How journalists SHOULD handle stress – new study

By Paul Charman

All the traditional crutches that hacks use to deal with stress – endless coffees, snatched meals, a quick snifter before deadline, coupled with little or no exercise outside the quick sprint to the pub – mean that they are more prone to bad temper, bias and an inability “to solve complex problems”, according to a new study carried out in conjunction with the London Press Club.

The upside is that their unshakable belief in the value in what they are doing means journalists have more “bounce back”. “The pressures of the job are not affecting journalists’ ability to endure and bounce back from adversity in the long term, due to the belief that their work has meaning and purpose,” says neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart, who blood-tested, brain-profiled and heart-rated 90 journalists from print, broadcast and online over a three-month period.

The findings of her ‘study into the mental resilience of journalists’ were revealed at a packed London Press Club event, hosted by the Corinthia Hotel on Wednesday evening (May 17), chaired by journalist and broadcaster Anne McElvoy of The Economist and the London Evening Standard.

Journalists, ranked in a stress-league along with traders, athletes and soldiers, were found to drink more – with nearly half downing 18 or more units a week against to the recommended limit of 14, some with 20 units in one go – were permanently dehydrated, slept poorly and failed to take a break for ‘mindfulness’ – at least 12 minutes’ soulful meditation a day was recommended.

But while low pay, constant deadlines and high levels of accountability meant more stress, the study found that journalists were more able to cope than bankers, traders, telecoms and sales executives because of “the noble goals of their job meant they were more likely to be resilient and productive,” said Dr Swart.

“Many journalists said they loved their job, in fact they described it as their ‘me’ time”, she said, adding that they said other concerns over money, children or ageing parents worried them more.

The high consumption of booze and caffeine also resulted in poorer averages for a good night’s sleep – half of the under-35s and only 10 percent of older hacks had proper ‘sleep recovery’. And on bias, a study in the US showed that parole judges tended to be far more lenient after regular meal breaks, she said.

One of the ‘guinea pigs’ who took part in the study, The Times Science Editor, Tom Whipple, shared some his coping mechanisms for dealing with stress. He recalled the advice of the chief sub during ‘a meltdown moment’ on deadline shortly after he joined the paper in 2006. “She walked over and said calmly ‘it’s always like this at 6pm, just as at 8pm there’s always a paper without any white holes in it.” Scheduling tasks also helped, said Tom, adding that his heart monitor raced more when he got home “to put the children to bed”.
He was also a pioneer at The Times, one of the first to acquire ‘a standing desk’.

But if journalists’ so-called ‘executive function’ – was so impaired, “how do the bloody papers come out… many seem to thrive on stress,” queried Anne McElvoy, adding that an extra stress factor on today’s journalists might well be whether “the job you had would still be there!”

Dr Swart said that while concerns over job security were higher among the over-35s in the group, it was shared less by the young because “it’s also been like that for them”.

Her overall aim in the study was to help journalists with better strategies for stress management, such as improved sleeping habits, better eating and more exercise. Other hints included: focussing on past successes, “if I do lose my job, there are others things I can do”, and having ‘second thoughts’ – asking “why do I want that?” – before giving in to ‘destructive habits’

Closing the evening on behalf of the London Press Club, Chair Doug Wills, whose day job is managing editor of the Evening Standard, thanked everyone, especially the hosts at The Corinthia for their earlier champagne reception, adding on a personal note: “While I welcome the results of this very helpful and interesting study, I do think it’s a question of terms – what some might call stress, I feel is excitement!”.

Richard Dymond

Honorary Treasurer and Director of the London Press Club and the London Press Club Ball.

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