Journo finds his own path to self-care despite burnout

Ever pick up a piece of fruit you thought was perfectly fine, take a huge bite and then just get sick to your stomach because it was wormy/brown/rotten deep down inside?

By Mark Woolsey, Freelance writer, SPJ Georgia member

That’s a pretty apt metaphor for my case of professional burnout. It started in less obvious areas (like the inside of the apple) quite a while before it manifested on the surface. All I know is that one day, I woke up to a full blown case of professional and personal paralysis. My give-a-damn was busted and I had no idea who to call for repairs.

Here’s my Reader’s Digest summary. From the time I was a kid I loved to write and adored the idea of working in radio. I put it all together through a largely-successful 40-year career as a radio news anchor/reporter, freelance writer and broadcast meteorologist. I felt blessed to still be enjoying coming to work every day.

The journey to burnout

 The shift toward burnout began a couple of years ago, first manifesting itself as a sense of being jangled or on information overload. At first, I chalked it up to needing a vacation or maybe a better night’s sleep.

Three daily physical newspaper subscriptions (yeah, I’m old school and having them flung into the driveway every day forced me to read them) turned digital, then the physical newspaper disappeared entirely. I could still get what I really needed for free, anyway.

For many veteran journalists, we remember receiving our physical newspapers delivered to our doors. In 2019, it’s about access to news through digital devices. Flickr photo

My penchant for watching the Sunday news shows gave way to Netflix. I blew up a nice contract gig covering suburban news for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (Planning and zoning debates? Oh nooooooooooooooooooooo.). Frankly, I was sometimes turning in stuff that barely made the cut.

Covering politics and government became more and more repugnant. So poisonous. So much spinning and lying from politicians. Starved animals, murdered children, deadly storms; the kind of stories that I could once emotionally distance myself from started to feel like a punch in the gut. The very mechanics of writing and delivering a newscast plus chasing stories started to feel like pushing the rock up the hill every day, watching it tumble back, then rinsing and repeating.

Being called “an enemy of the people” and an architect of fake news didn’t help. And my younger daughter telling me that the news media was chock-full of bias was a real day-brightener. Not.

By mid-2018, I’d had it. I seriously considered giving two weeks’ notice and finding an utterly-unrelated income source. Problem is, I’d put all my eggs into the media basket. Working a cash register? Guess I could do it if I had to. Breaking Bad? Tempting on one level, but no.

TV character Walter White on AMC Network’s Breaking Bad takes his need for financial stability a bit too far as he enters the world of crime and drugs. Flickr photo

Tired of lying on the couch, drumming my fingers and counting down the minutes until I had to get ready for work, I managed the emotional energy to talk at some length with a spiritual leader at my church, my therapist and a longtime friend. I’d already been bending my very patient spouse’s ear.

Here’s what emerged from that talk-a-thon.

  • (A) that it was perfectly understandable to feel this way  
  • (B) that if I wanted to close the door on journalism, I’d better put a Plan B in place instead of making a precipitous jump
  • (C) that if I wanted to stay in this line of work, I should develop and execute a full-scale battle plan against burnout

I chose C. And here’s how it’s played out.

Selecting Plan C

I had been a somewhat casual student of meditation, setting aside a few minutes here and there three or four times a week. I turned it into daily practice and for longer intervals. Before becoming still, I’d set an intention for the coming day.  It could be anything from “I will gather three stories today at work” to “I will treat each and every person I meet with kindness and respect.” Getting that focus in mind helped shape the day.

Later in my daily cycle, I’d made sure I read something uplifting. There’s no shortage of spiritual and self-help literature designed to get one off dead center and heading toward a more fulfilling life. I found a couple of books with a how-to, step-by-step guide for change and made sure I worked the program.

Then I began putting the time spent commuting back and forth to work to good use. I’d repeat affirmations such as “I am enough” and “I like and respect my co-workers and the feeling is mutual.” I’d do quick visioning at stoplights, focusing on both how I wanted to handle that day and things I wanted to tackle in the future.

I took up a new hobby. I now play the guitar-very badly. I hope I’ll get better over time but if I don’t, then at least I’ve found something fresh to occupy my mind and fingers.

Hitting the gym three or four times a week was another component. I wanted to feel that uplifting endorphin rush from cardio and weights, even if I still looked like a body-double for Mr. Potato Head.

I also looked for ways to vary the daily routine. Take a different way to or from work. Stop at Dunkin Donuts instead of Starbucks. Set aside five minutes at work to make a quick call to a friend. Better yet, take those minutes and email that fiend a sincere message of love and appreciation. Find a partner and message them every day about something in life you’re grateful about. I promise you, it’s great therapy-and it doesn’t cost $125 an hour, either.

Bear in mind I’m not trying to outline “Mark’s Magic Method for Curing Stress and Burnout,” just imparting a few ideas. The important thing is to try SOMETHING. I spent way too long wallowing in the land of woe-is-me.

And all this is helping. I know I’ll never feel again feel the same rush that cracking the mike and delivering a well-written and reported newscast once gave me, but I also don’t think I’ll fall into “what’s the point?” thinking again either.

Oh, and I will be at the SPJ Region 3 workshop, “Trauma & Stress: while working in journalism” Conference next month in Savannah because I want to acquire a few more tools for my toolbox. I’d be more than glad to trade ideas on all this with my fellow journos. Just look for the guy with wisps of smoke rising from his head.

Mark Woolsey says he entered journalism because his dad was in the business. He graduating from Southern Illinois University in 1976. Woolsey is veteran of radio operations in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, but later decided to study broadcast meteorology through Mississippi State University after covering tornadoes and severe storms in that region. That led to a move to Atlanta and a position with The Weather Channel’s radio department. After a 2012 layoff, he returned to radio news and his “side hustle” of freelance journalism and creative writing. Currently he works in the news department at iHeart Atlanta/NBC Radio, anchoring and gathering stories for the Georgia News Network.