Hannah Storm is a director and CEO of the Ethical Journalism Network and a mental health advocate. During her career, she spent more than a decade working as a journalist for television and radio, online and print for outlets including the BBC, The Times, Reuters and ITN, and Oxfam. She recently founded Headlines.
After a year of acute anxiety, uncertainty and exhaustion, the early days of 2021 have failed to provide respite.
Many of our journalism colleagues were suffering before the start of this year, so I want to share some suggestions on how, as individuals, newsrooms and an industry, we can prioritise mental health and wellbeing.
I recognise my lived experience combined with my professional work in journalism safety mean I am privileged to be able to speak when others cannot. I hear frequently from colleagues fearful of speaking openly. The financial uncertainty of today’s news industry alone is deterrent enough.
My experiences have taught me the importance of self-care, good leadership, empathy, and effective communication in prioritising mental health.
Self-care is often the first to go when we are stressed. But if we cease to exist as individuals, nothing else around us exists either. If we are not well, we impact our environment.
Self-care means trying to get enough sleep (easier said than done), eating healthily, staying hydrated (while moderating alcohol and caffeine intake), exercising (even if indoors), connecting with other human beings (even virtually), and taking breaks from work and social media.
We must cut the digital umbilical cord to survive total overwhelm.Hannah Storm
This final point is anathema to the DNA of many in the media. But it is crucial. If the early days of 2021 are anything to go by, the news shows no sign of abating. Sure, we may feel we cannot miss a breaking story, but we cannot be on call all the time. We must cut the digital umbilical cord to survive total overwhelm. This might mean turning off notifications, limiting messaging and social media channels, or switching off from social media before bed.
Journalism is built on connections. But right now we are physically disconnected and yet virtually hyperconnected.
Since the start of the pandemic, our personal and professional lives have blurred and therefore not only do we need to manage ourselves better, but we need strong leadership from our news managers.
I have spent many years convening conversations between senior news leaders, around journalism safety and mental health. News takes us places where the extremes of environmental or human behaviour put people in precarious situations.
As journalists, our job is to report on those. And it is an important job which - done accurately with accountability and transparency - can help inform people to stay safe.
In journalism safety terms, we learn to invest in our conversations, plan in advance, to assess and mitigate risk as much as we can. We communicate certainty and uncertainty. We know communication is more than just one person talking at another. It is verbal and non-verbal. In mental health terms, I think all this is important too.
Managers model behaviour that impacts on the team. Too often in the past year, I have heard journalist colleagues say they are not aware of what mental health support is available for them. Even if that support is not an official employee assistance program, most newsrooms have something written into their policies to support. Managers need to make that visible, and they need to validate the great job that journalists are doing in difficult circumstances.
Many are, and I am encouraged by more open conversations around mental health in the media in recent months. But for others, it is still not a priority, or they are talking the talk, but not walking the walk.
It can be hard to know how people really are when they are physically remote, so this is why managers need to really listen, and why empathy helps people understand when something is untoward. It is not just the job of managers of course, but it begins with newsroom leaders.
Managers must model good leadership. This can be as simple as not sending emails outside of office hours. If you run a 24/7 outfit, that is not always possible. Making it clear in the subject or signature you do not expect an answer until that person’s working day, might be one solution.
Likewise, rapid-fire responses, emails written as subject headers, or in capitals, are not ways to win over colleagues. We might be busy, but these can have a long-lasting effect on people’s stress levels.
We are all facing challenges. Managers need to be firm and flexible in their approach. Recognising that personal situations might impact on working abilities is crucial. Perhaps your colleagues live alone and are working too much. Perhaps their work is challenged by their role as carers, or limited privacy. Perhaps they are worried about being furloughed, furthering their careers, or are new to their jobs and have never physically integrated with their team. Maybe they resent being asked to return to the office, or not being asked, or are worried about bringing covid-19 home. Maybe they are vulnerable, physically or mentally.
Managing in a pandemic is about navigating these conversations and conditions, about communicating effectively, looking after your colleagues. It is about managing those who work for you, those around you, and managing yourself. Unless we are all well, and working in situations where we can have open conversations, we cannot do our best work. Especially now.