Ms. Management: Driving Our Employees Over the Edge
In an industry that valorizes overwork and toxic coping strategies, we can model something different
It is not unusual, in any given newsroom on any given day, to hear someone proclaim, “wow, I need a drink,” in response to whatever horrifying thing is happening in the world and on Twitter. Nor is it surprising that our industry is rife with people who are stressed, anxious, or depressed—or some combination of the three.
What is decidedly unusual is for anyone to take time off to address their mental health concerns, to say nothing of raising the subject with their editors or colleagues.
Multiple factors are at work here, and none are helping us be better at our jobs.
The first goes something like this: if you’re still fortunate enough to collect a regular paycheck from a media organization (especially one that traffics in news), it’s best not to call attention to any perceived vulnerabilities or personal weaknesses.
Newsrooms reward stalwarts who are always on, always filing, always available. We pay lip service to the importance of taking time off, but don’t hesitate to grumble if we miss a story because a reporter was away. “You must never sleep!” is among the highest of accolades. “Aren’t you on vacation?” is a wink and a nod of thanks.
I have long kept a record of the contortions people I’ve worked with have employed to ensure they’re considered a team player. Among them: “due to go into labour today, but available by email.”
Here’s another reason we shy away from talking about how we’re really doing: suffering is seen as part of the job. We tell ourselves that the racist and misogynist online comments, the bruising contract negotiations, the rounds and rounds of buyouts—these are just part of working in media in 2017. And our fetishisation of stoicism means we tend to dismiss mental health breakdowns as mere distractions, best treated with an hour or so of venting to colleagues and several infusions of hard liquor.
And who sets this tone in our newsrooms? We do. We, the editors with a bottle or two of whiskey on our desks and our Slack status lights always green.
Whether we mean to or not, when we reward availability and stamina we make it harder for someone currently dealing with depression or anxiety to do anything but pretend that everything is fine.
When we encourage the person hacking up a lung to “go work from home” instead of taking time off, we imply that anyone with a less obviously debilitating (or infectious) ailment should just keep on keeping on.
Ever since I was a child, I have had migraines. And ever since I was a child, people in positions of authority (teachers, principals, editors, bosses) have asked if I was sure that the skullcrushing pain in my temples and my intense sensitivity to light and sound wasn’t “just a headache.”
And ever since I was a child, I have internalised the message that I had to power through my stilted, slurred speech (my migraines can result in transient aphasia) and blinding pain. I have worn sunglasses in the office and taken conference calls in total darkness. But rarely have I taken all the time off that I needed, because I didn’t want to strain my team or disappoint my editors.
This changed, slightly, when I started managing people. It became important to me to try to model healthy behaviour, though I will be the first to admit that I did not always succeed. Did I read emails with an icepack on one eye? Yes. Did I ensure that anyone on my team who was shaken by a string of black children dying at the hands of police take some time off? Also yes.
I was also the person who didn’t tell anyone about the nightmares I had after I happened to watch, in real time and in the course of doing my job as an editor, the footage posted to social media by Vester Lee Flanagan. Footage of him shooting and killing his former colleagues while they were on air. I left the office that day and went to a boxing class and then to a bar where I inhaled multiple gins-and-tonic. And then I went home to bed and straight back to the office the next morning, despite waking up shaking several times that night (and repeatedly for weeks after).
When we don’t talk about the sharp edges we bump into while doing our jobs, when our only recourse is to dark humour and macabre jokes and not to time off or therapy, we do real harm. Harm to ourselves, to our teams, and ultimately, to our audiences.
Depression is not a dirty word. Anxiety is not an indictment of someone’s skills or abilities. Stress does not have to be the default.
We can lead by example. And we must.
Do you have questions about newsroom management and leadership? Facing a tough editorial challenge? Submit your questions to Ms. Management.
Stacy-Marie Ishmael is a writer, editor, and product manager.