Beating Burnout in a Distanced World

April 16, 2020 11:00

by Kevin Benz, RTDNA contributor

Over the past month, The Kneeland Project has held weekly COVID-19 virtual meetups for our news leader alumni — a chance to share ideas, air concerns and, yeah, maybe vent a little bit in a safe space.
We’ve asked a common question in each call — what keeps you up at night? The answer — Burnout. Not news leaders’ own (although they should be aware of how stress is affecting them and ask for help) but the team’s.
They’re right to be worried. The new environment journalists are working in, the difficulty of the story, the emotional coverage — all are a recipe for overwhelming stress leading to potential burnout. (Burnout is a real disease.)

“Burnout is not a problem of people, but mostly of the places in which they work.” – Christina Malach

Most news directors will soon find themselves working more on their people more than they are on their newscast. And, that’s okay. Damaged, hurting people will never deliver powerful journalism. It takes healthy, inspired people to do great work. In other words, this work is worth the investment of time.

There is such a thing as caring too much.


What are the symptoms of burn-out?

The American Institute of Stress describes “compassion fatigue” felt by first responders. There is such a thing as caring too much. That care can be difficult to sustain.
Here’s what I call a journalist’s 12-step program to Burnout (with thanks to Howard Freudenberger, known as the father of Burnout and author of “Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement”):
  1.    I need to prove myself.
  2.    I need to work harder.
  3.    I’ll do whatever it takes.
  4.    I don’t feel good. Something feels wrong.
  5.    I’ll work through it. This is the most important thing I do.
  6.    I work with a bunch of incompetent %$*&!(#@’s.
  7.    What am I doing anyway? What’s the point? I need a drink.
  8.    Ugh, I need to just get through the day.
  9.    I am done with this and no one cares.
  10.   Whatever, I need another drink.
  11.    F--- this. 
  12.    Burnout.
Along the way, these feelings appear in the form of:
  • Sloppy work, and worse, not caring about it, followed by a loss of confidence.
  • Distancing even more from colleagues and avoiding any meaningful discussions.
  • Insensitivity, sarcasm, callousness, a lack of compassion.
  • Calling in sick, missing work, missing deadlines and not caring about it.
If you notice these symptoms in members of your team, you have work to do.

What do journalists need from their leaders to stay mentally on top of their game?

Trust – Your team needs to know that you will do what you say you’ll do. They need to know they can come to you when they don't feel quite right or when they have a problem — not to be judged, just to be listened to.
Compassion – Great leaders care. Yes, about the work, and more importantly, about the people. Model the care and empathy you want in your newsroom culture. The people you work with know when their boss cares personally about their well-being.
Stability – Your team is worried, not just about what will happen once this is over, but about what will happen tomorrow. Will they get sick? Will they be asked to do something they feel is unsafe? Do they have the equipment they need to get the job done safely? Stability is difficult to provide in an uncertain situation and the economic challenges facing newsrooms are real. Be sure to communicate what you can about what’s happening at the corporate level around finances and repeat what’s important to you— often. Talk about coverage goals and strategies across departments. Keep your disconnected team in the loop as much as you can. 
Hope – This too shall end, but what will it look like when it does? Yes, we’re all in this together but your people often feel very alone, and they may not see the incredible difference their work is making in their community. Tell them – often.

Gallup Analytics, 4 Universal Needs 

What can you do?

Here are some ideas from our Kneeland calls and from some of the pros who study this stuff:
Manage the workload
Too much work, too little time and too few resources make employees feel overwhelmed and stretched beyond capacity. This was true before this crisis began. Make sure you are asking for only what can realistically be done and give people a chance to disconnect.
Some news directors have mandated paid time off. Everyone must take a few days off — paid — away from email and conference calls. Time to unwind, unload and unpack the mental luggage they are carrying around.
Give them some control and some help
The opportunity to make decisions, solve problems and determine the outcome of our own work is key to feeling empowered. Rigid policies, especially in this variable work environment will prevent employees from following through on their ideas. Strong leaders know when to allow talented people to go for it. They also know when to offer a helping hand.
In some newsrooms the chief photographer or an engineer have gone to each home-bound worker and help set-up their technology. Not everyone needs this, but often those that need it the most are also the least likely to ask for it and the most frustrated by it.
Some newsrooms have set up conference lines inside the newsroom. Lines that stay open all day so that those working outside can interact with those working inside... anytime. It might not replicate the give and take that happens when people are physically next to each other, but it comes close.
“Let’s see more of that.”
Good coaching is about teaching what TO do, not what NOT to do. Find a way to say “let’s see more of that” multiple times every day. When working off-site, this kind of feedback isn't just nice, it’s a game-changer. Public positive feedback is obviously important every day, but in this distanced world, leaders also need to be sure they are delivering personal feedback as well. Make a personal video call. Smile, show honest excitement, and show how much you really care about each person’s achievement.
Celebrate the team
Several news directors have begun regular “virtual happy hours” or “game nights” as an opportunity to bring people together for something other than work. In a world of distance, we need connection. Good leaders also know when to bow out of those team events, allowing the staff some time away from the boss to vent, share, and simply be a team together.
If you are not doing your newsroom meetings over video, you might start. Feeling part of a team you can actually see makes it real.
Give a virtual hug — build a positive community
Human beings need connection. We get that from touching one another, giving and receiving hugs (“appropriately” said the HR person in the room), having face-to-face conversations that reveal emotion. In this distanced world, crowded conference calls and an email that asks “How are you doing?” might not be enough.
Technology will never take the place of seeing someone or holding their hand or saying you are there for them to their face. So, make video calls, often, just to check-in and talk.
Several stations have set up “Care Committees” — a group of people who reach out to their colleagues just to see how they are feeling, to send cookies or balloons, to sing “Happy Birthday” or celebrate an accomplishment. In other words, to do the things friends do if they could do it together.
Burnout is real. Caring, compassionate, extraordinary leaders are looking for it in their staff and in themselves. One day this story, this event, this tragedy will end. Let’s make sure our people come out of it better than they went in.
Our Kneeland virtual meet ups will continue through this pandemic and beyond because supporting leaders who support their teams is central to our mission. To learn more about how you can be become a member of the Kneeland family, visit

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4 keys credit: Gallup Analytics, 4 Universal Needs 

Beating Burnout Infographic
Kevin Benz, a former Chair of RTDNA, coaches leadership and ethics on the faculty of The Kneeland Project. He is founder of KevinBenz.News, a newsroom coaching company.