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You Are Not Alone! Four Lessons on Mental Health and Burnout for Fact-Checkers and Journalists

Training Manager Emma Thomasson shares insights from our first English-language session of the Mental Leadership for Fact-Checkers program.

At The Self-Investigation, we have launched Mental Health Leadership for Fact-Checkers, a pilot training and coaching program supported by the International Fact-Checking Network. With five workshops and four coaching calls over the course of 6 months, we’re supporting 14 fact-checking organizations in two cohorts (one in English and one in Spanish) on crucial topics like creating a culture of psychological safety in the team, the basics of mental health and burnout prevention and the importance of digital boundaries.

This is the first in a series of blog posts exploring this topic, culminating later this year with a guide for fact-checkers on mental health and well-being. Learn more about the program here.

We just kicked off our first training session, led by The Self Investigation co-founder and coach Kim Brice, about mental health and burnout, and here’s what we learned:

1. Managers face many common challenges and questions.

Managers of fact-checkers from different organizations across the globe often feel alone with the problems they encounter when running their teams. But regardless of the country or organizational size, they actually face very similar challenges in supporting their teams’ mental health, from India to Brazil, Nigeria to Hungary.

The top issues participants face include:

  • How to manage different cultures and generations, particularly when working remotely. It is great that younger employees are being more open about mental health challenges, and managers want to support that, but they also need to get the job done. How can you drive your team to perform while respecting work/life balance? And how can you do that when managing a remote team and it is harder to tell how people are really coping?
  • How to deal with an always-on culture? 
  • How to deal with harassment/smear campaigns

We will explore the answers to these issues in future workshops and blogs.

2. Fact-checkers are at high risk for burnout

Signals and behaviors that suggest somebody is at risk of burnout include feeling intensely tired, restless sleep, negativity, irritability, feeling in a rush and experiencing more aches and pains than usual. 

Poor sleep is the most common issue reported by participants in our program. Of course we all feel these symptoms from time to time, but what characterizes burnout is if these problems have been going on for 6 months or more and you feel you have lost control of what you need to do at work and in your private life.

We shouldn’t rush to diagnose burnout and we should remember that stress is an essential part of everyday life. Sometimes it can be helpful to reframe “stress” as excitement, motivation and even joy: after all most of us went into this profession because it is our vocation and we love the sense of purpose and accomplishment it gives us. But that is precisely why it is so important to learn how to set boundaries and look after ourselves. 

That is especially true for fact-checkers. They tick several boxes of risk factors for burnout:

  • High exposure to violence. Looking at disturbing images can trigger vicarious trauma.
  • Emotionally complex stories: Fact checkers are often engaged in the most contentious issues or topics of the day
  • Social media exposure: Continually trawling the darkest side of the Internet can erode your faith in humanity.

3. Managers walk a tightrope: they need to protect their teams and themselves

Managers, particularly those in the middle of the hierarchy, play a key role when it comes to improving the wellbeing of their staff. A 10-country survey shows that managers have just as much of an impact on people’s mental health as their spouse (both 69%) — and even more of an impact than their doctor (51%) or therapist (41%).

This is how two managers in the program define a mentally healthy workplace:  

Sophie Nicholson, Deputy Editor in Chief, Digital Investigation, AFP:A workplace where people feel included and aren’t afraid to say what they think, where they enjoy spending their time, feel motivated, and do not feel uncomfortable with their work or the people around them and know where to seek advice and help if necessary.”

Jency Jacob, Managing Editor, BOOM Live: “A safe place where professionals are able to set boundaries and have a work-life balance. They should also feel free to express their views without fear of discrimination or retribution.”

Good managers have high standards and care about their teams, but that often means that they don’t pay enough attention to their own mental health: this survey shows that 82% regularly finish work feeling mentally and/or physically exhausted and 59% are unable to relax or pause activity. And the fact managers push themselves so hard, means they often demand the same of their teams, creating unforgiving expectations and unhealthy workplace cultures.

4. Small actions can make a big difference for teams and individuals

One of the easiest things managers can do for themselves, and their teams, is to include more breaks in their working day, and put them in the calendar, even micro breaks of a few minutes. “I commit to not do back to back meetings and schedule breaks,” one participant said.

Some other ideas that came up:

  • Managers should encourage and model self-care for their teams and for themselves.
  • We all need to normalize conversations about mental health, if possible making regular check-ins part of team meetings and holding more regular 1-on-1s.
  • Schedule meeting-free time for teams.
  • This wouldn’t be The Self Investigation without self-awareness: be alert to signals that you are over your limit, be that irritability, insomnia or headaches.
You just read the lessons learnt by our English-speaking cohort. If you speak Spanish and want to read some learnings of the Spanish-cohort, click here.
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