Long hours, tight deadlines, rubbish money, the ever-present pressure to achieve – why would anyone want to be a journalist?
I was once asked this by a make-up artist and, for a moment, I was stumped. Don’t get me wrong – I love my work and the great privilege of having a voice, but at times it can feel like a battle.
The fact is, whether you count yourself as ambitious or not, the insecure, competitive, Countdown-nature of our jobs means all of us – from the high-adrenaline news-junkie, to the freelancing scribe – are under a constant pressure to prove ourselves and achieve.
Bill Baker (www.billbakercounselling.co.uk), who provides counselling to stressed-out hacks, says the deadline culture can be corrosive. ‘The nature of the job means you have to deliver and this requires snap judgements. It can be adrenaline-firing but it can also promote anxiety.
Then there’s the way the journalist has to ring around and put themselves out there. You are putting yourself on the line, talking about things you might know nothing about and not being fully in control.”
Baker also feels the deadline culture, laced with competitiveness, can breed workaholic tendencies. ‘Work-life balance can go totally awry. Perfectionism can creep in. People think they have never done enough work on something so we have to know when to let go.’
Small wonder this can add up to what Professor Bill Drummond, who teaches ‘journalism and wellbeing’at Berkeley University in California, calls ‘a damaging environment”.
His experience as a newshound and war correspondent has forged some strong views on the industry: ‘It’s an occupation that sucks you dry. It becomes a quest – it absorbs so much of you. There are people who go into this who are a couple of napkins short of a picnic – they look to journalism as a way of righting a wrong.”
Hopefully, you exist on a more even keel, but if you’re feeling the heat, there are stress-busting strategies you can learn, from visualisations (imagining yourself in a safe, well-loved place) to breathing techniques. Danger signs include insomnia or irritability, or just a feeling you can’t cope.
Baker says it helps to work out what is driving you (‘why you have internalised the pressure”) and this is where the navel-gazing comes in. ‘Maybe our parents taught us that school exams just had to be passed and we were failures if we didn’t,’he says.
In particular, Baker cautions against ‘black and white thinking”. ‘People often see things as either dreadful or ‘we’ve made it’, but a lot of life is around the grey area, with darker or lighter shades in between.’
Instead of painting a situation unremittingly black (my article has been ‘spiked’therefore I am a failure, this ALWAYS happens, I’m going to get fired), we need to get it in perspective. Was the piece really not used because it was bad, or was there a more topical story that took priority? Does this really ALWAYS keep happening? What about previous successes you have had?
Ultimately, he says, it is crucial we learn to say ‘no”: ‘We need the confidence and self-esteem to say to our editors, ‘No, I am not working late, I have plans for this weekend’. But we can only say no when we know our boundaries. That’s knowing who we are and where we stand.”