Editor’s Note: This week, we’re doing a deep dive into the topic of stress and burnout among student journalists and journalism students. The issues addressed here are part of a larger set of research articles I’ve done with colleagues, outside work done by those colleagues and presentations I’ve done over the years at student media conventions. If you are interested in learning more, please hit me up on the contact page.
In case you missed Part I, you can access it here.
(If your life feels like this, you’re not alone…)
A few weeks back, a student stopped by my office and she was a mess. She was falling behind on her classes, she was worried about her family and she had serious concerns about if she was majoring in the right area. There was a sense of tension about her that I had seen in hundreds of other students.
She was in full-tilt stress mode and on the edge of a burnout.
We will talk about stress and burnout and how each works in the next post and why one is clearly worse than the other. For the moment, just think about stress being a temporary situation of varying levels with burnout being a permanent one from which there is limited hope of recovery.
In other words, stress is when the oil light goes on in your car. Burnout is when you ignore it until your engine seizes up and your car becomes a 4,000-pound paperweight.
In any case, the student and I discussed what it was that was going on that made her feel so burdened and a lot of what she mentioned fit most of what I’d talked about for years with students.
Here are some of the key things she touched on that consistently lead to heavy stress and potential burnout:
Overachiever syndrome: A lot of college students suffer from this, but journalism students tend to fall into this trap a lot more easily for a variety of reasons. You have always been the human embodiment of the line from “The Breakfast Club,” in which the nerd is asked, “What else would you be doing if you weren’t out making yourself a better citizen?”
You were always good at juggling a ridiculous amount of things: In high school, you were the kid who could get A’s, letter in four sports, run the debate team, participate in three student organizations, jog six miles a day and more. When you got to college, you didn’t really stop moving forward.
You kept up that heavy load of stuff and then you tried to pick up that double major or extra minor because someone somewhere told you it would be a good idea and look GREAT on your resume.
You basically had a big red S across your chest. You were a gamer.
Then, you hit the student newsroom or other journalism endeavors and found your muse, so you poured even more of yourself into this than you had any other thing. Suddenly, the center couldn’t hold and you began to panic about your ability to maintain balance. Toss in a feisty pandemic, some personal turmoil and 18 months of breathing through a sweat sock, lest you be blamed for grandma’s untimely death, and things really ground you down to a nub.
Money talks: Perhaps you aren’t an overachiever by choice, but by necessity. You’re working a double shift to cover rent, you’ve got a work-study job at the library to cover tuition and you’re trying to squeeze in 21 credits this term so you don’t have to stick around an extra semester.
I have always said that money might not be everything, but it tends to beat the crap out of whatever comes in second. That’s particularly true when it comes to rent, food and tuition. You can’t always dictate terms on this kind of thing, so as much as you might like to have a free ride, reality steps in and suddenly that extra shift or five at Beef O’Brady’s becomes your default option.
For all the “back in my day” stuff kids tend to hear from adults, I can honestly say the one that galls me the most is when old folks talk about how they worked part-time at McDonald’s in college like they were cleaning sewers with a toothbrush or something that “kids these days” could never understand. Most of my students have two or more jobs that are more than full-time hours. And that’s not enough to even ante up in the college game for a lot of universities these days.
Fewer dogs, heavier sled: I’ve only seen an iditarod once, but it was pretty clear what the point was: All of the dogs pulling the sled in one direction, each working for the betterment of the team.
The point is, many hands make light work.
The problem is, if you’re getting burned out, so are other people, which makes the load heavier and, when coupled with the “over-achiever syndrome,” you end up pulling harder. If you’re in the student newspaper, you’re pulling double or triple duty as a writer, editor, copy editor, designer or more. If you’re in a class with group projects, you’re literally just grabbing the project by the scruff of the neck and doing the work yourself, lest the kid who did six bong rips before your group meeting tank your grade. You don’t want this, but now you feel really backed into a corner and people are relying on you.
Internet buzz kill: I cannot say enough good things about the way in which the Internet has improved my life. Between grading directly on students’ work while they make edits to not having the frustration of repeatedly asking Amy, “OK, WHAT show was this guy ON before?” (thanks, IMDB), I know I get more done now than ever before.
That said, the Internet can really suck your time as well as your will to live, because you never get a moment when you’re not “on.”
Case in point: When I went to school, we finished up the paper as quickly as possible, put it to bed and thanks to Wisconsin’s lax bar time laws, we had an ample time to knock back a few. If someone called the bar where we hung out and said a news story was breaking, hey, that waited until tomorrow. Nothing we could do now.
However, thanks to the web, you’ve got a major buzz kill on your hands. The 24-7 world of web has made it harder for dailies and even worse for weeklies in that you’re trying to run a constant news operation with what used to be a staff for just a once a day or once a week publication. Making it worse, you’re now adding video, audio, slide shows and virtual reality to the mix.
Think about how classes have changed as well: When a blizzard blanketed your area, making the roads all but impassable (Wisconsin = 16 inches, Texas = 16 flakes), you used to get the day off. The same thing was true when your professor’s kid brought home the Black Plague from daycare and now Dr. Smith looks like Dr. Death. Now? They upload a podcast, share a digital quiz they built for last semester’s online-only version and you’re stuck doing work.
Those necessary or unexpected down-time breaks were crucial in keeping you on an even keel. Now? Forget about them. The Internet has spoken.
People are jerks: I had a professor who was an amazingly good journalist about 20 years before he came to teach us. When he was helping out with the student newspaper, we thought it was a great idea. However, the guy worked at the New York Times and practically started every sentence with “Back at the times, we used to…” and that was good for about the first three sentences, but he kept turning this into an indictment of what we were doing now.
Well, we aren’t at the New York Times, we aren’t fully formed veteran journalists and we’re doing the best we can. Still, at least he had the chops to back up his complaints. If I had a nickel for every time that a nitwit who once had a letter to the editor published came at me like they were Bob Woodward over whatever they thought “kids these days” should be doing in the paper, I’d have a lot of nickels.
As we have repeatedly noted here, the Johnny Sain Axiom on Old Timers’ Day rings true: “There sure is a lot of bullshit around here. The older these guys get, the better they used to be.”
Many administrators and professors don’t cut the students any slack in general. They seem to forget that the students are just that — students. They’re putting in way more time than they’re compensated for, and they’re learning the ropes as they go along. They’re doing too much with too little support and under far more strenuous circumstances.
One of the things I have noted was that so many of our universities have been so excited to tell us that “We’re back to normal now,” that we’re starting to buy into the illusion. Thus, a lot of professors have gone back to the “no extensions” policies of pre-pandemic days or insisted on obituaries for students who claim a death requires them to miss a class. (I wish I were kidding…) We have people asking students to hop back to work getting that dormant student media club back online and pondering what is wrong with kids these days who don’t want to join up for this exciting opportunity?
Well, it’s because unless your version of “normal” required you to miss classes after coughing twice, get a giant Q-tip crammed into your brain on a frequent basis, Purell the crap out of everything you own and wear a mask more often than the robbery crew in “The Town,” I’d say things aren’t quite normal yet. Watching people pretend like “We’re all normal” is as awkward as the dinner scene from “Reality Bites:”
The student I was talking about earlier was facing a lot of these things and we had to talk about what things mattered most to her and her mental well-being. It’s never easy to cut something or trim something back. However, we started realizing that the more things she kept doing, the fewer of them she was doing WELL. That only made her feel worse about ALL OF THEM.
And that’s where stress starts to become burnout, as we’ll see tomorrow.