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Mental health, self-care and resilience in journalism

Many journalists work under stressful, sometimes dangerous conditions, and regularly come face to face with severe human suffering. In such an environment, it is essential to take care of oneself in order to preserve one’s health, motivation to work and a constructive mind-set. Learn how in the 12th and final article of “Psychology for Journalists”. 

By Katja Ehrenberg and Margarida Alpuim

Männchen jongliert


In this article series, we have so far provided insights from psychology that help to promote and realise a less biased, more solutions-oriented, nuanced and human approach to research and reporting. In this final article, we are shifting the focus: This article is dedicated to your well-being — as journalists, reporters, editors, and media-creators around the world, who dedicate their lifeblood, intellectual prowess and determination — at times even risking their own freedom and lives — to inform, investigate and uncover grievances, and to inspire and connect people and ideas around the world. 

In this article, you will… 

  • get a short overview of the psychological understanding of job-related stress, demands and resources in the  journalism sector;
  • learn about research into mental health issues among journalists, with a focus on burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder;
  • get to know some concrete tools and tips to prevent or at least mitigate stress and mental health risks on different levels, and explore synergies with the mindset of constructive journalism;
  • be provided with concrete resources  for self-assessment, “mental first aid”, and helpful links to approved websites.  

Stress, job demands and resources in journalism

Every job has its rewards and demands. An appropriate balance between the two is an essential determinant of work motivation, satisfaction and performance, and is subject to a number of popular models in organisational psychology (1, 2). 

Media jobs are not all the same. They differ substantially in task-inherent pace and demands, depending on ressort or channel, team climate, seasonal and regional dynamics, political and legal conditions, and many more factors. It goes without saying that these factors, as well as rank and responsibility, also impact the quality and type of stress media professionals experience. Despite all these differences, there are some conditions of media jobs that can be considered typical or generally relevant to journalists’ stress and mental health. On the positive side, there are many factors that make journalistic work motivating and satisfying. Likely resources and rewards as well as demands are listed in the following box (3).

Potential rewards in journalistic jobs

  • Life-long learning during research and contact with interesting protagonists and experts; potential opportunities to travel and explore regions or milieus or talk to experts and celebrities, take a look behind the scenes;
  • Personal and professional growth, ability to exercise creativity to develop new formats, approaches, viewpoints;
  • High levels of self-efficacy, i.e. the confidence that one might be able to make a difference; finding meaning in informing others and inspiring change (a “calling” rather than just a job); 
  • An informal work environment with like-minded colleagues, a team climate of high involvement, commitment, and engagement; a certain level of autonomy in choosing and framing issues according to personal interests and priorities; eventually contributing critical thinking about the work that is being done.

Typical demands in journalistic jobs

  • Time-pressure to meet deadlines; long hours and/or shift work; 
  • High levels of unpredictability, needing to always be ready in case of sudden major news events; 
  • Little opportunity for “failure” or to make up for mistakes;
  • High mental load and multi-tasking, task-switching;
  • Need to constantly retrain and learn new technologies (this may also be a benefit).

With increasing acceleration in societies, overall work-related stress levels also have gone up considerably over the last few decades (4). On top of that, mobile digital devices have created a demand for constant online availability, dissolved borders between work and private life, and made it harder for us to detach from work (5, 6). Teams and individuals are frequently required to shift plans to quickly adapt to (sudden) processes of organisational transformation; working environments have become increasingly complex, interconnected systems (7). In journalism, this might show up as content needing to be designed in a way that is compatible with multi-channel production, for example, or new platforms with special dynamics, formats, and user needs appearing on the scene. 

But, of course, stress has always been part of human life: Our stone-age ancestors did not know in advance when or where some wild beast may attack, or if weather breaks will force them to move on with the entire clan (8). Such truly existentially threatening events are of different quality from, say, a live-show guest cancelling on short notice, or one publication format dying and another one rising of course. We can thus assume that our species is evolutionarily well-prepared to deal with unforeseeable challenges and the stress they cause, as we descend from those who coped with it well, in one way or another (9). 

One important note: Whether something causes you stress is neither a result of environmental nor of personal factors alone: What seems like a nice challenge to one person is a major threat to others; what sounds interesting on a Monday morning can make you feel overwhelmed after a rough week on Thursday, though you are basically the same person.

In a nutshell: 

An often-cited definition of stress acknowledges that stress emerges at the intersection of demands and resources: it is the negative beliefs and emotions that arise when a person does not feel able to cope with the demands of a given situation (10). Both aspects, coping ability (including capacities such as time) as well as requirements, are thus a matter of subjective assessment. This may vary from day to day, depending on one’s current physical and mental state – having slept well versus feeling a cold coming or being seriously worried about one’s child – as well as depending on subjectively experienced social support, one of the best-researched stress buffers ever (11, 12, 13)

Stress is not necessarily negative. In adequate doses, it can contribute to good performance and well-being, as its effects are “designed” to activate us physically and mentally (14). Problems arises, when it is “overdosed”: 

Moderate levels of temporary stress:  

  • put us in a state of action-readiness, attention, and concentration; 
  • open us up to new thoughts and facilitate more original and creative associations (15); 
  • typically elicit feelings that include curiosity, eagerness to explore, joy and confidence (15); 
  • can help us make new contacts more easily and thus expand our social network (16). 

All this makes a huge difference to how you get through a typical day when doing journalistic research, get in touch with interview partners, analyse evidence, and tell your stories.

In contrast, high levels of permanent stress (or stress that goes on for longer periods of time) can cause severe physical health problems, as well as cognitive, emotional, and social damage (14). They not only harm the cardio-vascular system, but also narrow human perception and thinking, presumably a protective mode against overstimulation. This may show up as  (14, 15):

  • Becoming more sensitive, e.g., towards noise, and literally seeing and thinking in a tunnel-view mode (as peripheral vision as well as associations are narrowed; 15); 
  • Temporary memory problems or trouble focusing;
  • Avoiding complex analyses or failing to succeed on these, along with bad priority-setting;
  • Bad decision-making and bad judgement (never make important decisions under acute stress!); 
  • Feelings of weakness or anxiety, self-doubts or despair; 
  • Becoming irritable, angry or aggressive; 
  • Different emotional states coming up and changing rapidly, likely causing additional conflict in professional and private contexts; 
  • Reduced openness and empathy for the concerns of others, leading to social retreat, or to hostile communication, when retreat is not possible. 

Again, all of this seriously endangers the overall quality of professional performance and interactions in all stages of everyday (journalistic) work. Therefore, employers as well as employees and all kinds of co-workers should have a common interest in preventing an atmosphere of chronic stress at work.

On top of that, stress may contribute to serious mental health problems. So-called vulnerability-stress models suggest that an acute phase of very high stress can act as a trigger for mental health issues, given there is a genetic or socio-biographic predisposition; while without that acute stress, the same predisposition (e.g., for depression or anxiety disorder) may eventually have gone unnoticed for a lifetime (17). It is an inherent problem that one loses the sense for or may even neglect one’s own limits and health status under severe stress (e.g., when approaching a burnout, see below), so that people are often caught by surprise and only realise they had a breakdown (coming) in hindsight. Staying sensitive towards environmental risk factors, as well as early symptoms of permanent or chronic stress is thus essential to allow for timely prevention and intervention, especially regarding the somewhat precarious constellation of factors in journalistic professions. 

Factors that foster resilience and coping strategies:

Decades of stress research have shown that two major factors foster resilience and maintain physical and mental health in the long-term: 

  • Phases of acute alarm and action readiness are counterbalanced by regular (!) phases of full (!) relaxation (14), and 
  • Experiencing social support when dealing with stress, that is, getting reliable emotional acceptance and practical help from friends, family or colleagues (our “clan”; 18). 

The importance of social support to cope with stress – next to the classic reactions of fightflight or freeze (19) – has long been overlooked by stress researchers due to the fact that basic lab research was historically conducted almost exclusively with male animals in order to control for the influence of hormone cycles on behaviour. Female mammals, however, react differently towards stress than males, since fighting or fleeing are not the best options when you are pregnant and/or with little ones. Studies with mixed-sex animal as well as human samples show that seeking social support and “tending and befriending” (or “flocking up”) with the clan is a strategy females use more often than males, though it works equally well for both (20). Also, it is noteworthy that providing social support is almost as powerful in reducing stress and enhancing well-being as getting it (21; cf. 18). 

Mental health issues among journalist

The daily grind of covering conflicts, wars, natural disasters, injustice and corruption, the consequences of the climate crisis and just general human suffering does not leave journalists unscathed. In general, whatever is worth reporting on is usually emotionally charged in some way or other, often in a negative way (for the Primate of Negativity, see also article 1 of this series). Mental health issues are thus likely to affect every journalist regularly dealing with news — including editors and other professionals who hardly ever leave the newsroom, but spend their day in a continuous flow of pictures and headlines from around the world. In fact, the distance inherent in desk reporting may even be more challenging at times, because journalists may feel an even larger lack of control with regard to the news. 

Important note: We are not going to list distinctive symptoms of different mental disorders that are prone to emerge from stressful working conditions, such as depression, panic attacks, anxiety disorders, addiction and substance abuse, or post-traumatic stress disorder. This information can be found elsewhere, and we clearly do not want to encourage self-diagnosing or self-treatment, let alone diagnosing or treating co-workers. When in doubt about your own mental health state, please watch out closely for general warning signs, take concerns by people around you seriously, and seek a professional assessment as soon as possible (see further information at the end of this article). If you are worried about a co-worker, please listen to them thoroughly, avoid any kind of trivialising or judgmental remarks, express your concerns and offer support in finding professional assessment and help, or — if this is not (yet) considered an option — offer them to turn to you again in the future. 

We would like to spotlight two fields of mental issues which are particularly well-studied as impacting journalists: so-called burnout syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 


Officially (i.e., according to the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases, ICD-11; 22), burnout is still explicitly not a disease, yet can be coded as a work-related factor that influences a person’s health status. This reflects the understanding that burnout is an occupational hazard, not a health hazard – it is a state of otherwise healthy people who can’t handle chronically stressful working conditions (which can include unpaid care or voluntary work, but does not include being worn out from excessive leisure time activities). Maslach and colleagues have defined burnout as a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization of others, and reduced personal accomplishment (23). Professionals thus often diagnose it as exhaustion depression, so that sick-leave or treatment will be covered by health insurance. 

There are a number of factors well known to enhance burnout risk (24). These are very often part of journalistic job profiles as already outlined in the introduction, such as 

  • A combination of extreme and long-term stress; 
  • High performance standards;
  • Being exposed to severe human suffering on a regular basis; 

As well as inherent to the type of people that are often attracted to this field, as 

  • Having a strong desire for recognition and success;
  • Experiencing it rather as a passion or “calling” than a job (and, similar to social work, also being expected to do it not for the money, but for a higher cause);
  • Bringing with them a readiness to ignore personal limits and exploit oneself.

Systematic literature reviews point out that these and related factors can explain the high rates of burnout or exhaustion depression among journalists (25). In contrast to other professions prone to burn out, such as nurses or social workers, journalists usually cannot directly act on the suffering they bear witness to and thus on top might experience learned helplessness (see article 8 of this series). 

Even under extreme circumstances, burnout does not come on overnight, and knowing about typical early symptoms will help to escape the vicious cycle and prevent worse. The following box gives a brief summary of a widely cited model of twelve phases of burnout (26; cf. 27). It identifies typical symptoms for different stages, which, however, does not mean that one has to experience all of these —  and/or strictly as described —, as some might very much depend on the specific working environment.

12 Phases of burnout after Freudenberger and North (26)

  1. The urge to prove oneself: Performance at work becomes the most important aspiration; comparing with colleagues develops into a constant competition.
  2. Taking over everything: In order to meet the high standards one sets for oneself, time and effort invested into work increase; growing preference to do everything by oneself, not accepting support; feelings of being indispensable.
  3. No more “switching off”: Spare time becomes increasingly less important due to the strong focus on work; family, friends and hobbies start being neglected; it gets harder to relax; often framed as self-sacrifice.
  4. Avoidance of conflicts: professional or private conflicts are ignored, in particular when emerging from altered working behaviour and attitudes; first physical symptoms appear, e.g. headaches, stomach issues, etc.
  5. Definition of new standards: Due to prior burnout phases, there is a shift in values. Those affected become emotionally dulled and increasingly evade everything that does not relate to work; the state of being overworked is neglected.
  6. Intolerance: Others are perceived as incompetent and lazy; increased hostility and cynicism, which seriously endangers social relationships and creates a lack of realistic feedback and social support.
  7. Social withdrawal and loss of orientation and/or performance: Lack of concentration and loss of performance increase, only essentials are done; trying to numb feelings of failure with alcohol or other drugs.
  8. Considerable change in personality and attitude towards work: Previously ambitious and committed people become indifferent or fearful, feel worthless and misunderstood; defensive attitude towards criticism, further emotional withdrawal or a severe lack of flexibility.
  9. Depersonalization: In the final stages, one’s own needs or feelings are no longer perceived. It's all about functioning. Those affected suffer from a complete loss of joy and perceived meaningfulness.
  10. States of anxiety, addictive behaviour: To counteract inner emptiness, the person starts to fill his or her free time with activities by all means; often accompanied by heavy alcohol and/or drug use and increased sexuality.
  11. Meaninglessness: Hopelessness and perceived pointlessness of life can manifest in restless and/or apathetic states, which become more and more intense and may interchange in this stage of burnout.
  12. Collapse: Finally, complete mental, emotional and physical exhaustion and an eventually life-threatening breakdown occur.

Early intervention, that is, ideally in phases 1-3 or at least in phases 4-6 of Freudenberger’s model, is very important to prevent severe and maybe irreversible damage done to physical and mental health, as well as to social relationships and working climate. It is also essential for avoiding a persisting enhanced vulnerability towards future stress situations even after full recovery from a breakdown (“like a scar that reopens easily”, as one affected put it; 28). The more knowledge people acquire about this and other mental issues — e.g., through training at journalism schools or in workshops —  the better they become at recognising when they are at risk (29).

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

On top of ticking many boxes in “burnout risk factors”, the professional routine of journalists often requires them to be confronted with potentially traumatising images, events and experiences, be it as a field reporter or in the newsroom. Post-traumatic stress disorder describes a possible reaction to traumatic experiences of violence, war, natural disasters, accidents, severe illness, sexual assault or torture. It can also arise as a reaction to indirect exposure, i.e., as an observer or through others’ reports (30). Reporters and journalists are prone to both, and the high risk of trauma exposure has encouraged extensive psychological research on post-trauma reactions among journalists (for recent comprehensive reviews, see 31, 32). There is also substantial evidence for risks of indirect or secondary trauma in audiences (33), which, however, is not the focus of this article (see article 5 of this series for further information). 

Typical symptoms of PTSD may be (34)

  • Persistent memories or vivid re-experiencing of the stressful event (so-called flashbacks) or repetitive dreams; 
  • Avoidance of stimuli associated with the traumatising situation, e.g., places, means of transport, smells, sounds or similar, which were not avoided before the stressful experience;
  • Difficulty falling asleep or sleeping through the night;
  • Emotional numbness;
  • Increased irritability, tension and jumpiness;
  • Dejection, deep exhaustion, listlessness, feeling of powerlessness, futility or despair; 
  • Severe mood swings;
  • Considerable change in eating behaviour (overeating, loss of appetite); increased alcohol, drug or tobacco consumption;
  • Fears, feelings of guilt or shame, self-reproaches (e.g., not having intervened more strongly).

It is important to note that single traumatic experiences, direct or indirect, do not automatically lead to PTSD symptoms, as there are various protective factors (35). However, journalists are a high-risk group for PTSD, due to the repeated, if not permanent, exposure to severe crises, war, natural disasters, etc., and almost as prone as firefighters, coroners or ambulance staff to face traumatic events (36). Based on numerous studies with large samples of journalists from many different countries, news journalists are estimated to be at a considerably enhanced risk of developing PTSD (among other issues, such as depression, anxiety disorders or substance abuse), with rates ranging from 12% to over 90%, depending on the particular research sample, country, and survey circumstances (37; 38). 

In one of the studies reviewed by Aoki and colleagues (38), about 40% of respondents expressed concern about losing the trust of their employer and colleagues if they admit to being traumatised, in another, only 20% stated that support structures existed in their media house for such cases (38). Taking this fear of stigmatisation into account, much of the self-reported data on psychological stress and illness should be viewed critically, as it is likely to underestimate true rates of impact.

Another important factor is “institutional betrayal”, referring to organisations (e.g., employers) that fail to responsibly prepare or support those prone to trauma exposure (39, 40, 41). Compared to other high-risk professions such as firefighters, military or ambulance staff, supportive resources for journalists are extremely scarce (42, 43, 44; cf. 3). For instance, a US-American dissertation study found that only very few journalism training programs offered a class on trauma-related outcomes (45). In addition, as stated above, the issue is often swept under the rug (38, 41), an aspect that might be rooted in professional ideals of objectivity, neutrality and emotional detachment (31), and further fed by organisational climate (46), and journalists’ fear of appearing weak and thus not suitable for the (tough) job (47, 48). Those who report having addressed their need for support often seem to face prejudice and discouragement; and if support is provided at all, it often aims rather at re-establishing the ability to work than at prevention (38). 

Media organisations clearly need to look inward and consider the degree to which their workplace climate is providing a healthy environment or rather perpetuating mental health stigmata and adding to the emotional distress experienced by those covering crisis and traumatic news events (49). A recent review of 33 studies with journalists from a huge variety of different countries (37; cf. 50, 3) concludes that situational factors such as stressful working conditions or the (un-)availability of social support have about as much influence on the risk of developing PTSD as personality factors or individual coping strategies. This finding is very much in line with decades of psychological research in other fields: Many studies show that early intervention is an extremely effective protective factor against PTSD in professional contexts (e.g., among early responders; 51). According to the law in many countries as well as the European Union, employers hold a legal responsibility to protect their staff against physical as well as psychological harm, and it seems that media houses have some catching up to do when it comes to prevention and low-threshold support concepts/offerings. 

Does a constructive approach make a difference?

Taken together, and as so often, the problem seems to be pretty well described. However, to the best of our knowledge, there is only very little research available about solutions, i.e., on approaches aiming to prevent and treat mental health issues tailored to the journalism sector, and on their effectiveness. It would seem that there is a general acceptance that working conditions for reporters in disaster or conflict zones basically“are the way they are”, and that nothing can be done about newsroom rules either. The review by Monteiro and colleagues from 2016 concluded that among the 28 studies published between 2002 and 2015, “only one research study focused on an in-depth analysis of the most commonly used coping strategies by journalists. The impacts of occupational stress among these professionals were sorely negative (e.g., burnout, PTSD), and no study was found to address the design and assessment of preventive interventions for these impacts on the health and well-being of journalists.” (3, p. 751)

Despite this striking lack of research on protective or supportive factors, the recent rise of constructive reporting and according evaluative studies shows that a more solutions-oriented and nuanced reporting style successfully protects audiences from helplessness, anxiety, depression, news fatigue and news avoidance and can foster hope, self-efficacy, engagement and well-being (52). Might this also work on the journalists’ side? There is some preliminary evidence from singular experiences as documented in autobiographical experiences (53) as well as from a study built on a series of semi-structured in-depth interviews with war reporters and newsroom experts from various media houses (54). Many of these journalists claim to considerably profit from a more constructive approach in research and reporting with regard to how they experience stress and mental well-being, and also with regard to job motivation and long-term job commitment, which would otherwise have suffered severely. 

The above mentioned publication by Lilly and Dadouch (31) is among the few to explicitly address the role of thought patterns on developing PTSD in journalistic contexts. As expected, their results indicate that a mindset that is built around humanist values and focuses on constructive, solutions-oriented approaches to the challenges we face comes with a sense of safety and higher resilience towards PTSD compared to a “shattered world” view  (55) that comes with a higher risk of developing PTSD symptoms (cf. 56). 

Many authors call for a more open discussion of mental health issues in journalism and for including education on early signs of trauma and stress, as well as how to deal with it, in the regular curriculum at journalism schools (e.g., 41; 44).

What now? Some solutions, tools and tips

To preserve joy and energy in journalistic work in the long run requires us to differentiate stress and mental issues in order to determine what can be done about what and by whom. Some aspects of stress and mental strain depend on general circumstances, organisational structures and processes or leadership styles. Others are rather a matter of personal mindsets. Some can be altered, others can’t be neither altered nor avoided, but only counter-balanced. It is extremely wise to distinguish one from the other. 

What can be done on a personal level

From the many models that have been suggested to structure the complex field of stress and stress management, we chose one by Kaluza (14), as it is scientifically solid and at the same time extremely practical in its implications. Kaluza suggests differentiating three “pillars” of stress competence, each aiming to help buffer and cope with a different aspect of experiencing stress: 

Three pillars of stress competence after Kaluza
Three pillars of stress competence after Kaluza (14; own graphic)

External stress factors, as depicted on the left, refer to whatever (work-)life throws at you that may cause stress, such as, for example, high levels of noise, or unclear responsibilities within the team. These can be reduced by so-called instrumental stress competence. Such a problem-focussed (rather than emotion-focussed) approach to lower or handle these demands, so that they consume less resources and do less damage, may include a noise-cancelling headset or clarifying communication (for more instrumental tips and tools, see box below). 

As we have already seen, stress is not just a matter of how much life throws at you, but rather of how you perceive the demands on the side relative to how you perceive your (current) resources, skills and capacities to handle these challenges. If you find yourself well-equipped, and have realistic goals and measures for appropriate results, you will be fine. The subjective assessment of one’s own resources is heavily affected by individual beliefs or fears. These can become personal stress enhancers, if they contain ideas of perfection, independence or control at all costs that make the external stress factors even worse than they might otherwise appear. Learning how to tame such beliefs is a matter of mental stress competence, as can be practised in several ways (see below).

At the same time, personal stress enhancers may also interact with the bodily stress reactions as depicted on the right of Figure 1: thoughts and feelings can further increase (as well as decrease) stress symptoms, such as heart-rate or blood pressure, bad sleep, loss of appetite, concentration or memory problems. Recreational stress competence such as working out regularly/participating in sports, good sleeping hygiene, etc. (see below) will lower the proneness to overly strong physical stress reactions and buffer negative health consequences. At the same time, physical well-being may positively feed back on the mental assessment of current stressors and one’s available resources to cope with these (14). 

In addition, each of the three components that affect stress may interact with the others, and prevention and intervention is possible on all three “levels”. Concrete tools and tips on how to build these pillars of good stress competence in order to maintain mental and physical well-being are provided in the following boxes (cf. 14; 28), starting with instrumental stress competence: 

How to strengthen instrumental stress competence

  • Build up task-oriented resources and competences (e.g. self-learning, ask colleagues for expertise when learning to work with new formats or tools, such as your first podcast)
  • Organisational improvements (e.g., optimising task-structures, work-flow processes, supportive technical devices)
  • Improve self-management skills (train and practice setting priorities, delegation, time-management techniques)
  • Reflect on your work style (what do you want to keep, stop, do more or do more often?)

Train communicative skills to prevent conflicts or prevent them from escalating (e.g., give constructive feedback; delegate efficiently and appreciatively; learn and practice saying no without fear of personal rejection, reputational damage, or of missing out on the next round

Some stressors can’t be reduced by such instrumental strategies, but must be more or less taken the way they are. This is where mental stress competence comes in. Many motives and standards that guide us at work are helpful as such, but become “unhealthy” when exaggerated: the aim to deliver solid research and high quality stories may turn into perfectionism; the wish to be appreciated by others may lead to fear of rejection in case of minor dissent; the urge to master challenges by oneself may lead to refuse support when it is necessary and appropriate, and so on. These mental stress enhancers work a bit like conversations you are having with yourself – inner monologues that may be helpful sometimes, but do real harm at other times.

Building mental stress competence is easier said than done. It requires not only seriously questioning mental stress enhancers, but also maintaining a healthy balance between following your “calling” and being able to “turn off”. It requires in particular accepting your limits. It is very helpful to zoom out once in a while and ask yourself: How are you doing, honestly, in terms of physical health, mental stability and social relationships? Is this project worth the toll it is taking? When starting to review, do not expect too much at once. Be patient with yourself, take small steps, and seek support if appropriate. The following box provides some “first aid” tools for self-reflection, for questioning and dealing with these kinds of thoughts, and getting into a more constructive dialogue with yourself:

How to strengthen mental stress competence (14)

  • Maintain a healthy distance, don’t over-identify with tasks or goals
  • Practice gratitude, consciously appreciate daily joys and successes 
  • Stay humble, don’t take yourself all too seriously
  • Try to let go of anger or fear, try to keep up humour and reframe obstacles as challenges
  • Question inappropriate stress enhancing thoughts (8), such as :
    • Be perfect! This is your one/only chance to show them, it is the first… it must shine!
      • Why? For whom? At any cost (including my health, time for my partner, friends, sleep,…)? What might happen in the worst case, if I don‘t achieve 150%, but 97%, or 80%? Who defines “perfect“ here? What would be “good enough“?
    • Be popular! Everybody should like you, don’t offend anyone, adjust, just be nice,…
      • Always, with everybody? Do I really risk this person’s sympathy or respect if I say no to additional demands, set limits, utter my wishes or provide critical feedback? Could it even strengthen our relationship? Under which circumstances?
    • Be independent! Stand your ground, don’t depend on anyone, you can only truly rely on yourself …
      • What for, from whom or what in particular? What do I fear if I accept a little help? Less independence? Which advantages may it have in this particular situation? 
    • Stay in control! Things might get out of hand, someone else might not be able to handle it right, it is best if you do it yourself… 
      • Of what exactly and what for? Where could I delegate control? To whom? What would it take to be easier? Where is control possible and where not? What may happen in the worst case scenario?
    • Keep going! Do not show weakness! If you pause now, you might miss out, only the tough get through, never surrender … 
      • What for, for whom? Who expects me to keep going? What happens if I take a break or pass on responsibility? What good things might happen if I don’t  keep going? What does it allow for?

Even with solid instrumental as well as mental stress competences, stress reactions might be unavoidable. As has been said, experiencing temporary, moderate stress reactions is not in itself a bad thing, but rather natural and even healthy, as long as active phases are followed by time for relaxation. To protect yourself against the unhealthy long term consequences of chronic stress, it is essential a)to feel socially supported, and b)to fully regenerate on a regular basis. Most of the tools filling the box for regenerative stress competence are common knowledge and may seem trivial at first glance, but the trick is to actually practise them in everyday life – again a mental thing, and a frequent issue in counselling and coaching:

Recreational stress management (28)

  • Pay attention to your body’s reactions and take them seriously. If you’re prone to high blood pressure, changes in appetite, backaches, headache or the like when under stress, acknowledge them as early warning signs and be grateful for them.
  • Establish a regular work-out routine. Commit to exercise routines you can also do while travelling or in aversive weather conditions (or find ways to do them regardless), setting fixed dates and times if possible. Finding a partner might mean more fun and less excuses. Regular physical activity helps your body get rid of stress hormones, muscle tension and other symptoms of overactivation.
  • Practise good sleep hygiene: make sure you get sufficient sleep, and try to have fixed times for going to bed and waking up, if possible. Also, we recommend not working right before going to sleep.
  • Digital detox: Allow yourself times when you fully detach and are explicitly offline and unavailable except in defined emergencies. If it helps, you may want to inform your colleagues, family and friends about such time slots in advance (e.g., after a certain hour, half or full days at the weekend or on vacation …). Similarly, you might want to set time aside for intense work and inform those concerned that you will check your messages and emails only at certain hours.
  • Ensure a healthy and varied diet, in particular, when working shifts, under high time pressure or in the field. Make sure you stay hydrated, eat regularly, and don’t overeat to treat yourself after rough days.
  • Foster positive social contacts and leisure time activities beyond work-related ones.

Practise breathing or muscle relaxation techniques, meditation or mindfulness training to wind down in phases of acute stress or before or after a hard day. These exercises reliably activate the part of the neural system that is responsible for relaxation; they quickly lower your heart rate, blood pressure, and the level of stress hormones, which can be detrimental to concentration, memory and the cardio-vascular system and inner organs if kept too high over time.

What employers can do on a systemic level

So far, we have addressed three levels at which individuals can build resilience. However, many countries have clear laws and regulations about the employers’ responsibility to ensure the physical and mental well-being of their employees (and sometimes freelancers) by means of corporate health care management systems. These include measures that minimise heavy risks (e.g., providing bullet-proof vests for those who report from conflict zones) and physical harm from the working environment (e.g., ensuring ergonomic desk equipment, regular pauses, etc.), but also those that minimise psychological strains such as time pressure, intransparent or overly high demands, or a climate that fosters conflict, mobbing or discrimination. In many countries, employers are by law obliged to assess and report on eventual job-related dangers to physical and mental health on a regular basis and to invest in countermeasures. 

It is not only a matter of ethics and legal responsibility, but also economically very reasonable to invest in a sustainable, healthy work climate: Such an investment sends the authentic message to employees that they are appreciated and valued, keeping experienced professionals on board and making the company attractive for future high potentials as well as contributing to a good public (employer) image. Economic consequences of chronically high stress at work are complex to estimate and may in some cases only represent the tip of the iceberg. 

Costs of chronic high stress for media houses  may include (cf. 28; 57): 

  • Lower quality of work results due to lack of concentration, bad memory, and generally suboptimal performance during research and production. 
  • Bad priority-setting and/or decision making, resulting in
  • frustration among co-workers (whose work is de-prioritised)
  • work accidents and their collateral costs (e.g., when incidentally destroying files or technic equipment), and
  • awareness of these issues as further stressors, accelerating chronification of symptoms and long-term illness.
  • Social conflict due to stress-related, low frustration tolerance; hostile communication; blaming others, resulting in
    • bad team climate, negative mood contagion within teams
    • less effective cooperation within the team or between interdependent teams
    • less effective, eventually off-putting negotiation style within important networks
    • purposeful underperformance or resignation among other team-members.
  • Sick-leave times and times for rehabilitation (e.g., after burnout), or staff turnover
    • (temporarily) losing valuable experience and expertise
    • vacancies implying an increase in workload for the remaining team
    • costs for hiring and training new staff including recruitment and selection process; suboptimal performance in the beginning; time and effort for onboarding.
  • Long-term systemic consequences 
    • damage to the reputation of a media house among journalists as well as audiences, increasing difficulty to build long-term business partnerships or reaching subscribers
    • damage to employer image (or even industry image) among the next generation
    • increased difficulty recruiting in times when there is a shortage of specialist and managerial talents.

Investing in mental health care has a high return on investment (57). Only people in a good state can do good work, and constructive journalism (or constructive team culture) will hardly prosper under negative conditions. In fact, reversely, constructive approaches may help buffer the individual consequences of difficult working conditions (see above). On top of that, there are some well-established classic measures that can be combined in customised ways, according to demand as well as time and budget available:

Measures of corporate health care for teams may include: 

  • Communication training for conflict prevention and better workflow, e.g., on
  • Appreciative and direct feedback
  • Efficient and empowering delegation of tasks
  • Other peer-level as well as leadership-interaction issues
  • Workshops on team building, to
    • Clarify roles and responsibilities
    • Explore and commit to joint visions and goals
    • Strengthen team resources and team resilience
  • Compact impulses for a constructive meeting culture, e.g.,
    • “Thorns-and-roses”-rounds analysing failures, celebrating successes
    • Structuring and tracking tasks, time management
    • Codices on efficient and appreciative written communication (“email culture”)


Measures of corporate health care for individuals may include: 

  • Direct counselling and coaching by external or internal professionals on 
    • Stress and stress management, e.g., many of the aspects discussed here including learning to perceive and respect one's own needs, relaxation techniques, defining and pursuing realistic personal goals, an overall healthy lifestyle with regular proper nutrition, sports, time for leisure, and good sleep hygiene
    • Work-family conflicts
    • Personal or job role conflicts 
    • Developing an authentic, professional leadership style, or 
    • Support with finding therapy for more severe mental issues
  • Training of internal counsellors or trusted persons as multipliers in workshops with theory and practice units on
  • Role and functions of an internal counsellor
  • Methods of counselling communication
  • Solutions-focused support techniques
  • Psychological first aid in crisis intervention
  • Basic methods of conflict management and mediation 
  • Regular follow-up supervision and peer-counselling sessions for internal counsellors

But where to start if you are able to implement or want to lobby those in charge to implement mental health care measures at your workplace? The good news is: It doesn't matter. Just as negative vibes spread and accumulate within social systems, positive impulses can unfold their effects in a non-linear, dynamic upward spiral of open-mindedness, appreciation and mutual inspiration and support (15; cf. 8).

You can take the first step and become a model to others in the way you handle communication, deadlines, vacation and self-care. 

More background information and non-profit resources on mental health

The European Alliance Against Depression (EAAD) is an international non-profit founded by a network of renowned researchers aimed at improving treatment for patients with depressive disorders, including suicide prevention. On their website, they offer a wide range of in-depth information. Their initiative ifightdepression addresses different target groups (e.g., young people, family and friends, as well as community and health care professionals) and provides solid and evidence-based support in multiple European languages. 

The International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) also offers a wide range of scientific and practical resources worldwide, including a network of crisis centres as well as helpful articles specifically addressing people who currently feel at risk.

The UK National Health Service has a rather comprehensive and profound collection of concrete supportive tools and ideas for self-care and further practical resources including audios and videos for dealing with stress, anxiety and depression, time management, grief and loss, bullying, mood management, and other issues. 

In many countries, the Red Cross (as an NGO committed to humanitarian aid, victim protection and assistance in emergencies) offers a range of free resources on mental health, including brief free online courses to build resilience in mentally challenging times; to provide psychological first aid to others, as well as mindfulness training, stress tests, and the like. Visit the British section’s website or check out your national Red Cross website for offerings in your own language.

The United Nations’ Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) is the highest humanitarian coordinating forum of the UN system. They have published a guide for people providing psychosocial support to others in need in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which we also consider very helpful as a general timeless toolkit for a variety of contexts. It is available in many different languages. 

The websites of the World Health Organization (WHO) offer profound in-depth information on different programmes and studies on mental health prevention, as well as helpful explanatory fact sheets and publications. They also provide links to self-help tools to manage stress, depression and other mental issues, and their illustrated guide Doing what matters in times of stress is available in different languages.

Institutions and initiatives specialised on stress and mental health in the journalism sector

Some helpful resources and support offerings have emerged in recent years, addressing mental health and stress especially for the media and journalism sector. All of them include at least some free materials.  

Headlines Network is an organisation dedicated to improving mental health in the media by facilitating conversations, providing podcasts and training courses for journalists to support their mental health. They work in close cooperation with MIND, a leading mental health charity based in England and Wales. We particularly recommend their free compact guide on burnout among journalists

Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma have a lot of resources dedicated both to improving media coverage of trauma, conflict and tragedy and to journalists’ self-care and peer support. They have initiated the Journalist Trauma Support Network with specific offers for therapists as well as journalists.

The Self-Investigation has a wide range of offers for media companies, associations and unions, individual journalists, and academic institutions that aim to foster sustainable, healthy working conditions in the media sector. They arrange consultancy and coaching with experts and offer free as well as paid online courses in English and Spanish on a variety of topics. 

Institutions and resources for organisational health care management

If you are particularly interested in resources related to health and safety at work from an organisational or management perspective, we recommend visiting the following sites:

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), among many other resources, provides a comprehensive e-guide for managing stress and psychosocial risks at work. It is in particular addressing smaller companies and currently available in English and several other European languages.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) offers a wide range of studies and tools related to stress and mental health at work. In addition, some national institutions, such as the German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, also provide helpful resources for assessing mental stress at work, and practical organisational health care management tools for prevention and intervention.

About the authors

Margarida Alpuim is a Portuguese psychologist and journalist. She completed her master's in Community Psychology at the University of Miami, where she focused on issues of collective well-being. As a journalist, Margarida wants to explore more constructive ways to tell stories that consider both the audience and media professionals. Margarida currently works from Lisbon on innovative projects that unite psychology and journalism.

Katja Ehrenberg holds a PhD in psychology and is professor at Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Cologne. For almost 25 years, she has conducted research, taught and published on topics of social, communication, organisational and health psychology. As a freelance systemic consultant, she advises teams and individuals and enjoys applying social science findings to the various challenges of everyday human (work)life.


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