Hannah Storm is a media consultant 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.
The past year of the pandemic has been relentless. I do not remember seeing so many journalists so emotionally drained as in the past few weeks.
A feeling of control is crucial to maintaining one’s mental health. It is not hard to see why so many of our colleagues feel a lack of control, in the face of a constant news cycle, an industry hit by financial pressures, an erosion of trust and attacks by public figures, and a newsroom culture that traditionally shies away from admissions of vulnerability.
I learned the language of mental health in my journalism safety work and have channelled this and my lived experience of post-traumatic stress disorder into facilitating conversations across the industry. I welcome the increased appetite for these discussions, but we still have a way to go.
I am offering the following suggestions to help our media colleagues manage their mental health and support those around them.
Mental health starts with self-care and a recognition of what we can control and influence. We cannot control the behaviour of others but our behaviour does influence those around us – for better and for worse.
These suggestions will not cover every eventuality. But before they are written off as impossible to apply individually and institutionally, it might be worth considering if they could be applied had we, journalists, not been able to cope in a certain way.
Just as our industry has reinvented its ways of working this past year, this is an invitation to consider an alternative approach to our work that prioritises the wellbeing of those working in journalism and, in turn, our industry.
- Think about how and when you communicate. If you send emails outside of regular office hours, consider mentioning this time suits you but you know it might not suit others. Be mindful of the tendency to fire off emails when under pressure, and how content, context, the use of capital letters or ‘copy all’ might affect people.
- Factor in breaks between meetings. Remember before covid, when we used to walk between meetings, sometimes making time for a coffee or chat with a colleague? These moments allowed us to disconnect, to pause and process. Consider creating these virtual moments in your calendar.
- Consider commuting to the office. The distance between my bed and my desk is about five metres, but most days I go for a walk or run before work, extending my virtual commute. Exercise is a crucial form of self-care and if it can be taken outdoors, even better.
- When it is meal-time, try to avoid eating at the desk. Make an effort to eat as healthily as possible and stay hydrated.
- Try to maintain some kind of routine and establish boundaries between your professional and personal life. It can be hard to cut the umbilical cord of connection, but aim to unplug and allow yourself a break before you sleep. Ask yourself do you really need to have your phone on next to your bed?
- Consider limiting your number of calls, especially video ones. Ask yourself if you can substitute a virtual face-to-face meeting with a phone one. Can you cut down the platforms you are using to avoid feeling overwhelmed?
- Can you take a break completely from video calls? I try to avoid Zoom calls on Friday. It is not always possible but it is more possible than it might seem and it makes a real difference.
- Learn to listen to your body. When we experience extended or excessive stress, it can affect us physically. Troubles with sleep, digestion, back, head or neck aches are all symptoms I experience when my mental health is suffering. When we learn to listen to ourselves, we can potentially spot these symptoms before they get too serious.
- Recognise it is ok to say no. It may feel scary at first but it often results in others valuing you more and an increased sense of your own value too. I often ask myself what is the worst outcome if I say no. If the consequence of me pushing myself to do something outweighs that outcome, then I say no.
- Learn to really listen to others. When you ask someone if they are ok and you are not convinced, ask them if they are sure. Recognise people struggle in different ways – some may seem disconnected, others hyperconnected. Empathy lies at the heart of journalism. Sometimes we forget to connect with our colleagues in the same way we connect with our stories.
- Stress is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. This past year has brought pressures for everyone, taking an increased toll on many who were already vulnerable. Know it is ok to admit you are struggling, even if that admission is just to yourself. It is ok to lower your expectations too on days when you are just surviving rather than thriving.
- Journalism plays a crucial role in providing information to the public to help them to make decisions about their wellbeing. Reminding ourselves and our colleagues of that brings validation to our work and our mental health.
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