LONDON — The life of a journalist, though creatively rewarding and quite often inspiring, can be bogged down by stressful working conditions. Yet a recent study finds that while many journalists battle the pressures of deadlines, unhealthy workloads, public scrutiny, and small salaries, they’re actually not as stressed out as you might think.
Neuroscientist Dr. Tara Swart predicted that journalists would display a variety of characteristics that result from the high stress levels they battle through. She hypothesized that the pressure of deadlines would cause stressful spikes in heart rates and cortisol levels, while heavy amounts of work would lead newsroom employees to sleeping poorly at night.
Forty journalists from newspapers, magazines, and online outlets were selected to participate in the study, though only 21 individuals actually completed every element of the seven-month experiment. Throughout that time period, individuals had their health, behavior, and lifestyle assessed by the research team. Participants gave blood samples, wore a heart-rate variability monitor for three days, kept a food/drink diary, and completed a brain profile questionnaire.
Surprisingly, the data collected indicated that journalists (on average) experienced physical stress no more than the average being. The blood test data, which would have indicated stress, proved to be “mostly normal.”
“The headline conclusion reached is that journalists are undoubtedly subject to a range of pressures at work, and home, but the meaning and purpose they attribute to their work contributes to helping them remain mentally resilient despite this,” explains Swart in the study’s report. “Nevertheless, these are areas for improvement, including drinking more water and reducing alcohol and caffeine consumption to increase executive functioning and improve recovery during sleep.”
Still, the study found that participants tended to drink more alcohol and caffeine than recommended and didn’t hydrate enough, a combination that likely led to poorer sleep quality and executive functioning. Seven in 10 participants drank more than two cups of coffee per day and more than a quarter consumed alcohol at least five days a week.
Swart writes that the lower executive functions scores indicated a “lower than average ability to regulate emotions, suppress biases, solve complex problems, switch between tasks, and think flexibly and creatively,” for participants.
Older journalists tended to be more resilient, with participants under 35 showing the highest stress levels of the groups and poorest recovery scores.
“The conclusion is that older journalists were better able to endure stress and bounce back from pressure, indicating that this can be developed over time,” writes Swart.
A vast majority of participants reported they did at times feel stressed — but they often cited external factors, like family and finances, as the cause.
Dr. Swart released the full report of her study earlier this year in concert with the London Press Club.