Leading by Example: How investing in mental health benefits journalists and journalism

This was my address to the Society of Editors’ ‘Future of News’ conference on March 15, 2023.

Society of Editors conference 2023

Thank you, Dawn for inviting me to speak today.

It is encouraging that mental health is on the agenda today – proof it is now seen as pivotal in securing the future of news.

Over the next 15 minutes, I’d like to share with you why I believe we have an opportunity to lead by example, how we can invest in caring for our journalists and our journalism – and why not doing so will come at a cost to both. Since I only have 15 minutes – perhaps we can invest a little more in future year, I won’t have time for questions, but please get hold of me with any questions.

But first, since the title of this talk refers to ‘leading by example’, I’m going to explain what brings me here.

I’ve been a journalist for more than 20 years, in regional, national and international news. I’ve worked as a staff journalist and freelancer, on the desk and in the field, in teams and alone. I have covered sport and science, entertainment and economics, politics and popular culture, crime and conflict. I have also witnessed and reported on enough disaster, death, abuse, and injustice to last a life time.

Since 2010, I’ve specialised in journalism safety, serving for several years as the director of the International News Safety Institute. For those unfamiliar with it, INSI is a network for some of the world’s biggest news organisations, whose members share information to keep journalists safe wherever they work.

Two years ago, I launched Headlines Network, which I run with my colleague John Crowley. Our aim is to build connections, normalise conversations and provide practical tips for our industry, so we can support ourselves and those around us. We do this through training, tips and a podcast, where journalists tell us about the stories that have impacted them.

I made it my mission to promote mental health in journalism, after a period when I so felt alone, unsupported, and ashamed that there were times I did not know how to go on. I know others suffer in silence, feel isolated, anxious, guilty, exhausted, broken by the news we are supposed to break.

I chose my path because I believe if journalists are hurting, we can’t do justice to the contract with our audiences and our industry cannot really thrive.

My personal experiences

But before talking about how we can go from surviving to thriving, let me take you back to 2019. Just before the world changed completely and the Covid pandemic began, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder,  as a result of multiple interwoven experiences, connected with my journalism. These included covering the earthquake in Haiti after previously working there as a freelancer, vicarious trauma from my job at INSI, and on news desks previously. My PTSD also stemmed from several sexual assaults, including a rape by someone I trusted as source –a man I have chosen not to name – and an abusive relationship with someone I met through my journalism.   

When I finally received my diagnosis, more than a decade had passed since the first of those traumas and it had been several years since my initial symptoms.

In the period between getting ill and getting a name for my pain, I convinced myself I was coping. After all I was running one of the world’s leading media safety organisations, where colleagues were dealing with far greater dangers than I. Like many in our industry, I had been conditioned to believe we did not admit vulnerability, and we had no right to complain or feel guilt when we chose to be here while others did not.

I know now that comparison is unhealthy, guilt common, and the fear of admitting vulnerability prevents people seeking help.  

I was in turmoil, consuming too much alcohol, exercising excessively, even though I was exhausted. I struggled to sleep. When I did, I had nightmares. I had stomach problems, headaches, chronic back pain, and various other physical symptoms.

I catastrophised things – convincing myself something awful would happen to those I loved. I would go to great lengths to avoid things that reminded me of my traumas, and became extremely averse to sudden loud noises.

To the outside world, I seemed to be holding it all together, even if I was so badly triggered on occasions by reminders of past trauma, I had to change outfits between meetings because I’d sweated through my clothes.

I was unable to share how awful it had got with my colleagues, didn’t even tell my family that I had considered suicide because it seemed to be the only escape from my past.

But there came a day when I hit the bottom so badly that there were only two options. To end it, or to piece myself back together. I found help, encouraged by a couple of very close journalism friends. They saw I was suffering and walked alongside me when I could scarcely take a step.

Slowly, I discovered ways of resting, recovering, rebuilding: these included a job change, a house move, writing a collection of short stories, focussed running, and regular meetings with a therapist – through which I managed to relive my experiences safely and realise I was not to blame for the bad things that had happened.

I wanted to share my experiences, knowing it would help me, hoping it would help others, although I was still scared. With the help of the Poynter Institute in the States, I wrote a piece called ‘How PTSD gave me the strength to share my story’. I was overwhelmed by the reaction to it, proving that an admission of vulnerability is not failure, but strength, and, though we are often discouraged from becoming the story, we each have our own.

I survived and am now thriving, though I think it’s important to recognise recovery isn’t always linear and like many people I have bad days.

I knew I could only speak my perspective, but I could also listen, hold space for and have empathy with others, while withholding judgement – skills I learned as a journalist – more of that shortly.

This was the genesis of Headlines Network, and it also informs my consultancy. I am often hired by managers as a neutral expert to facilitate conversations with staff. In the past two and a half years, I’ve worked with hundreds of journalists, hearing their concerns, coping mechanisms, the support they receive at work and what they’d like to see from their leaders and newsrooms.

It’s an amazing privilege to offer people a chance to speak, though I assure them they should never feel forced to do so, and it’s gratifying to witness folks realising they are not alone in their experiences. After the meetings, I offer feedback to bosses on the themes I heard, which are often corroborated by conversations I have elsewhere in industry.

I always maintain the confidentiality of those who have entrusted me with their experiences and expectations. However, for leaders, this is often a lightbulb moment when they realise the value of these conversations and acting on them. In newsrooms where informal or formal peer networks have not previously existed this often allows these to form.

I’d like to spend a few minutes, offering some other practical suggestions as to how you might invest in supporting your colleagues.

Let me reassure you: I know the reality of the news business. I’ve been in it for more than two decades. I know times are tough and finding extra budget for anything is almost impossible. But this is not really about spending extra, but saving it. This is about recognising how the resources we have can help our wellbeing and that of our industry.

But first, some figures, because I know data can help decisions. Poor mental health costs UK employers £56 billion a year, according to a survey by Deloitte published last year. Their ‘mental health in the workplace’ report found that 28 percent of respondents had left their jobs or were planning to leave, with 61 percent of them citing poor mental health as the reason. There is no breakdown for our industry, but Deloitte also found that for every pound invested in staff wellbeing, employers see a return of £5.30.

Journalists are resilient, but the news is relentless

We know from research that journalists are resilient. But this does not mean they are immune. We’ve had a tough few years of a relentless news cycle, with little let up from difficult news. Throughout the pandemic, we have been disconnected from our colleagues, but hyper-connected digitally.  Boundaries have blurred between our personal and professional lives. It’s hard to switch off.

Our coping mechanisms are frayed. The cumulative nature of difficult stories is wearing, our resilience impacted by economic and other uncertainties at work and home. We’re seeing a fraying in the trust contract between us and our audiences, a rise in attacks against journalists, physically and online, a licensing of such violence by elected politicians. There are issues of injustice so systemic – climate change, racial inequity, gender violence – that some individuals and groups within our industry carry an extra burden.

People are burning out, and leaving our industry

Everybody’s emotional load varies, but many colleagues tell me they are exhausted. Burn-out is classed by the World Health Organisation as an occupational hazard, and it’s forcing people to leave our industry. It’s particularly impacting those who feel marginalised by our newsrooms, because of their identity or history, as well as freelancers who traditionally have less support. We are at risk of becoming unfettered from the communities we serve, because people feel unheard, underrepresented and under-supported in our newsrooms. The diversity and talent of our newsrooms will be damaged if we do not foster inclusive cultures where people feel comfortable speaking openly, when they choose.

We need to normalise conversations

We have to normalise conversations around mental health. Even the term is regarded by some as a barrier to bringing people together. But we all have mental health, just as we all have physical health. And we all experience it differently, with mental health covering a breadth of experiences.

We need to create cultures where everyone feels safe sharing theirs. Sadly, one of the most common concerns I hear from colleagues – anywhere – is they are still scared that admitting they are distressed will prevent them from getting the next promotion, or story. And yet, it can be transformational for all of us when people feel safe sharing their stories.

Leading by example

Normalising conversations cannot happen without us: the leaders. Leaders need to lead from the top, understand the needs of those we work with, and act on what we hear. There’s no single solution to this, but there are a few things I’ve known work. These include regular town halls, where managers hear from their staff about how they’re doing and share what resources are available to them. I know of another colleague who opens a Google hang-out at the same time every week for people to join, if they want a chat, another who works remotely, but invites their direct reports to go for a walk and a talk together outside. Some newsrooms have surveyed staff, collecting anonymous data to help them shift their practices around wellbeing, work which can also help with diversity, inclusion, recruitment, and retention initiatives. There are instances where leaders have openly shared their mental health struggles, showing empathy and vulnerability which reminds others they are humans too, and have softened even the most hardened of people in their newsrooms. I’ve taught a writing for wellbeing workshop for one news organisation, which also runs sleep clinics for its staff. Others bring in experts to talk about the toll of racial and gender inequity, or the pressures of balancing care-giving with careers. As role models, we should recognise what we don’t know – whose perspectives we can’t share and make space for others to speak too.  Before I move on, let me also mention that little gestures also matter. I’ve heard of managers buy cake for colleagues or pizza after a taxing run of stories. These are things people remember.

Regular communication

Whatever you do, this is about communicating regularly, showing people you care, reminding them what support they can access, and responding based on people’s changing needs, while also managing expectations. This is about having conversations frequently, with individuals, different communities, your whole newsroom, and the wider industry. It’s about not being scared to iterate. Any work around mental health needs to be regularly reviewed.

This is about validating people’s experiences, thanking them for what they do, recognising the toll that their work has taken, and offering them space or support to recover, rest and rebuild, while ensuring they recognise the coping strategies they have, and how these can be complemented by newsroom support.

Talking before, during and after

It’s especially important to talk when people aren’t at crisis point, managing expectations, showing you care, talking about coping mechanisms and support structures before, during and after things become tough. It’s about having the same conversations and processes for mental health that we have about other things in the newsroom, becoming less siloed and more integrated – from the planning stage to the debrief. If things happen holistically, then it’s not so hard when things get really challenging.

How do managers have conversations?

But it can be tricky for managers too, right? You’re not clinicians. A lot of people worry about making things worse. Rarely do we have the opportunity to practice anything, let alone conversations with our colleagues. At Headlines Network, we’ve run interactive workshops for managers where participants get to practise realistic scenarios. It might sound cringey, but it helps people feel much more at ease, recognise the skills they have, while connecting with peers to share their experiences. It also helps individuals understand their responsibilities and the boundaries of their roles, as well as when and how to signpost people to additional support.

Talking the talk, and walking the walk

As well as talking the talk, we must walk the walk. I meet many managers are on the edge of burn-out, caught in a stress sandwich between those they report to and those they manage. Nobody wants a pity party, but too often managers forget to put on the proverbial oxygen mask first, to remember that the first two letters of mental health spell the word ‘me’. They have nobody checking in on them, and they’re hanging by a thread. Leaders need to look after themselves too, because people look up to leaders and because if we have trouble at the top, it will trickle down. It’s not just about when we send emails, or how late we’re working. We need to have clear boundaries, and manage our own mental health too. By doing this, we are setting an example to others.

We’re not cogs in a machine, but humans

This leads me to my final point. It’s something I hear frequently. People want to be seen as human beings. Too often they feel like cogs in a machine, churning out content. AI aside – without journalists there can be no real journalism. We heard earlier from Nick Newman (from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism) about the importance of loyalty, connection, and relationships that underpins the Trust in News report

At the heart of our work lies connection and community. We connect with those whose stories we share, share them with our communities. Good journalism relies on us creating spaces where we can hear people’s stories, listen actively, show empathy, where we can be quiet for long enough that people entrust us with their experiences.

If these skills make for good journalism, surely we can use them to bolster our journalists. If empathy helps us connect with the people whose stories we tell, surely it can help us connect with each other.

We are not saying, I know how you feel, we are saying we will walk alongside you and listen. I hope we can all find ways of walking alongside others, investing time in our journalists – as we do in our journalism.

Speaking with Nic Newman again this lunch time, we agreed the best journalism will distinguish itself by its humanity. I believe that the best newsrooms will distinguish themselves by their humanity to their journalists.

There is no need for competition in this space. I’m pretty sure that sharing is caring here and that together we can build a coalition that bolsters wellbeing for journalists and journalism. I invite you to join me.

Thank you.

[1] Poor mental health costs UK employers up to £56 billion a year | Deloitte UK

Published by Hannah Storm

I am a journalist, author and speaker. With more than two decades media experience, I am an expert communicator and media consultant with an extensive network, and someone who is committed to supporting news rooms and media leaders to create safe, successful spaces for a more effective and empathetic industry. I have co-authored various ground-breaking reports into the safety of women journalists, the kidnapping of journalists and moral injury and the media, as well as being involved in the development and delivery of curricula and courses on issues including gender-sensitive reporting and countering sexual harassment . My key areas of expertise include journalism safety, mental health, gender and ethics and I have written and spoken extensively on these subjects. I am widely respected for her skills in moderating and facilitating conversations on a range of subjects, have been published by some of world's leading media outlets and am comfortable speaking in front of large audiences. I am also an award-winning author of flash fiction, which has been published widely, and my debut collection is being launched in 2021. I have recently finished my first novel and am now working on a memoir, provisionally entitled 'Aftershocks.'

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