Burnout Makes Journalists Quit Jobs and the Pandemic is Not the Only Reason
All across the world, including India
“My decision to leave my last job was impulsive but only after feeling like I had been at a breaking point for more than a year. I remember waking up every morning last year feeling so overwhelmed by all of the terrible things going on in the world. I'm sure many people did. My health came second to my job and that meant days where I would barely eat and just survive on adrenaline and stress,” says Ebony Bowden, former Washington correspondent for the New York Post.
The 29-year-old journalist quit in March and also took to Twitter about her exit. The reason? Burnout.
“For me, burnout looked like sheer physical and mental exhaustion. At the end of a 16-hour day, I didn't have energy to talk to anyone. So many reporters are still living this,” she added.
In the last 4-5 months, a lot of journalists have spoken out about burnout and it came mostly from the western media.
“Journalists openly discuss the unrelenting workloads and poor industry-wide salaries with their peers and so I'd been wondering for some time whether I wanted to continue down this path which seemed less and less rewarding,” the former correspondent says.
Bowden has eight years of experience in journalism. She has interviewed some of the powerful people including former U.S. President, Donald Trump. Previously, she has worked with The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Today Show.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines burnout as a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy.
Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and isn’t applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.
The New York-based journalist, Bowden says that pandemic of course played a role. “When you're locked inside your apartment writing up to 10 stories a day about the pandemic, how could you not become depressed? I think everyone, no matter their industry, is suffering from burnout, and the more we talk about it, the better.”
“The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated existing pressures, and failures, in the journalism industry. Workers were stretched even further in their newsrooms, while also having to deal with the immense pressure and uncertainty of dealing with Covid and lockdowns in their personal lives,” says Sipho Kings, Editorial Director at The Continent.
The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) recently published a survey on Journalism and The Pandemic, highlighting the urgent need for mental health support and interventions to help alleviate burnout among journalists. Exhaustion and burnout (38%) were some of the most commonly reported negative emotional and psychological reactions to the pandemic. One of the survey’s key findings was strong evidence of a worrying increase in stress, anxiety, depression, and burnout among journalists during the first wave of the pandemic.
“For the first time in eight years of my journalistic career, I didn’t want to take up a new project the next day. I didn’t want to chase a story,” says Somesh Jha, former multimedia journalist at BloombergQuint, who also quit his job before the deadly second wave of Covid-19 hit India. “I was a person who used to tell people about journalism and why I loved doing it. Because every day is a new day for us. Lately, I’d started feeling burnt out. This was something very different from what I was feeling for the past eight years. Pandemic does take a toll on you.”
Somesh had quit his job in April. He took to Twitter in June to share his reasons for quitting. Writing on the micro-blogging website, he says that the motivation for speaking up on this came from within the fraternity. Looking for answers on burnout, he stumbled upon threads from the people in the industry and decided to share his own story.
Performance pressure, anxiety, and self-doubt, the Delhi-based journalist says were some of the reasons for his exit. “I was unable to give my best and didn’t know what was happening. Later, I figured out that this was a real case of burnout,” says Jha, whose earlier stints include Business Standard and The Hindu.
“The most thrilling part about my job was to leave my home and meet people. You look into the eyes of the sources to understand their story if they are not willing to share. Due to the pandemic, it all stopped,” Somesh told The Citizen.
Somesh had joined BloombergQuint in January 2021. By mid-February, he realised that things weren’t working as he expected them to be. He took the hard step of quitting without the temptation of getting another job before leaving. Jha says that he did feel better after quitting.
Almost all of those who quit their job and spoke to The Citizen shared that they feel a sense of relief after having taken the decision.
Ahamad Fuwad, 31, who quit his role as the Assistant News Editor at the Free Press Journal in March, echoes Somesh.
“I didn’t know what to call it. I saw Somesh’s tweet and realised there’s something called burnout. Until then I didn’t know what to call what I was feeling,” says Fuwad. “From December onwards I started feeling the burn. I didn’t feel like waking up in the morning and starting work. There was a sense of discomfort, I stopped enjoying my week offs. After February, I just felt that I needed to quit. I didn’t want to switch my job, I just wanted to stop working.”
Fuwad had started his journey with Free Press Journal in September 2020 and was working from home. Previously he’s worked with DNA and India TV.
“We journalists are used to going out and meeting people. It is a part of our job but now this has changed. Another factor is that as an editor, you have to go through all the stories so it was overwhelming for me: the deaths, and pandemic. The burnout was very specific to my profession. After I resigned, I even unsubscribed to the newspapers. I tried to shield myself from the news as much as I could. The burnout led me to quit journalism entirely and the pandemic obviously contributed to it,” he says.
Weighing in on the impact of the pandemic on mental health of journalists, the International Federation of Journalists reported in April that it is important to admit that these issues are not new in the media industry. “Before the Covid-19 hit our lives, journalists were already struggling with a “perfect storm” of factors that challenged their mental health.”
“From job insecurity to the economic crisis of the media, from higher polarisation of media to growing attacks from elected officials against journalists, from a relentless breaking news cycle to journalists’ hyperconnectivity, media workers were already highly exposed to mental health problems,” it added. “Journalists must understand their role as a journalist but you, as a human being, are more important than being a journalist and you have the right to rest and to have a social life.”
Is the pandemic the only reason for burnout?
The Harvard Business Review published a report in 2019 on the causes of burnout and how to avoid them. It states six reasons for burnout: unsustainable workload, perceived lack of control, insufficient rewards for effort, unsupportive community, lack of fairness and mismatched values.
It also says that burnout isn’t simply about being tired. It’s a multifaceted issue that requires a multifaceted solution. Before you quit, really think through what exactly is contributing to your burnout and attempt to make changes. If you find that despite your best efforts, little has changed, then see if it makes sense to stay or if it’s time to leave.
The Citizen asked these journalists what were the possible reasons for their burnout. Bowden says the pressure of publishing more stories is one of the causes.
“News organisations are competing for eyeballs and sometimes the difference between breaking a story or not is several seconds. I think news executives were caught flat-footed by the arrival of the internet and failed to incentivise readers to become digital subscribers. They are still wrestling with this which is so frustrating. This means that journalists are pushed harder and harder to publish an ever-growing number of stories faster than ever before. Of course, this leads to longer hours, more mistakes, and higher rates of burnout,” she says.
Fuwad seems to agree, conceding that prolonged working hours is definitely one factor. “When you work from home, you’re on duty 24x7, even in your sleep.”
Prompted by Jennifer Moss’s February “Beyond Burned Out” piece in Harvard Business Review, several news leaders began discussions about the role news organisations themselves play in burnout, and how a more mindful approach to key aspects of burnout could help curb staff departures, reported Online News Association (ONA).
“The most newsrooms can do is be supportive of their financial needs, and understand employee’s mental health issues. We can easily get an off-day for fever, but not when we aren’t feeling well mentally. When someone says, ‘I don’t want to work today’ - They should consider and understand why the employee doesn’t want to work. There’s a lot of disparity in remuneration too. I am sure every journalist will relate to these reasons, my experience wasn’t unique,” Fuwad says.
ONA also hosted a participatory featured session on burnout in the journalism industry. Each room was labeled with a different topic on burnout. The largest attended room was the discussion on unsustainable workload. ONA is a nonprofit membership organisation for digital journalists worldwide.
“Editors are aware of how untenable the situation is because reporters repeatedly tell them the workload is unrealistic. Unfortunately, they are under the same pressure to publish stories as quickly as possible so I have empathy for them in that regard,” Ebony says.
The 2021 Work Trend Index by Linkedin states, “The exhaustion felt can be caused by the speed and urgency of virtual work. Furthermore, people feel that there's a gap between what they try to communicate online and what the person receiving the message understands (digital static). As the digital static increases, so does the employees' fatigue, anxiety and burnout rates (with motivation and engagement decline).”
Sipho Kings, who quit as an acting editor-in-chief at Mail & Guardian in March, says that newsrooms need to put the health of their core asset - their workers - first. “At the moment the model is to burn out workers in a desperate attempt to cover everything, then replacing them with cheaper workers when they break. This means the business model is broken and workers are subsidising it. That simply isn't acceptable, particularly in an industry that demands better of others in its editorial pages. So newsrooms, and news companies, need to have better management that creates the kind of products that people will pay for (or fund). That will allow for more journalism and less toxic work environments.”
“Everybody is burnt out, so much so that they don’t realise this factor. All of us are chasing something because we are given very steep targets hence we work in that fashion,” Jha told The Citizen. “In India, we anyway don’t have such open conversations about mental health issues. After I tweeted about my experience, I got to know that a lot of people within the fraternity are facing or have faced the same in the past.”
In 2005 the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that among the top 10 most stressful jobs, journalists are listed seventh, only a few stress and burnout studies have been conducted involving journalists.
Unfortunately, pandemic is not the only reason journalists quit their job.
Dhirendra Tripathi, who has spent 19 years in the media, had tweeted in June about the “sorry state of affairs” in the industry, saying that journalists carry a lot of stress and are not compensated enough for it.
“I am far from a burnout. My tweet was more about what’s been happening in the industry. It looks very glamorous but the problems are many. Indian news media hasn’t really got institutional money because of lack of transparency, conflict of various interests, and a little more complex relationship amongst the various stakeholders. As a result, most journalists are not paid well, which, like it or not, affects the quality of the work. The work has its risks and the compensation is poor, it’s a double jeopardy,” he says. “I have seen people leaving because they realized it wasn’t worth it. We keep talking and speaking about truth to power but look at our HR policies, there’s scant regard for the welfare of journalists.”
He says that online working has only accelerated the situation and the pandemic added a little more fuel to it. “It’s given that the journalism space has been shrinking.”
Tripathi has worked with Mint, Moneycontrol, Cogencis, TOI, Financial Express and Business Standard in the past.
He also believes that the newsrooms aren’t doing enough. Better hand-holding is needed, he argues and claims that most people leave because of their bosses. “People are able, they just need some comfort and they’d be more than happy to work with you,” says Dhirendra.
Bowden says that she’s seen so many of her friends going through the same thing she went through and wrestling with the decision to get out of journalism. She further says that for reporters in their 20s and 30s, all they have known is unrelenting workloads caused by newsrooms' shrinking profitability. “Unlike older reporters who were given an entire day or two to write a great story, many younger journalists would be writing upwards of five stories a day. It's unsustainable.”
She argues that instead of trying to keep their best and brightest reporters engaged, they are just letting them walk out the door. “For me, this is a tragic loss for journalism. The rot starts at the top. News executives need to shoulder more of the blame for what's happening in their newsrooms and work harder to make sure profits don't come at the cost of their workers' mental health.”
Burnout in journalism isn’t new though. Research published in 2011, ‘Newspaper journalism in crisis: Burnout on the rise, eroding young journalists’ career commitment’ examined burnout among journalists, and their intentions to leave the profession. It stated, “Stressors that cause stress can lead to burnout, and studies have shown that stress and burnout lead to job turnover.” Stress and burnout were among the top reasons journalists cited as reasons for their intention to leave the job. Dissatisfaction with pay, job security, and an unfavourable work environment, such as deadlines and hours, were some other reasons.
It further mentions that burnout is an increased feeling of emotional exhaustion; it is the development of negative, cynical attitudes and feelings toward one’s clients (depersonalisation); and it is the tendency to negatively evaluate oneself – workers are unhappy with themselves and dissatisfied with their job accomplishments.
“For young journalists, there clearly appears to be a distinct connection between burnout and career change. The open-ended responses indicate that dissatisfaction with pay, job demands and high levels of stress are whittling away at the commitment of young journalists. And because there is no clear resolution in reversing burnout, leaving journalism might be the only alternative,” the study discussed.
Sipho appears to agree with the study and says that for some quitting journalism is the only way to stay healthy.
Jha says that the first step newsrooms can take is to listen to their employees and be empathetic towards their problems. “If one can do that, that’d solve a lot of problems. You have to have a very different approach for everybody, one therapy session wouldn’t make things better for everyone.”
Recent data from 2020 says that India is the second-largest country to face employee burnout with a rate of 29 per cent.
“Most of us are aware of burnout because we are burnt out, or our close colleagues are. But, in so many countries, our unions and other instruments of collective accountability simply do not work. This means employers can continue to abuse workers,” Sipho Kings told The Citizen. “Outlets will collapse, as we are already seeing. If you don't invest in a quality product, which requires good journalists, then people won't consume it. Owners seem intent on trying to prove this wrong by repeating the same mistakes and hoping for a different outcome. The future will instead belong to news outlets that attract talent by caring about workers, and to newsrooms created by people who want better workplaces,” he says, reiterating what he said in a Twitter thread on how journalism is destroying its workers.
Irving W. Washington, Executive Director of Online News Association, believes that the pandemic only accelerated the burnout felt in the industry. “Newsroom leaders must start discussing burnout from a systemic approach and examine ways in which its culture contributes to burnout. Traditional individual approaches like self-care, time off and wellness activities are only a small part of real solutions,” he says. In one of his tweets, he lashed out at the celebration of overwork in the media and mentioned how research shows that putting in more than 55 hours a week does nothing to improve job performance.
Pavni Chopra, a Delhi-based counselling psychologist, says, “Journalism is an industry in which it is unavoidable to ignore what is stirring up around the world, especially during such times. Being a journalist is a high-stress job and you need to be on your toes all the time which can lead to burnout very soon. It’s important for newsrooms to ensure that their employees maintain a work-life balance so that they can be more efficient, productive and perform better at their workplace.”