Stress and Burnout, Part IV: Hints and tips for slowing the burn

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 (as well as other researchers) 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 the earlier posts:

First and foremost, I want to be clear that if you are experiencing severe burnout, either based on the scores you tallied from the Maslach Burnout Inventory or based on intuition after reading the previous posts, you should seek help. Most campuses I know of have mental health professionals who can assist you in whatever concerns you while many others have programs that seek to take care of students who feel like they’re breaking down.

I am not “that kind of doctor,” so please find someone who is.

That said, if you’re feeling a bit crispy around the edges or you want to knock your MBI scores down a few pegs, here are some lower-end suggestions that can assist you in mellowing out a bit, consider these options:

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF: If there’s one good thing the pandemic has provided people, it’s the realization that illness can’t be overcome with gumption. I can’t count the number of times I’ve pushed myself past my limits while sick because, “I don’t have time to be sick.” That phrase is so ingrained in the mentality of journalism folks that we should have it translated into Latin and carved above the door of every student newsroom.

We often had students in the newsroom or the classroom looking like something out of “Dawn of the Dead,” pumping orange juice, cold meds and throat lozenges into themselves like they were stuffing a turkey. They wanted to write “just one more” story or edit “just one more” page, as they sounded like they were hacking up a lung. The idea is that being there at 50% (OK, maybe more like 25%) is better than not being there at all.

The truth of the matter is, if we just took care of ourselves a bit better, we wouldn’t get sick as often (usually). If we did get sick, we would recover to full strength better if we took the break when we needed it.

You can’t do anything when you’re sick or dead, as both tend to diminish productivity.

Early and regular coping techniques are good to keep yourself from dropping off: daily exercise, regular meals that include several parts of the food pyramid and quality sleep.

Now, let’s make something clear here. Walking briskly to the vending machine three times a day does not count for exercise and a regular meal schedule. Sleep isn’t well had passing out on the floor of the newsroom with a coat over your head. You need real versions of each of these elements.

(If you can’t sleep because you’re too worried, that’s another warning sign. You’ll want to see the student health folks for some recommendations.)


FIND YOUR HAPPY PLACE (OUTSIDE OF YOUR JOURNALISM LIFE): I was always amused when I worked in the newsroom and students decided they had finally had ENOUGH of whatever was bothering them that week.

“I need to get out of here,” they’d mutter. “I gotta leave the newsroom and get away from these people.”

Then, they’d get together with all of the same people they were grousing about and go to a bar or a party where they’d continue to discuss whatever was bothering them in the newsroom. It had the same internal logic of celebrating your first day of sobriety with a bottle of tequila.

There is nothing wrong with loving your job, your newsroom, your classes, your clubs or anything else. However, you eventually need a break from all of those “joyful” activities to just relax and actually enjoy something. You need to find something that brings you to your “happy place.”

Happiness can come from a variety of areas. One adviser I heard from told me she brought her dog into the newsroom on occasion. “You can’t be stressed out when you’re petting a dog,” she said. That’s pretty true. Little kids can also be amazing in this regard. Many years ago, I would bring my 2-year-old daughter into the newsroom. She’d dress up in princess clothes or build block towers with the editors. She’d draw with them and in the end they’d feel better.

The simple and small pleasures have been known to stave off stressful situations. After a particularly stressful day, several of us in a newsroom used to agree to meet online to play a game in which we were in “arena combat” and the goal was to blow each other up until the timer ran out. These days, I force myself to play a game of pinball or two to wind down and get away from the stress of the day.


PRIORITIZE AND SET LIMITS: This sounds easier said than done, but it’s like going on a diet or committing to an exercise regiment: Once you get into the groove, it becomes part of what you do.

Prioritizing can help you figure out which things you should focus on and in what order, thus eliminating the feeling of being overwhelmed. For some people, it’s about writing out things that HAVE TO happen in a given day on a list and taking pleasure in crossing them off. For others, it’s about learning how to determine which things need their attention and what things can be ignored, refused or delegated.

An approach I saw once used a color coding system to list off a bunch of things: Red meant it needed to be done before the end of business that day/week/hour/whatever. Yellow meant once the reds were done, a couple of these things could really use some attention. Green meant it got done when it got done and could be ignored for the foreseeable future.

Eventually when the list got pretty much crossed off, the person would make another list and re-evaluate the pieces that were left. Some of those greens needed to become yellows. A couple yellows might be red at this point. In addition, new stuff would fill in here and there in varying colors as well. It worked for that person, which was all it had to do.

Setting limits can be numerical, like, “Once the first five things on this list get done, I’m getting lunch,” or “I owe six emails today and that’s all I’m doing unless there’s a hostage situation that requires me to respond via email.” The limits could also be time-based, like deciding you’re going to turn off the computer by X time at night or you won’t work from A to B times during the day. One particularly clever way of doing this is to charge your laptop to full capacity and then leave your power cord at home. Once you run out of battery juice, you’re done for the day. Everyone else will just have to cope.

If you’re like me, (read: having grown up Catholic or in some other guilt-based system of existence) this can be really tough because you don’t want to feel like you’re letting people down or that you disappointed someone by not doing what they needed. This is how I end up writing letters of recommendation in 12 minutes after some kid I knew three semesters ago emails me with a desperate need and I don’t want them thinking I’m an uppity jerknugget.

However, I try to explain to people that for me to be the thing they want me to be (read: functional, helpful, valuable, intellectually on the ball etc.), I need to avoid burning out. In other words, “Do you want the thing done or do you want it done well?”


LEARN WHAT TO CARE ABOUT: If you write every headline in 100 point bold, screaming, you’ll never know what you should care about and your audience will tune you out. Same can be said about dealing with people.

When some professor in the history department makes some snide comment in front of a class about the newspaper or your major or a club you run, let it go. People who think they know what you do while actually having no clue about what you actually do in any of these areas are plentiful. No sense getting bent out of shape over an academic twerp. When the head of the journalism department says, “Your (club/paper/group) sucks. We’re cutting your funding and kicking you out.” That’s something to care a bit more about.

I often go back to the line about “Is this the hill you’re willing to die on?” when considering how stressed a situation should make me. I also find that people who can’t make this kind of distinction tend to think every hill is the one that EVERYONE around them MUST die on EVERY TIME. Learn to avoid these people and learn to avoid becoming one of these people.


HAVE A GOOD CREW IN YOUR CORNER: I remember watching a documentary about the “Thrilla in Manila,” the third and final fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. By the time the 14th round ended, the fighters were completely spent and both of their respective teams knew it.

Ali looked like he was going to have to quit in the corner, something his crew refused to allow him to consider. Frazier, who later revealed that he had been fighting for most of his career only able to see out of one eye, had his good eye swollen shut by repeated poundings to the head. The legendary trainer Eddie Futch told Frazier that he know the fighter couldn’t see and it was time to throw in the towel. Frazier responded, “Don’t worry. I can visualize him.” Futch refused to listen and ended the fight.

Futch lived to the age of 90 and until his dying day, he said he never once regretting stopping the fight, despite what it meant to Frazier’s legacy and Frazier’s own bitterness toward his former trainer. All that mattered was he wanted to keep his fighter safe.

I guess this is my way of rolling this series all the way back to the boxing analogy from the first piece. One of the most important things to have around you at all times is a good “corner-person” who knows what you need at any given point in time.

(A quality “cut-person” and a good  “hype-person” are nice additions as well.)

In student media, this should be the newsroom adviser: The wizened one who has seen it all and knows when you need a motivating kick in the keester and when to throw in the towel for you. They have to see the bigger picture as you simply plow ahead, round by round. In college, a variety of other advisers can serve this role, such as an academic one or the one overseeing your group, organization or club. It could be anyone out there you know who knows how you tick.

(Side note: In my life, it’s Amy. She’s like a human divining rod when it comes to what I need, when, where and why. If you find someone like that in your life, hang on to that person with all you’ve got.)

The idea here is that sometimes we don’t know ourselves as well as we need to in order to keep ourselves out of trouble. Surrounding ourselves with people who understand us and are able to get through to us can be a saving grace when we are too stubborn or stupid for our own good.

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