A place for journalists to discuss their mental health

The newsbreak survey results

In March 2021, newsbreak launched a survey to find out how journalists felt about their mental health, how the pandemic had affected their wellbeing and how much support they were getting from their employer. This is what we found.

A little about the survey

We wanted to build on the work of the Reuters Institute of Journalism and the NUJ – which have also questioned journalists on mental health – by asking people in more detail about their work-life balance since the start of the pandemic and the help they’ve had from their managers. Our survey was publicised only on our Twitter account, and was self-selecting. We received 30 anonymous responses, mostly from UK journalists but a handful of international ones. It’s a small sample size, and we want to be honest about that, but common themes emerged in the responses which we’ll break down below.

The pandemic effect

It’s clear that the coronavirus crisis has had a negative impact on journalists’ mental health. Everyone who took part in the survey said they’d experienced stress, anxiety, depression or a mixture of the three, and all but one of them (96%) said their work had made those problems worse. One journalist in local commercial radio told us about the constant stress he felt under:

“It felt like we were forever chasing responses for as many different businesses or spokespeople every time the government made an announcement. It’s felt increasingly like there’s no time to actually think about the words you are writing and broadcasting, and there’s so many times I feel like I end up ‘winging it’. I feel as though I’m going through the motions.”

25 of the 30 people surveyed (83%) said they were now working from home at least some of the time – many of them not having done so before. The impact of home working was mixed: 7 of those 25 said it had improved their work-life balance, 12 thought it was worse as a result, and 6 said it was about the same. The responses were varied throughout different age groups, but older journalists in particular felt more under pressure, like this local radio employee:

“I would like my employer to understand that I am an older person and generally need more time to fulfil my daily tasks. This situation with the pandemic that brings hundreds of stories every day is very stressful and demands a lot of energy to deal with.”

Another local radio journalist told us that home working had left him feeling cut off:

“Managers need to check in with staff more. I hear very little from mine, even just to say hello or see how things are going.”

Raising issues

One of the main issues to come out of the survey was journalists’ lack of confidence in approaching managers to talk about their mental health. Just 11 out of the 30 people questioned (36%) said they would be comfortable discussing it with their boss; the other 19 (64%) said they would have to think about it first, or were uncomfortable doing so. These young journalists explained why:

“There are a lack of empathetic managers and it feels like there is a taboo in discussing mental health issues.”

“There’s a huge stigma in speaking up. Younger people are labelled snowflakes and the like, which makes it tough to raise concerns or personal difficulties for fear of being labelled weak.”

12 of our 30 respondents (40%) had already spoken to their manager; half of those told us those conversations did not result in a positive outcome. Others were glad they’d spoken up, like this national commercial radio journalist:

“Practically speaking, no manager ever has the time to actually check in and see what the demands are really doing to you. Once you start to raise issues with mental health they are really receptive, and there are good schemes on offer, but there’s nothing really in place that I would call ‘preventative’. It’s there for you, but only after you break!”

A handful of those we spoke to had also asked for time off because of their mental health, but it varied from manager to manager as to whether that request was granted, and some said it was simply too difficult to go on leave at short notice. This network BBC journalist summed up the issue:

“I was able to reduce hours for a month but the system relies on having a good line manager who understands the appropriate actions to take.”

Support on offer

The journalists we spoke to were also unimpressed with the mental health support offered by their employers. 14 of the 30 respondents (46%) thought it was “poor” or “very poor”, while 10 (33%) described it as “average”. These print journalists told us they didn’t feel the companies they worked for weren’t doing enough:

“They have scheduled mental health Zoom sessions, but we are so busy and they only put them on during working hours so they are impossible to attend.”

“Rather than supplying purely impersonal resources, it would be amazing if managers could provide direct support to employees working under extreme pressure, and work with them to improve communication/work processes that would help reduce anxiety and stress.”

Some employers had a range of measures in place – including mental health first-aiders, online advice sessions and contact support lines. Others, however, had less on offer – and we heard lots of ideas about the things journalists would like to see companies do:

“Bringing in mental health days – to be able to take time off just because you need to.”

“Making access to therapy clearer. I’ve been advised to find a therapist but have struggled to work out what my employer actually offers.”

“Each month an employee survey should be issued to measure mental health and stress levels among the workforce, with action taken based on the scores.”

“Recognising particularly tricky weeks for journalists in the news (for instance, the Sarah Everard murder for the women reporting on it) and offering extra support.”

“Perhaps adding some support on dealing with abuse on Twitter would be helpful – past trolling when posting stories has impacted me personally.”

“I finish late at night and we’re not provided with transport home which has added to my anxiety and meant I’m spending a fortune on taxis.”

Importantly, though, we also heard examples of great practice – like this from a commercial radio journalist:

“My employer has been incredibly understanding about how the pandemic has affected journalists’ mental health – reducing our hours during lockdowns as the company recognised the impact it was having on our everyday life. Support services are provided and my line manager is very aware of mental health issues and easy to talk to.”

What we learned

As previous research has shown, journalists have faced bigger struggles with their mental health since the start of the pandemic than they have done before. A combination of the relentless news cycle, varied experiences of home working and a lack of conversation around wellbeing has left many people feeling overwhelmed and under pressure – significantly impacting their mood. Some employers have been more proactive than others in addressing these issues, but the main takeaway from the journalists that spoke to us was that they wanted more than token gestures. This quote summed it up:

“They talk a lot about mental health support in my company but it often feels more for show.”

Our respondents were also realistic, and pointed out that small gestures would go a long way – such as managers simply asking their staff if they were OK. newsbreak was set up to create conversations around mental health in newsrooms – and managers have a big part to play in opening up those conversations, creating an environment where journalists feel they can express how they’re really feeling, and know those concerns will be taken seriously and dealt with appropriately.

If you didn’t contribute to the survey but you’d like to tell us your story, get in touch.