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Surviving the News Business

Burnout, self-care, and human-tested tactics for staying okay at work


(Ed Suominen)

Deep dives on project management, process, workflow, newsroom culture & more

Full disclosure: We—Alyson and Tiff—are not experts living some magic zen balance. But having fought burnout ourselves and watched colleagues do battle, it felt like a worthwhile public discussion. So at SRCCON 2015, we led a discussion about combating burnout and “surviving” life in the news business. We structured the discussion with a series of prompts in a Google Doc, leaving space for notes. Not only did folks share in person, they filled our doc with pearls of wisdom faster than we could discuss them. We’ve summarized highlights below.

Journalism’s (relatively) brief history as a profession has included evolving attitudes toward career management and work/life balance. While each organization’s culture varies, aggressive deadlines, multi-tasking, and long hours are considered hallmarks of the profession.

You can repeat that exact paragraph about the tech industry as well. If you combine them, as many of us do each day, you get something like a three-dimensional chessboard of stressors, deadlines, and shifting ground. (And too many references to alcohol-as-crutch clichés for comfort.)

Highs, Lows & Plateaus

We opened the discussion with a play on corporate surveys—the kind with prompts like “rate your job satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 5.” Assuming attitudes toward work exist on an emoji-friendly spectrum, from “enthusiastic puppy” to “jaded barnacle,” what are the stations along the way?

The Tortured Metaphor Spectrum of Job Satisfaction
an emoji-fied spectrum of workplace mental health and happiness

* Credit for pufferfish brillance goes to Becky Bowers and the Squeezle

And merrily we roll along, cycling somewhere between those extremes. But in a news environment, burnout—that lasting feeling of being overwhelmed, or cynical and detached, or lacking control, or just done but not sure what to do about it—can easily begin smoldering. Over time, that can affect your work, spill over into your personal life and relationships, and contribute to lasting stress-related health problems.

Beyond Burnout

Burnout can include or overlap with depression. If what you’re feeling goes beyond work dissatisfaction—like feelings of negative self-worth, hopelessness, or other signs of depression—please seek help. Your employer may offer access to free and anonymous counseling services through an employee assistance plan (EAP). If you don’t have access to an employee assistance plan, look for depression counseling services in your area, perhaps those familiar with workplace stress issues. Consider asking trusted friends for referrals or assistance.

Assessing the Situation

To break out of a burnout cycle, try to clearly understand the problem(s) you face, along with a sense of your own goals—short- and long-term, career and personal. Then make a plan.

Take a Time-Out

Try to recognize before things get really stressful that you will need some time away. Ideally, plan a vacation. But in busy times, don’t underestimate the benefits of a simple walk around the block. Change your environment and stimuli in order to help you detach (even briefly) from your work situation. Try not to think about work at all if you can. Instead, focus on another activity, or the scenery and people around you.

If you’re stuck in an ever-incrementing loop of negativity, this is the “break;”.

When you get back to work, the same problems will still be there, but hopefully you’ll be able to approach them from a fresh perspective.

Personal Assessments

Every burnout or near-burnout situation is a unique combination of internal and external factors. A starting point: Assess what’s important to you—at work and outside of work. Look at what you want out of the situation and what you can change. Remember to do this step often, because what constitutes “balance” may be completely different at various points in your life.

Toward that end, some strategies to consider:

  • Learn to describe yourself without mentioning your job.
  • Challenge your negativity. Are there opportunities for growth in an otherwise lackluster assignment? A skill or relationship to develop? Or a bad habit to “unlearn”?
  • Periodically assess projects (work and personal) against how you perceive their value—money $, skill development ➕, fulfilling ♥︎—using this visualization shared by NPR’s Livia Labate.
  • Make an honest self-evaluation a routine—e.g. “I am strong on this,” or “I am weak on this.” This is not an excuse to beat yourself up. Rather, it’s a way to affirm your strengths and identify avenues for improvement. Come up with a plan to develop the skills—technical or interpersonal—you want to improve. And consider ways to share (or better employ) your strengths.
  • If you feel you need extra perspectives or accountability, consider asking colleagues to evaluate you as well—e.g., ask them to rate you across a number of strengths/weaknesses and compare their average answers with your own. The differences, in particular, can open up avenues of things you can work on.
  • Set personal goals. Even if you don’t have an answer to “where do see yourself in five years?” you might at least have a sense of who you want to be and what you want to be doing—inside and outside of work. Assess what you need to do to get there.

Getting Support from Higher-ups

Employers are getting better at recognizing the value of supporting work-life balance. And, certainly, there are business reasons to do so: Lower productivity due to burnout and poor morale is bad for business, and it’s expensive to constantly hire and train new people. (Likewise, I imagine having a reputation as a “good” place to work is a great recruiting pitch.)

More companies are offering benefits like flexible schedules, comp time (on- and off-book) and wellness programs, as well as frequently revisiting roles and how teams/tasks are organized. That said, sometimes there are mismatches between listed benefits and actual culture. For example, officially supporting remote work…except maybe your own manager prefers to see butts in seats, or your particular job requires your presence in the office. Or the rules seem different for newsroom vs. non-newsroom staff.

Having people at the top of the organization recognize the value of balance makes it easier to pursue it on a smaller, more immediate scale: within your own team.

Fostering Healthier Teams

If your whole team sees the value in balance, you can work together to develop a healthier work environment. Do your teammates and managers need convincing? Addressing burnout is an opportunity to address workplace challenges that affect the whole team, like bad process, lack of redundancy and employee turnover.

The Bus Factor

If you’re the only person in your organization who knows how to do what you do, that’s bad—for you and your organization. If you were suddenly indisposed (the “bus factor”), how easily could your team or organization recover? How much institutional knowledge and skill would be lost?

Certainly, there’s a degree of job security in being indispensable, but that also means it’s much harder to maintain work/life boundaries and take vacations. A few strategies to mitigate this:

  • Identify backup people for key tasks/roles and cross-train
  • Document important processes
  • As a team, evaluate which processes are even still necessary, and identify ways to optimize, standardize, and/or automate where possible.

Related to this is “martyr” behavior: taking on too much out of a sense of obligation, ownership, or mistrust ultimately makes you unable or unwilling to share burdens. Long-term, it’s unsustainable and can stoke the flames of burnout. Perhaps you’ve felt overloaded but rejected help because “it’ll take me too long to explain how to do it.” If you notice yourself or a teammate doing this, make time afterwards to discuss approaches that might allow someone to cross-train and pitch in next time.

Owning something to an unhealthy degree can get especially tricky where people have dedicated projects or “beats.” Identify organizational weaknesses and “bus factors” and try to address what you can as a team. You may not be able to address all the things you identify without larger, organization changes.

Sanity—or at Least Clarity

The rest of your newsroom may be barely contained chaos but your team could establish some calmer baseline for yourselves. Uncertainty and lack of control contribute to burnout. Where you can, define how your team does particular kinds of work. Set clear expectations about roles and the eventual result. Even if you can’t always control how the larger newsroom works, you can try to affect your corner of it—and maybe over time that will have a broader influence.

Look Out for Each Other

Make “balance” a team priority—and back each other up. If someone’s burning out, that brings down morale and productivity. If that person eventually leaves, getting a replacement up to speed will take time and energy. And, workplace self-interest aside, it’s hard to see another person suffering.

Valuing balance in the culture of your team means you can build in mechanisms to take on burnout. Hopefully this also means that the team becomes a shared space to commiserate and address problems, rather than a collection of people facing stresses in isolation.

Some things to consider:

  • As a group, look out for martyrdom signals and encourage cross-training. Encourage teammates to speak up when things are too much.

  • As a group, set expectations about after-hours communication. Consider setting up an “on call” rotation for after-hours so a designated person can respond to last-minute issues.

  • Be sick at home—don’t infect the rest of the team. Or take an actual sick day and rest rather than working from home.

  • Vox’s Yuri Victor said that in his team’s weekly meetings, they account for projects that took longer than the regular work week and try to address the “why” as a team (with allowances for crash deadlines).

  • Likewise, make sure team members taking regular breaks or vacation time—Victor recommended pacing vacation days every 300 hours.

Modeling “Healthy” Behavior

Managers set the example for the kind of relationship they expect their employees to have with their jobs. If a manager is sending emails late at night or working while supposedly on vacation, employees are going to see that as the expected norm. (If you really want to catch up on email in your off hours and you don’t need an immediate reply, consider queuing them all in your drafts folder and sending them out in the morning.)

Setting Boundaries

Keep the long view on your well-being—frequently reaffirm to yourself that your time is valuable.

Defend Your Personal Time

Occasional long hours and deadline stress are inevitable in this line of work, but they shouldn’t be the everyday norm. Develop habits that help you limit over-committing yourself, like actively saying “no” more frequently or reshuffling tasks and deadlines.

Acknowledge internal pressure you may feel to work more or harder, but be gentle with yourself.

Don’t Apologize for Taking Care of Yourself

Schedule those doctor and dentist appointments. Do what you need to do (while still meeting your work obligations). If possible, try not asking. Instead of “Is it okay if I leave at 3 p.m. tomorrow for a doctor’s appointment?” just say “I have to leave at 3 p.m. tomorrow for a doctor’s appointment.” If it’s actually a problem, your manager will tell you.

Set Expectations for How You Can Be Reached Off-Hours

Define boundaries for how you interact with work communication channels (email, etc.) in your off time—and stick with it. Try setting a rule that you won’t reply to email after a certain time, or that, for urgent matters, a phone call is preferable to an email. You could then enforce it by intentionally disabling email on your phone off-hours, or at least disabling notifications. (The Bangor Daily News’ William Davis recommends using a “burner” phone on vacation, so only a boss can reach you in emergencies.)

It helps if you and your teammates set similar expectations, to build it into the team culture. But if that’s not possible, you can at least define your own boundaries.

Pursue Outside Interests

Adopt extracurricular activities that exercise your brain differently from what you do at work. Set expectations and defend the time you set aside for your outside interests—be that exercise, classes, recurring gatherings, volunteering, shows, etc. These efforts might eventually feed back into your work in a positive way—a new skill, a new source of inspiration, a new network of contacts, a new perspective on a subject.

Establish Transition Spaces

Set aside times or places that you can use as defined breaks in your day, where you can mentally transition between “home” and “work” modes. This might be a workout at the end of the day, a visit to a favorite coffee shop, or a particular routine for your commute. If your transition routine includes bars or alcohol, just be wary of being near a habit that can devolve into dependency—with burnout, you have enough to handle already.

Take Vacations

Use all of your time, even if it’s a staycation. You have earned this time, and you are entitled to take it. Getting away from work periodically will make you a better person and employee, lending needed perspective and letting you try new experiences and revisit favorite old ones.

If you’re in a situation where you feel like you can’t take a vacation, evaluate why. If it’s a case of not having a back-up, make a plan to address that (see: “bus factor”). If perpetual overwork is baked into your organizational and/or team culture, this is something to work out with your manager and your team. Or…

Know When You’ve Reached Your Limit

Sometimes your team or organizational culture is toxic. Or there’s an irreconcilable mismatch with your own priorities, no matter how hard you try to make it work. Consider an exit strategy—before burnout sets in completely.

Finding “Balance”

“Work-life balance” is a great thing to talk about but a tricky thing to put into practice, especially in a work culture that often glorifies overwork and lacks stability. In such an environment, it can be hard to internalize the concepts of self-care.

Individually, it’s up to us to recognize when things aren’t working, identify our own priorities, and do what we can to defend them. Recognize that this is an ongoing effort, not a one-time fix. Collectively, we need to support each other. Hopefully the result is a more humane culture, longer and healthier careers, and more rewarding work.

Credits

  • Tiff Fehr

    Tiff Fehr is a senior interactive developer with the Interactive News team at The New York Times. Previously she worked at msnbc.com (now NBCNews.com) and various Seattle-area mediocre startups.

  • Alyson Hurt

    Alyson Hurt is the graphics editor at NPR, serving on the Visuals team (formerly News Apps + Multimedia). Previously at the Washington Post and the Arizona Republic. Graduate of ASU’s Cronkite School and Georgetown’s CCT program.

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