Practical Tips for Improving Mental Health in the Newsroom
Lessons and advice from SRCCON 2016
Every year, roughly one in five American adults experiences a mental illness. These range from anxiety and mood disorders to depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. In extreme cases, mental illness can lead to suicide, the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and the second-highest in the 10 to 34-year-old range.
Working in a newsroom poses particular challenges to mental health: the job typically involves a high-stress environment, long hours, tight deadlines, exposure to graphic images and videos, and an unstable industry with uncertain benefits and job security.
Mental illness is exacerbated when it is not discussed openly or taken seriously. This July in Portland at SRCCON, dozens of journalists, developers, and newsroom workers sat down together to share their personal experiences with mental health.
Those discussions have been summarized into this list of practical tips intended for anyone working in a newsroom concerned about their own mental health or the well-being of their colleagues and employees.
Some of these suggestions are achievable by a single person. Others require a change in behavior from a group of colleagues, everyone at a publication, or even the entire industry. Some of these ideas require additional time or money, which may make them unfeasible depending on your personal circumstances. But we hope this list starts a crucial conversation.
Caring for Yourself
Mental health starts with you.
Recognize what mental illness looks like. Deteriorating mental health can manifest in many different ways. Learn to spot the symptoms in yourself and your coworkers with resources like this, from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Practice self-care: be diligent and unapologetic about taking time for yourself. At work, this means you should try to take regular breaks where you step away from your desk or assignment.
Outside of work, set aside time for activities and hobbies that take your attention off work.
Frame self-care as a productive investment in your well-being, not a chore or drain on your time. Unhealthy habits such as sleep deprivation or a poor diet are short-term shortcuts that can have long-term consequences.
Daily exercise, such as a short walk, can help reduce stress.
Learn to say no. Know your limits and learn when you can turn down additional work or step away from additional responsibilities.
Don’t read the comments. The internet has made it easier than ever for anyone to leave negative, offensive, and hurtful commentary. Don’t engage with it if you don’t have to.
On the other hand, keep a record of positive social media messages or reader emails. Refer to this file as a reminder that real people are reading or watching your stories, and your work makes a positive difference in their lives.
Don’t struggle in silence. Have at least one person—a coworker, a friend, a partner or a family member—with whom you can be honest about your mental state and any difficulties you may be having.
Have a newsroom ally you can talk to about specific problems at work, or just someone to vent to.
If possible, reduce or eliminate the amount of work you take home. Try to limit checking email to work hours. One reporter encrypted his email for security and was pleasantly surprised to learn it meant he could no longer check email on his phone, forcing him to leave work at the office.
If bringing your work home is inevitable, set aside a space in your house—e.g. your bed, your living room, your garden—where you do not work. Enforce those boundaries.
Limit the number of distractions that can interrupt you. For example, reduce the number of apps on your phone that have the ability to send notifications. Instead, consciously choose when to devote attention to them.
If you’re comfortable, talk openly about how graphic content is affecting you. Acknowledge your emotions, speak about your suffering, and communicate with your coworkers.
Accept imperfection. There’s only so much work any person can do on a tight deadline with limited resources.
Be okay with cuts and edits to stories. Remember that readers will never see your perfect, imaginary version of the story, or know about the quote that didn’t make the cut or the interview you didn’t get.
Accept your own limitations. It’s easy to be idealistic and try to change the world or right injustices with every story; sadly, that is an impossible standard. Accept your own limitations and focus on telling one story at a time.
If you are in crisis, call a suicide prevention hotline: 1–800–273-TALK (8255)
As a Manager
Policies and practices to help those who work for you.
Don’t wait until there’s a crisis. As a manager, make sure you and your employees are well-versed in your organization’s benefits and policies. Just as you brief new hires about sick days and overtime policies, inform them what benefits the publication has available for mental health.
Depersonalize the issue of mental illness to avoid singling out any one person. It’s not a specific person who gets sick; people, in general, get sick.
Be a model of self-care. Perpetually working evenings and weekends can set an unrealistic example for your teammates and discourage them from safeguarding their own health.
Pay attention to the patterns of your coworkers and employees. Are they taking on too much, working evenings and weekends? Are they regularly missing mealtimes? Are they behaving differently?
If possible, try to accommodate requests for flexibility, such as when employees need to take time to visit the doctor, fill a prescription, or work from home.
Recognize that different employees will have different needs based on their personality, lifestyle, and work habits; there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Ask your employees questions such as, “How do you prefer to receive feedback?” or “Are you comfortable working overtime on weeknights?” to understand their individual needs.
Encourage strategies and workflows that increase communication and teamwork such as mentorship, pair programming, and story reviews.
Create a clear line of communication between management and your employees, which they are comfortable using to discuss sensitive topics.
How to build better, kinder, more accommodating work environments.
Establish a physical space (e.g. break room) or electronic space (e.g. Slack channel) which provides a mental break from the ceaseless onslaught of news.
Establish a principle of “never one”: don’t allow a difficult role or responsibility to fall entirely on the shoulders of one person. Provide them support so they’re not isolated in their task, and everyone has peace of mind knowing there’s a backup plan for a critical role.
Rotate duties and assignments so one person is never permanently stuck in a particularly difficult role or beat, such as reviewing graphic images or covering terror attacks.
Acknowledge that trauma and PTSD can affect reporters and photographers who bear witness to traumatic events. They can also be felt by those who experience trauma secondhand through images, videos, and descriptions.
Recognize when coping mechanisms for stress, such as drinking and smoking, are becoming unhealthy. Newsroom culture can sometimes tolerate or even encourage self-destructive behavior, which is epitomized in the archetype of the hard-drinking newspaper reporter.
Organize different types of newsroom events, not just ones that involve drinking. Provide different avenues for employees to socialize if not everyone is comfortable drinking.
Joel Eastwood is a data journalist and graphics reporter on the Wall Street Journal’s Enterprise Visuals team.