February 10, 2016

CareerCast’s annual ranking of the most stressful jobs came out Wednesday, and journalism gigs occupied more than one of the top 10 spots for the second year running. This year, broadcaster placed in the eighth spot, and newspaper reporter placed in the ninth spot after an online poll that included 834 self-selected participants.

I spoke with Katie Hawkins-Gaar, Poynter’s digital innovation faculty member, about the report via email. Our conversation touched on the inevitable stress that comes with being a journalist, and what we can do about stress that isn’t inevitable.

So CareerCast’s annual list of the most and least stressful jobs is out. Journalists made the list again. Is this at all a surprise? What does it say about our industry?

I’m not surprised, unfortunately. Journalists are under a lot of pressure. We work long, sometimes unpredictable hours. We cover stories and topics that can take a mental toll and are hard to leave behind at the office. We are expected to do more with fewer resources. On top of it all, our industry is in a state of uncertainty, which means that job security and workplace morale aren’t so great.

You and our co-worker Ren LaForme have put a lot of effort into teaching people ways to be happy at work, or at least fulfilled and not stressed. While deadline and breaking news stress is part of the job, what’s something journalists reading this can do right now to cut down on the other stresses we face, including industry uncertainty and workplace issues?

You’re right — there are plenty of times where breaking news happens and a journalist is expected to work much longer hours at a quicker pace than usual. Interestingly, most journalists seem to really relish those experiences: Adrenaline kicks in, there’s a clear sense of purpose, and newsrooms and teams tend to work well together in those situations.

It’s important to reclaim the moments when breaking news and deadline reporting aren’t happening. Make a concerted effort to work normal hours and, on the rare slow news day, give yourself permission to leave the office early and enjoy life. If you’re a boss, lead by example and give your direct reports explicit permission to do the same. If you’re not in a management position, sit down with your boss and ask her expectations for working hours. Get more clarity around the hours you and your teammates are expected to work, and start a healthy conversation around that elusive work-life balance.

What can journalists do about unnecessary stress within their organizations? (Too much email comes to mind, or too many meetings.)

Two of the most common sources of stress we hear from journalists are emails and meetings. There are way too many and, ironically, they’re getting in the way of actually doing work.

There are some digital tools and hacks for reclaiming control over your inbox and calendar. We adopted Slack at Poynter last year and it’s led to a noticeable reduction for internal email, especially for simple messages like “There’s cake in the break room,” which can get buried in the mountain of email. Now those announcements live in our #is-there-food channel. Setting aside specific times of day to read and respond to email — and do nothing else — is helpful, too. If you’re just chipping away at your inbox all day long, it can seem like a Herculean task.

If you suffer from too many meetings, one of the best approaches can be to purposefully block off time in your calendar to get work done. Treat that time exactly the same way you would a meeting; don’t move it for something else. Another approach is to schedule or recommend 45-minute meetings instead of hour-long meetings, giving you that remaining 15 minutes to focus on tasks. If you’re in charge of scheduling meetings, look for opportunities to streamline or reinvent them. And if you suffer from meetings where people are unfocused or drained of energy, try taking the first five minutes to play a quick game or play a song. It might seem silly, but it can do wonders for changing the energy in the room and getting everyone on the same page, I promise.

When I managed a team at CNN, I would lead a yearly exercise where we spent an hour in a conference room and listed all of the items we were responsible for on a whiteboard — everything from posting a certain number of tweets a day to emailing a daily story roundup. Then we’d identify the tasks we could cut and brainstorm more streamlined approaches for the things we needed to keep. Afterwards, we’d all feel a little less stressed and excited about trying out some new (and hopefully improved) approaches. Doing this exercise as a team helped everyone to feel a sense of ownership; it wouldn’t have been nearly as cathartic of a process if I just announced that we were suddenly switching things up.

You’re on the road a lot teaching and already this year have had two back-to-back week-long workshops. What helps you manage stress and what doesn’t work?

Coloring! I’m one of those people on the adult coloring book bandwagon and thrilled to welcome others along. It’s such an easy and effective way to turn off my brain for a few hours, and it especially helps on days where I didn’t get as many opportunities for creativity as I would like. (These postcards are my current obsession.)

Searching for relief through alcohol and unhealthy food can be a short-term solution, but it can leave me feeling pretty crappy the following day and ultimately add to the stress I was trying to reduce. I try — and I’m not always successful — to embrace healthier ways to combat stress, like taking a gloriously long bubble bath, reading a book or going to bed a little earlier than usual. An extra half-hour of sleep seems like the ultimate treat.

As for stress in the moment? Going for a walk has long been my go-to remedy for when stress starts to escalate during the workday.

I sometimes feel like a hypocrite sharing stress-reduction tips because it’s something I struggle with, but I think the more we share with each other, the less alone we feel.

Last year, you and LaForme launched #Happynewsroom, a week devoted to injecting some fun into the culture of news outlets everywhere. Some people loved the idea and shared it with their colleagues, but some people didn’t feel like newsrooms are a place for happiness. I don’t think you’re advocating for drum circles and hair braiding, but instead telling people that they don’t have to hate what they do, where they work or how they work. How do you describe this process for people now? Why should we be concerned about making lists like these every year?

Our “Fun at Work” and #happynewsroom efforts didn’t appeal to everyone, in part because journalists are under so much stress and uncertainty, and fun seems like the last thing we have time for. That said, both Ren and I feel like this topic is hugely important and are looking for other ways to spread tips and approaches like these. We’ve rebranded our efforts as “40 Better Hours” and have some exciting projects ahead this year to reach people and workplaces of all sorts.

Journalists are some of the most passionate, driven and creative people out there, and I hate that our profession always seems to land on lists like these. Some of the stresses are part of the job, but I’m confident there are other ways we can make our workdays less miserable. The better we do with taking care of ourselves, the better we’ll do in reporting stories that matter and resonate with our audiences and communities. We can do this.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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