiring practices, and communication. Fixing those takes time and you have to work on both at the same time.
The biggest thing to remember: Every leader is a model of how to work. If you are worried about burnout and you see it rising in your staff, make sure you take time to assess where you are as well. It’s likely you are pushing yourself too hard and not giving others the implicit permission to take care of themselves through your own practice. Slow down. Check the tank. Make sure you refill.
Your Burning Questions
I’m leaving my current job covering a POC community in a rural area. This community desperately needs this coverage — and the coverage has changed laws, won awards, and spurred more representation in this area. But I’m partially leaving because the fight to prove this beat matters and should exist is so exhausting, and I don’t think that environment will improve under current leadership. I’m worried about encouraging another journalist of color to take on this beat — and worried about letting down the community if the organization lets the beat die when I leave (like they’re discussing). Do I protect the community, or try to protect other journalists of color from experiencing the heartbreak I did?
Before you do anything, rest. Take a weekend and think about what role you want to play in this beat’s future. It is OK if the answer is “I want nothing to do with this place or this beat.” If that is what is most healing for you, walk away. The person you owe anything and everything to FIRST is yourself. You are asking whether to protect the community or other JOC without asking if you are protecting yourself. If you are burned out (sounds like you are), then any reasonable boss and/or community member will understand why you are leaving and why you need space before you do anything else.
After that, there are two things to consider. First, journalism is small and everyone remembers. So when advising others to take the job or not, tread lightly. Be honest with those you trust, only. It’s hard to know who knows who and unless you are OK with burning bridges, it helps to hedge your bets. Secondly, what do you value most? If you grew up and will always live in this community, maybe the highest value is the community. It helps to have your personal values outlined before you decide what role you will play.
You do not have to help your former organization. It is a favor (and one that people pay for) to help recruit journalists of color. You can give an honest exit interview (not the HR one, I mean a lunch or walk with your boss) and tell them why and how they can do better. That is already a gift.
P. Kim Bui
Emma Carew Grovum
Leaders of Color
P. Kim Bui is the director of product and audience innovation at the Arizona Republic. She’s focused her career on leading real-time news initiatives and creating storytelling forms for digital, print and broadcast companies catering to local, national and global audiences. Prior, she was editor-at-large for NowThis News, focusing on original, social reporting and breaking news. She was also deputy managing editor for reported.ly, a digital media startup specializing in social journalism. She’s been a speaker, trainer and teacher on leadership and digital journalism at universities, conferences and gatherings worldwide. She writes a newsletter for emerging leaders and managers, The Middles: themiddl.es