Culture   //   June 18, 2020

How news publishers are combating burnout with extra days off and mental health support

It was a shock to the system.

In the weeks after companies moved their operations remote due to the coronavirus and the hard realization set in that this would be much more than a three-week long quarantine and distancing, a flurry of surveys went out to staffers and one-on-one meetings were set up with human resources at news media organizations, all aimed at trying to get a better understanding about how employees were faring mentally under stressful work conditions.

“Our employees are our most important asset, so we always do everything we can to make sure they feel supported and that they can do their best work,” said Axios’ svp of people operations Dominique Taylor. 

The common challenges of working remotely include an abundance of Zoom calls, leading to Zoom fatigue, as well as not knowing when to click out of the Slack window at the end of the day. But on top of the daily work load, there is the constant overhead gloom of the coronavirus threatening the health of individuals as well as the economy. That combined with a new series of protests tied to police brutality and institutionalized racism that are understandably weighing on people’s minds.

Naturally, for news publishers, not only is the tension and turmoil occupying staffer’s thoughts during non-work hours, but they are at forefront of their minds as they report on this challenging time.

In general, according to a survey of 1099 U.S. employees done by the Society for Human Resource Management in May, 41% of U.S. employees said they felt burnt out from work, while another 23% reported feeling depressed as a result of the psychological costs of coronavirus.

Wanting to combat this, Axios, as well as Politico, The Guardian and Bloomberg Media have been rushing to add new benefits and extra perks for their entire workforce. This includes additional PTO, company holidays and training that focuses on mental health. (Shopify has gone a step further: It has instituted no meetings Wednesdays and will give employees Fridays off throughout the summer.)

Taylor said her team realized through a series of surveys and one-on-one meetings that Axios staffers were struggling to set boundaries between work and home life since moving remote. So in March the company started giving employees an extra day of dedicated PTO each month. The staffers can use it whenever they feel like they need a break, she said. 

Then, the company also implemented monetary benefits for workers to have a healthy and productive work environment at home, including transitioning its commuter benefit into a WFH benefit of a $100 monthly stipend. And for those staffers impacted by coronavirus in particular, the company created a $100,000 Family Fund to provide additional financial support.

Politico has taken a similar approach to giving employees time off as a break from the constant news cycle.

The publisher added a full week’s worth of holidays divided up as one additional day off per month from April to August, according to chief talent officer Traci Schweikert. She said that they chose to do paid holidays because the company already has unlimited PTO, but people were not taking it as liberally as they might need to avoid fatigue.

With the office closed, “everyone has the opportunity to disconnect at the same time without missing out,” Schweikert said. And if breaking news prevents the newsroom from shutting down on those days, she said individual employees are able to make up that day when they can. 

Politico is also discouraging holding any meetings on Friday afternoons, Schweikert said.

At The Guardian, its U.S. operations closed for a day during Mental Health Week at the start of May, according to a company spokesperson, but a major focus for the publisher has been providing additional training around physical health and wellness and offloading stress and getting emotional support.

Managers across the company’s U.S. and U.K. divisions are all required to take a mandatory online training led by a therapist, including courses like “Common mental health problems and how to recognize the symptoms in a team member or colleague.”

Bloomberg also implemented a “resiliency” training and coaching program. The company also has an employee program for counseling services and online resources for both part- and full-time employees to use if in need. It also launched a virtual meditation series in March that has sense expanded into a daily work break.

And in light of the recent protests demanding justice and racial equality following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police offer last month, the company launched an internal discussion series with the Bloomberg Media Diversity and Inclusion Committee to help employees share their own experiences and also process recent events together.

Looking forward at the future of work, Poltico’s Schweikert said “necessity is the mother of invention and that is very much the case for talent and the way we work.” And while there were a lot of benefits to the way that her company operated in February, she expects that the actions her team are taking now will stick around well beyond the pandemic for the betterment of employees.