Taking time off to recover from trauma or burnout

by Cristiana BedeiJan 8, 2021 in Specialized Topics
Woman sits alone looking out a large window

In 2019, Los Angeles Times journalist Sonali Kohli announced on Twitter that she was taking three weeks off to recover after covering several traumatic events, including mass shootings and deadly fires. Her words resonated with many in the industry. Kohli said she needed to give her body and mind a rest, and was sharing her experience to help those in the same situation.

Journalists are often resilient and passionate, but the impact of what we cover, paired with a competitive and financially troubled industry, can affect our wellbeing, with repercussions on our concentration, sense of mission and ability to empathize.

Whether it’s investigative journalists immersing themselves in distressing material, breaking news reporters covering horrific events — perhaps within their own community — editors verifying or editing traumatic stories day after day, freelancers playing catch-up between assignments or commentators dealing with online harassment, mental health challenges are everywhere. However, conversations about trauma or burnout are still often a taboo.

“Ideally, you want to get to the point where you're not forced to take time off,” says Bruce Shapiro, Executive Director of the Dart Center for journalism and trauma. “What you want to do is take care of yourself along the way, so that a crisis is less likely to occur.”

The Dart Center offers tips to incorporate into daily practice, including pacing the load of traumatic imagery and stories, avoiding social isolation, and attending to sleep, nutrition and exercise. 

[Read more: Managing stress and digital overload as a journalist]


Burnout expert Christina Maslach agrees that there is no simple fix. “I don’t disagree with having some time off to do different things. I mean, we all need that,” says the Berkeley psychology professor. “[But] will it cure the problem of burnout? The answer is no.”

Burnout is a response to chronic stressors in the workplace that cause physical exhaustion, a cynical attitude towards the job and a negative response towards the self, Maslach explains.

“People tend to view it as a disease of an individual: it's your problem, your weakness, your inability kind of thing,” she says. That approach doesn’t address the key stressors that are causing the issues in the first place.

While some news organizations have started to commit to mental health and trauma awareness programs — the Dart Center’s Shapiro names ABC, BBC, Reuters and AP, among others — many still neglect the problem.

Meanwhile, many journalists do not acknowledge a need to dial back, seek help or take a break. To better inform journalists without access programs that offer peer and professional support in their newsrooms, we asked the experts for signs of trauma-related stress or burnout.

Persistent and unintentional disruptions

Some important warning signs of secondary trauma include intrusive memories or images that are a result of covering difficult and sometimes graphic stories or assignments that interfere with your work and your sleep, Dart Center’s Shapiro explains.

After covering a traumatic story, it’s common to experience some short-term issues. “If you have nightmares for a couple of nights, that doesn't mean that you're headed down the path to PTSD,” Shapiro says. “But if these issues go on for more than about a month, that’s when they tend to not get better without some additional steps.”

If you notice that you’re unable to make deadlines, are dealing with work less effectively or have increased substance use, and it’s all happening for more than a few weeks, you shouldn’t ignore it.

[Read more: Tips for coping after reporting distressing and traumatic stories]

Social withdrawal and isolation

“There's a lot of evidence that peer connection and social connection are the most important sources of resilience for journalists, and other kinds of frontline professionals,” Shapiro says. Social isolation is an important predictor of psychological pain, he adds.

Preempt the isolation and learn on the people you trust: a professional, partner, family member, colleague or boss. Your colleagues might have been through the same challenges and would be able to understand you. Even if you’re uncomfortable sharing how you feeling, simply talking about how work is going and the lessons you're learning could help, Shapiro suggests.

Negative response to others and the self

Experiencing burnout means feeling mentally and physically exhausted, and developing a hostile attitude towards the job and ourselves, too. You might question whether you’re good enough, start to blame yourself for things out of your control or feel trapped. “That just really eats away at people’s soul and you lose the passion you [had] and bringing your best to it,” says Maslach, describing the effects of burnout.

It’s not just a personal issue, as it’s often portrayed, it's very much a social and an organizational one. “[Burnout has] negative effects on people's friends and their family. It has negative effects on the people they work with on the job,” says Maslach. “It [also] has negative effects for the economic bottom line, leading to more absenteeism.”

According to Maslach, burnout is a sign that the workplace is not working well for the people who are in there — not the other way around.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Maria Teneva.