Credit: Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

Have you ever started a Zoom call with a five-minute mindfulness practice, your eyes closed while listening to your interviewee's voice guiding you to focus on your breath, instead of jumping straight into your first question? Un-journalistic as it sounds, taking stress management seriously and tackling digital overload may be what newsrooms need the most right now.

This is according to Mar Cabra, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist best known for leading the technology and data work for the Panama Papers investigation. Despite - or rather because of - her professional success, Cabra suffered from burnout, which eventually led her to leave her job as a full-time journalist.

"I was so tired," she says about the two-year period following the investigation of what remains the largest data leak in history.

"After we won the Pulitzer, I should have been happy but I wasn’t. I burned out. I quit my job, I decided 'f**k it, I am going to stop and see what I want to do. I felt unhappy regardless of all the awards. I felt empty. Nothing excited me in terms of work."

Although it took her several years of therapy and coaching, today Cabra talks openly about depression, anxiety and stress in the newsroom. And for a good reason - since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, she saw a rise in anxiety and stress in journalists, whether those reporting from the frontline or working from home.

So Cabra teamed up with resilience trainer and stress reduction coach Kim Brice, whom she worked with while recovering from burnout, and with a former CNN+ journalist Aldara Martitegui, to launch an online stress management programme for journalists called The Self-Investigation.

The project has three main purposes: raising awareness around mental health in the newsroom; providing journalists with evidence-based tools they can use to manage stress; and create an ongoing support community for media professionals.

So far, Cabra and Brice organised one webinar, provided one-to-one coaching sessions and they also hosted online meet-ups twice a week during the month of July. But the duo wants to create a more permanent way to support journalists, not just a one-off webinar that will be forgotten as soon as you press 'leave meeting'.

The pilot round, Cabra said, was an opportunity to test whether mental health support is needed (it is) and whether it can be done (it can). The coaches are now gathering data to show the impact the first phase had on the participants.

"Mental health in journalism is not just about PTSD and trauma," Cabra explains.

"The risk of depression, burnout and stress-related ailments during this pandemic is serious."

A lot of that is caused by digital overload, and exacerbated by working from home. The boundaries between our workloads and private lives have been erased. Developing a healthier relationship with technology has now become an emergency.

Cabra started experimenting with digital detoxing - checking her email less, and deleting Twitter and Facebook from her phone while she was recovering from burnout. She now offers practical advice to other journalists on managing digital stress and digital distraction.

Her work does not stop there. She will also run a well-being track at the Freelance Journalism Assembly alongside Brice, who will also do a stress management programme at the European Investigative Journalism Conference, both next month.

The Self-Investigation project is funded by Stars4Media, a training programme for media professionals, and co-funded by the EU, with ICFJ, Open News and ONA as partners. A Spanish-language version is also available and will run in September as part of the pilot.

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