When Does Burnout End?

A seated woman lays her head and hands on a tabletop, in front of an open laptop and several notebooks.
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While I was writing this story, I felt lethargic, like my brain was full of lead balls. The simple act of cleaning up an already-transcribed interview made me want to sob. Elsewhere in my life, things were going really well — I was exercising, cooking and spending time with friends. But when I sat down at my computer, a sense of anger and helplessness came over me. I realized how deeply ironic it was to be in the throes of burnout while reporting on how journalists experience burnout. 

According to Kate Hanselman, a board-certified psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner at Thriveworks Counseling, burnout is when a patient is “not feeling motivated, but crucially, their sense of fulfillment or satisfaction or purpose at work — their sense of control — is significantly diminished to the extent that there’s almost a learned helplessness.” She said that while burnout is not an official diagnosis, once it begins to affect someone in more than one area of their life, it may reach the diagnostic criteria for depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress syndrome. 

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I’m not unfamiliar with the concept of burnout, and neither are most of my journalism colleagues. In 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the George Floyd uprising, the 2020 presidential election and the related economic chaos, journalists began speaking up about the intense burnout they were experiencing, mostly driven by constant exposure to these emotionally fraught issues. That year, 38% of journalists reported exhaustion and burnout, and 70% cited the mental health impacts as the most difficult part of the pandemic, according to a survey by the International Center for Journalists. Now that we’ve entered a post-vaccine era where the president no longer generates news cycles with every tweet, it would seem that journalistic burnout would recede, and the chaos would be replaced by calm — or at least acceptance.

But that may not be the case. Especially for journalists from communities that have been deeply impacted by the stresses and trauma of the past three years.

Why some marginalized journalists are feeling more burned out than ever 

Journalist Cheyenne M. Davis said that while they were burned out in 2020, they “feel more exhausted than I did before.”

“At least in 2020, I was getting unemployment benefits and I was able to do things to feed my spirit — like redecorate and learn new hobbies,” said Davis, a content creator and adjunct professor in media studies at New York University. “However, now that people are trying to rush back into some sense of normalcy, I feel like people have forgotten and we haven’t really stopped to really assess what we’ve been through.”

Hanselman says this feeling isn’t uncommon among journalists. It’s their job to translate information in a way that can “create incredible differences in our world through awareness and advocacy,” she said. 

But within their beat, journalists can sometimes see that the problems they are reporting on are only getting worse. “It’s a very parallel experience to people working in health care,” she said. “’I’m working double time, but I’m not seeing that things are getting better because of the system.’” 

In 2020, I also felt burned out by constantly reporting on mental health, politics, systemic racism and all kinds of inequities and calamities. So I made the conscious shift to doing more lifestyle and travel writing, thinking it would help with my burnout. It did, but not by much. No matter what I was reporting on, the nature of freelance writing — particularly the unreliable way that some publications pay us — meant my feelings of burnout continued. And the difficult path to financial independence contributed to that feeling of learned helplessness that Hanselman referenced. In many ways, having such unreliable payment schedules made me feel like a college kid all over again, dependent on my family for money. 

“I’m burned out, constantly living paycheck to paycheck, trying to pay my bills and my rent,” Davis said, adding that they had to take the extra job at NYU to afford the cost of living in the New York area. After seeing some publications raise pay rates during the George Floyd demonstrations for many Black peers, Davis became even more disillusioned. 

“I’m more burned out because they can’t pull the wool over my eyes anymore to make it seem like they don’t have the money to pay when they do,” Davis said, noting that pay rates have dropped again. “They choose to pay you more during certain times because they want to bring in more viewers … to educate their white audiences on how to be better to Black people.” 

Davis said the pay disparities, combined with the lack of support they received from some outlets when they wrote candidly about their identity as a fat Black femme, left them feeling “completely ripped to shreds and discarded.” 

The intertwining of burnout and post-traumatic stress 

Reporting on trauma and systemic issues is not easy. And the pandemic made an already stressful problem worse. 

When Salvadoran American independent journalist Daniel Alvarenga got ill with what he assumed was Covid in February 2020, he was “expected to work through it.” His video work was often about rising antisemitism, school shootings and police violence. The situation at the border was especially hard on him — “children in cages, and the hateful rhetoric from the Trump administration, with people opening their eyes to the cruelty of the immigration system.” 

Alvarenga says the lack of mental health support from his company was a great contributor to his feelings of isolation and distress as he reported on traumatic events, poring over hours and hours of video, “burning his retinas out.” 

When he decided to leave his job in 2020, looking for other work became difficult because he felt he was constantly explaining to hiring managers why his community mattered. “I hated that on top of the world crumbling in 2020, I was always being questioned like, ‘Do we have an audience for this? Do people really care what happens to these people?’” he said. “In the ways that I was neglected by my job, it also felt my stories didn’t matter and my well-being didn’t matter as an extension of that.”  

Such repeated exposure to trauma, Hanselman points out, may not actually classify as burnout. “People think you have to be right there, experiencing the trauma yourself. But it’s really important to keep in mind that with this kind of exposure to traumatic events, especially repeated exposure, we can start to develop symptoms that can be better described as a diagnosis within the PTSD family,” she said.

Still, she says, burnout is layered and complex, often starting off as work dissatisfaction and morphing into a beast that can take years to tame. 

Now, Alvarenga says his feelings of burnout are better — but it took leaving journalism. He’s working at a 9-to-5 nonprofit, but he said, “I still don’t think I’ve recovered from the 2020 reporting.” 

Dissatisfaction is a key part of burnout 

Journalists from marginalized backgrounds say their work is often treated in extremes — either their identity-related beats are not taken seriously as in Alvarenga’s case, or they are relegated to covering issues of race, gender and sexuality. Davis said the limitations are exhausting.

“People tend to pigeon-hole Black journalists, especially if they feel like you’ve done a certain type of work around identity and they only want you to write those pieces,” Davis said. “Just because someone is known for something doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to do that their whole lives.” 

Much like I pivoted to covering “lighter” issues, Davis wants to explore more writing around pop culture, nerd culture and anime. But they end up doing the most work around “sex, body positivity, queerness, gender expansiveness, kink, and things like that. A lot of identity-based pieces,” Davis said. 

A huge part of burnout, Hanselman says, is this intense feeling of dissatisfaction. “Our brains are constantly asking, ‘Am I where I’m supposed to be? Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing? Is this going to get me where I want to be? Am I safe here? Am I comfortable here?’ And if the answer is consistently coming back as ‘no,’ the self-care coping skills like a walk after work, a nice warm bath or talking to friends, that were helpful with that exposure to this low level challenge or discomfort start to be less helpful because the situation is not changing,” she said. 

Fulfillment and purpose come from seeing the work we do make great change, she said, “but a lot of that also comes from looking to our left and right and knowing that the team that we’re on is with us and supportive. And if we don’t have that, we can burn out very quickly.” 

Even though we’re no longer living in the particular chaos of 2020, the news cycle — and therefore the entire journalism industry — is still dependent on fast turnaround, shocking headlines and outrage clicks. Journalists may look to their supervisors for support, but even managers with the best intentions are often burned out, too, feeling pressure from their managers to produce and return to normal. This creates a cycle where there are never enough resources, understanding or time to recover and reset. The content might not seem as heavy as it did three years ago, but the work structure and job expectations haven’t shifted much.  

“There’s only so much that our brains and bodies can do in a given day, week, month, year,” said Hanselman “We’re humans first. It’s important to be mindful of exactly where one’s threshold is and what one’s needs are. Burnout can translate into more serious issues if we don’t stay mindful about it.”

While it’s important to address burnout at the offset, even once it devolves into a clinical condition, there are still ways of treating it. Davis says they are now on anti-depressants, which has been helping. Alvarenga has continued setting firmer boundaries between his work and personal life. “I’m in a better place partially because I’ve set journalism aside. I’ve established a boundary because of the pandemic,” he said. “But I still have a lot of anger at the way the industry treats people and particularly marginalized people.”

I, meanwhile, haven’t yet figured out how to address my burnout. But I have started to examine the root causes. It’s painful to go back in your work history and realize how deeply issues like racism, sexism and financial uncertainty marred your idea of your “dream job.” But this kind of examination is the only way forward, I think, to feeling empowered. 

Hanselman said the important thing to remember is that you’re not powerless, even though it may feel that way. Advocate for yourself. Ask your community for support. Explore different paths to fulfillment. 

“I often tell my clients I can’t medicate a crappy job,” Hanselman said. “If the work environment or the work that you do is the cause of your distress, then that’s a variable that we can influence.”