Pandemic takes mental health toll on newsrooms

By Vivian Warby

ANA Publishing

Cape Town, South Africa


Note: INMA Blogger Vivian Warby was a hard news journalist during South Africa’s turbulent transition to democracy and studied applied psychology. As a qualified counsellor she has, in the past, worked in the mental health field using writing as a tool for healing and mental wellbeing.

Look around your newsroom — if you are back in an office, that is.

The people you are looking at (or those you are chatting to on virtual calls) are the bridge generation. It is not the most comfortable place to be, nor the most rewarding. These staffers are the ones helping us cross into a new way of working with and delivering news, and they are walking with us into a new way of being in the media and in the world.

It is no wonder, then, that journalists and production staff have reported high incidents of burnout during this pandemic. Trauma responses such as sleeplessness, change in appetite, depression, and loss of joy, are evident. Staff are working overtime while isolated at home. Some directly know people who have died from the virus. All have no clue what the future holds.

Newsroom employees are front-line workers and needed to be cared for as such.
Newsroom employees are front-line workers and needed to be cared for as such.

As frontline workers, many are out in the field, where they — and, therefore, possibly their loved ones — are exposed to possible infection. They are also probably among the hardest hit with major salary slashes and staff cuts across all generations of journalists.

Overnight, their work lives changed.

Some left their offices with a handful of things expecting to return in a few weeks. But many have not returned to their offices, and, as remote work becomes the norm, many more never will.

Hit with shock after shock, as units closed or transformed within weeks of a hard lockdown, some had to work twice as hard for half the financial remuneration. Fear of getting ill, fear of loved ones dying, fear of the unknown, and fear of losing their jobs. Big, ugly fear.

Some have been in self-isolation for months with loneliness taking its toll. Others have had to contend with turning their homes — full of family and pets — into a makeshift office. Our teams have risen to the occasion, but this doesnt hide the fact that the staff we work with daily are living through grief, shock, stress, trauma, and loss.

And so are we.

Of course, there is the upside. As the bridge generation, we are all moving into exciting, innovative times. More junior staff are being given a seat at the table to share their ideas for transformation. Playing fields are being evened, and we are all more willing to listen to new (and old) voices. It is indeed one of the most exhilarating times to be part of the news industry.

But this does not mean it is not taking its toll on the mental health of staff — leaders included. So, how do we provide an environment that holds a team in flux, turmoil, and stress?

Here are some ways:

• Have compassion. At the start of the pandemic, our team of leaders committed to being flexible, adaptable, and, most of all, human. We are in uncharted territory, and the one thing we can draw on is empathy for our fellow staffers. Don’t get so caught up in saving your business that you forget your humanity.

• Remember, old rewards no longer work. With budgets greatly slashed we can’t give monetary rewards to our star staffer. We can't even bring in some sweet treats to say thanks to teams. But what we can do is compensate staff who are pushed to their limits with some extra leave days.

Another way one team leader reached out was to have food boxes delivered to some staff she knew were struggling financially.

• Offer counselling services. In South Africa, some mental health professionals have offered their services free of charge to health care workers, but some were more than happy to also offer these services to frontline journalists. Encourage staff to reach out to close friends and family, and to professionals.

• Check in. When was the last time you phoned a staffer to ask how they were doing? Make the call. To know a leader actually cares about you, and not just the bottom line, can truly be a lifeline for some.

• Communicate clearly and be transparent. Playing open cards helps to alleviate anxiety. By giving regular updates — even if there is nothing new to report — allows staff to know that the minute things change they will be the first to know.

Yes, some of us are getting pandemic fatigue and dropping the communication ball. Don’t. Your staff need you, and, in fact, you too can feed off this honest, real communication.

• Offer compassion and simplicity in your communications so everyone knows what is expected of them.

• Be clear that everyone has to take accountability for their faults, including leaders.

• Be forgiving, but firm.

• Focus on priorities on the work front. Because staff are picking up the extra load of those who have died, been retrenched, or resigned, it is vitally important we streamline work processes and that the most important priorities are met.

Keep an eye on the overachievers: Burnout is rife in this group as their 24/7 work ethic is unsustainable in the long run.

• Prioritise wellbeing. We all know mindfulness, laughter, meditation, movement, eating right, getting enough sleep, dancing, having someone you trust to talk to, and companionship are all important to mental wellbeing. You can make staff aware that these are ways to alleviate stress by sharing videos or articles on these topics. Give staff the tools, but also know that, in the end, it is up to them how they utilise this information.

• Keep an eye open on those who may be abusing alcohol and other substances as a way to cope. Offer them support.

For staff returning to an office, understand the huge fear that accompanies being in an office again where the likelihood of contracting the virus may be increased. Ensure that all strict hygiene protocols are observed, ask staff how they feel about the return, and understand that the reintegration into an environment that is no longer familiar to them may take its toll.

I am writing this piece from my Cape Town apartment. My life has completely changed since the start of hard lockdown in our country. But as I write this, a sense of great gratitude descends down on me reminding of one thing I have forgotten to mention in the race for mental health for our staff: Don’t forget to count your blessings. Take care everyone. May your businesses thrive and may your staff feel held.

About Vivian Warby

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