February 21, 2005

Work-life balance issues are real and troubling to people who work in news organizations. We heard it — clearly and convincingly — from journalists and media leaders who responded to a detailed online survey from Poynter.

The 750 respondents tell a story of long hours, pressure to do more, missed vacations, staff cutbacks, and as a result, a significant number of journalists who are considering leaving the field. Those most at risk of leaving are young journalists, women, and minorities. But others are not far behind them in that consideration.

The risk of losing journalists due to work-life balance issues is especially troubling because they also report a high level of satisfaction with the work of journalism. It is the working conditions that are at issue.

Key issues

  • Always work more than 40 hours a week: 65.1 percent of respondents

  • Did not take all the vacation they had coming in the past year: 46.2 percent

  • Organizations cut staff in the past two years: 67.2 percent

  • Staff shortages negatively affect their work-life balance “consistently” or “frequently”: 50.9 percent

  • Have seriously considered leaving journalism: 47.2 percent

A closer look

Work-life balance issues often surface during discussions in our Poynter seminars and our work in newsrooms. The issues seemed to be increasingly troubling to journalists, but we wanted to make certain what we were hearing was more than anecdotal.

So, we prepared a 42-question online survey and distributed it to journalists and media leaders during the first two weeks of February 2005. (See methodology.) We analyzed the 750 responses across several categories: managers/non-managers, gender, race and ethnicity, age, and medium. Here are some of the interesting stories that surfaced.

Most at risk of leaving journalism

As media leaders look to recruiting and retaining young minds, women and people of color, those very same groups turn out to be the ones most likely to think about leaving because of work-life issues.

While overall, 47.2 percent of the respondents said they have seriously considered leaving, the response of young journalists (ages 20-34) was 58.3 percent. For women it was 50.5 percent and for people of color, the response was 54.5 percent.

Some of this might be explained by responses to another question. We asked if respondents had ever asked their supervisors for short-term accommodations for work-life balance issues, and if so, whether or not the request was granted. 

Among all respondents, 47 percent asked, and of them, 72.2 received it. At the same time, more women and minorities had made such requests — 52.2 and 58 percent, respectively. But they report they were slightly less likely to get it — 68.8 and 70.1 percent, respectively. 

Which group was the most likely to get the short-term accommodation they requested? Men: 43.4 said they had asked (slightly less than the average), but when they did, 75.5 got what they requested.

People of color and women, we should note, were among the most likely individuals to be responsible for significant care of extended family (parents, siblings, etc.). While for all respondents, 18.1 percent were responsible for care, for people of color it was 28.8, and for women, 20.8.

The fear factor

Journalists in our survey expressed concern that acting on their work-life balance concerns could prove detrimental to their careers: 55.8 percent of responsdents replied “yes” to the question “Do you believe people in your organization who request accommodations for work-life balance are likely to lose opportunities for advancement?”

The respondents most likely to foresee trouble if they were non-managers — 62.9 percent, and persons working at newspapers — 64.1 percent.

To push the question further, we asked if respondents knew of situations in their news organizations in which people who requested or received accommodations for work-life balance actually lost opportunities for advancement. There was an interesting variance in some of the “Yes” responses.

  • All: 35.2 percent said “yes”

  • Men: 29.4

  • Women: 42.6

  • Women Managers: 47.0

Managers under stress

Newsroom managers report plenty of pressures. They are more likely:

  • To be very or somewhat dissatisfied with work/life balance than staff: 44.6 percent versus 34.1 percent of non-managers

  • To have NOT taken all vacation in past year than staff: 53.9 percent versus 37.7 percent

  • To routinely take work home after regular shift: 58.4 percent versus 42.5 percent

  • To report that even though they routinely take work home, they still can’t keep up with their work:  30.1 percent versus 13.1 percent

“Can’t keep up” — a dangerous message

To fully appreciate the stress level the survey revealed, consider this. That response was only one of several options related to taking home work. Other options were:

  • Routinely take work home after hours to fulfill responsibilities:  Staff — 38.0, Managers — 45.3

  • Take work home to fulfill responsibilities from time to time:  Staff — 34.1, Managers — 20.1

So, on top of all those journalists, staff and supervisory, who are taking work home routinely or from time to time to get it done, there is a large body of news managers — three in 10 — who say they take work home and still can’t finish it all.

Impact on physical health

We wanted to see if work is taking a toll on journalists. To the question: Do you feel your current work responsibilities have an impact on your physical health, the answer is pretty clear:

  • Very negative: 5.4 percent

  • Somewhat negative: 61.8 percent

  • No impact: 24.5 percent

  • Somewhat positive: 4.3 percent

  • Very positive: 1.4 percent

  • Don’t know: 2.6 percent

We received similar responses when we asked the same “impact of work” question regarding emotional health and personal relationships. 

Organizations get “some” credit

We asked respondents to describe their organization’s approach to work-life balance. The most popular response was “demonstrates some concern” at 55.2 percent; “good amount of concern” and “very high concern” were selected by 18.3 percent and 3.6 percent, respectively.

Unfortunately, one other option: “demonstrates no concern” was the choice of 22.9 percent of respondents. That greater than two in 10 go to work each day feeling that way seems to present an opportunity for media leaders to step up.

Immediate supervisors play a key role

Every employee — staff or management — reports to somebody. That somebody, the immediate supervisor, plays a pivotal role in the employee’s success and satisfaction. Clearly, that is borne out in Poynter’s survey.

We asked, “Please describe your immediate supervisor’s role in your work-life balance.”

The unsupportive supervisors totaled 51.6 percent:

  • My supervisor is concerned only about the work: 23.1 percent

  • My supervisor talks about work-life balance but doesn’t act on it: 28.5 percent

The supportive supervisors totaled 48.4 percent:

  • My supervisor encourages my work-life balance: 43.3 percent

  • My supervisor makes certain I have work-life balance: 5.1 percent

What they say about supervisors:

We invited open-ended responses about supportive and unsupportive supervisors. From those, some themes surfaced.

Supportive supervisors:

  • Know their employees

  • Demonstrate genuine empathy when staffers are under stress

  • Praise as well as criticize

  • Keep tabs on workload, encourage needed rest

  • Set clear expectations, develop trust relationships regarding flexibility

  • Think creatively about hiring and scheduling

  • May be “happy workaholics,” but don’t demand that all others be the same

A sample of the comments illustrate those points:

  • “My supervisor always tries to take into account that people have lives outside of work when scheduling for overtime, such as snow or election coverage. He understands that although most of us live for news, our families may not.”

  • “My supervisor frequently takes my emotional ‘temperature,’ if you will, to make sure I don’t burn out, and encourages me to keep my workload at a sensible level.”

  • “Any time I stop by to say I’m leaving for a family commitment, the reply is always, ‘Good for you. We’ll be fine here.'”

  • “The news director is very supportive of work/life balance, allowing me to adapt my schedule to family needs — working four days usually — but picking up a fifth when I have special projects. In contract negotiations she said, ‘I might not be able to pay you as much as the other guys, but to keep you here, I can offer you schedule flexibility.’ It kept me here.”

  • “She understands that I am a divorced father who sees the boys on Tuesdays and every other weekend and therefore has no problem with me leaving early on Tuesdays and every other Friday to be with them. I think her being a parent helps a lot in her understanding.”

  • “He has insisted I take vacation, he has let me know that I should take time out for well woman health tests, he has encouraged me to have fun and made me feel I’m doing my job well and deserve to have some fun. He’s not a normal boss.”

On the negative side, here are the characteristics of unsupportive supervisors:

  • Don’t know, don’t care about employees’ lives outside work

  • Make the sick, the stressed or parents feel like slackers with negative comments or “eye rolling.”

  • Are understanding of families; dump on single people

  • Create cultures where finishing work during regular hours suggests lack of commitment

  • Expect staff to work same hours as the boss

  • Are weak at planning, scheduling or time management, causing extra work for others

Here are stories their employees told us about them:

  • “I work in a male-dominated office where they believe that picking up sick kids or leaving early to pick up a relative from the airport is a wife’s job.”

  • “Doesn’t use his position to control the work flow (i.e., set expectations/enforce deadlines) — lets it careen out of control each day. He doesn’t manage his own work well, often staying here until 9 or 10 p.m.”

  • “Because I do not have children, I am often given the less desirable work schedule because others do have children.”

  • “Under pressure to please her supervisors, my supervisor often ignores the impact her decisions have on me, and by extension, the rest of the staff. My opinions on that subject are most often ignored. It is frustrating for me to work in an environment where I am often criticized for not having the staff’s personal needs at heart when in fact those needs are usually affected by her decisions and actions.”

  • “Requests for time off don’t get approved or denied in a timely manner. Sometimes I don’t get a reply for a month. It’s very difficult to plan a life outside work that way and it annoys my spouse and others who are trying to plan things with me.”

  • “I have been working for the same boss for more than two years and he still doesn’t know the names of either of my children. His only interest is that I show up for work and do my job. Not like the old days when I had two families… one at home, and the other I worked with.”

The Quality of Journalism

It is important to point out that for all the concerns expressed about work-life balance, our respondents still care about their work and still believe in its quality. In short, the voices in this survey should not be written off as malcontents.

  • A solid 70 percent said they are somewhat (41.3) or very (29.8) satisfied with their jobs.

  • Another 72.8 characterized the quality of journalism in their organizations as fairly (45.4) or very (27.4) high.

  • Additionally, 45.3 percent say the quality is holding steady, while 33.8 report it is improving. Only 17.5 percent say it is declining.

It appears the journalists and media leaders represented in our survey may see themselves as upholding the quality of a profession they care about, but the weight of that commitment is wearing on too many of them.

How do the responses of our 750 journalists and media leaders compare with those of other professions? The Gallup Organization has looked into the subject of “disengaged workers” and the Families and Work Institute has studied the concept of “Feeling Overworked.” Each group raises concerns about issues in the workplace that drive dissatisfaction, but don’t ask the same direct questions as Poynter’s survey, so direct comparison can’t be made.

In 2001, the Columbia Journalism Review surveyed “newsroom morale” and found it eroding, but for many reasons beyond work-life balance. And as far back as 1993, CJR ran an article asking “Do Newsroom Value Families?” -– a question we’re still struggling with today.

Respondents’ Advice

In constructing the survey, we included a section in which respondents could offer advice to those at the top of media organizations about work-life balance. Hundreds took the time to do so. Most were genuine and thoughtful words of advice to those who could make a difference in the work-life imbalance stories we found in our survey.

We’ll give two of those respondents the final word in this report:

  • “There needs to be a change in how commitment and strong performance are evaluated. At my paper, ‘the last man standing’ is still the hero. It doesn’t matter that someone else came in early or found a way to make an extra effort. We routinely give folks credit for working long days, nights and weekends. We should look for other ways of organizing the work with the goal of improving work/life balance.”

  • “Support your employees’ efforts at community involvement. If you’re worried about them becoming newsroom mushrooms, cut off from mainstream concerns and potential sources, give them the space to get out in the sunlight. Most organizations claim to do this, but few really do.”

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated the percentage of respondents who reported not taking all of their vacation time. The correct percentage is 46.2.

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Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist…
Jill Geisler

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