Are you ‘pandemic fine’? How to ask for help in your newsroom (and your life)

Sarah Smith is a reporter at the Houston Chronicle

As Houston Chronicle reporter Sarah Smith pointed out on Twitter, there is a new state of being — “pandemic fine” — that is both relatable and exhausting:

Her remedy: asking for help. We reached out to Smith by email to hear her advice for journalists on what, when and whom to ask. 

How do you decide whom to ask for help, since many are struggling in one way or another during the pandemic?

Smith: I think this could be answered a few ways, but first, I want to say that I cannot recommend therapy enough, especially right now. You may not click with the first therapist you try, and that’s fine. There are others out there. I also will add that asking for help terrifies me every single time I do it, but in the end I’m always glad I did. 

Who to ask depends on what you need. A boss isn’t going to be able to give you the kind of help a therapist can, but your therapist can’t change your work duties. If I’m having a work issue, sometimes I’ll talk through what exactly I need in therapy and how to ask for it. Then I can go to an editor with a specific ask rather than saying “I’m overwhelmed” and expecting them to figure out how to make it better.

If I’m emotionally overwhelmed or just need to talk or vent, I go to my parents, boyfriend or my closest friends. They’re all struggling in their own ways — like everyone else — but the relationship of helping each other and listening to each other is reciprocal. And other people can and should set their own boundaries. If you’re the one being asked for help and you feel like it’s just too much for you to deal with at this time, you’re not a bad person for saying that. Boundaries are good. 

What are you asking for from your newsroom bosses right now?

Smith: My editor is awesome (not sucking up, I promise, she really is) and has been encouraging our team to take care of ourselves and not put so much pressure on ourselves. So I’m lucky. But a few examples of what I’ve asked for:

Back in March, I got really overwhelmed with the influx of news. I took my work email off my phone, disabled all news apps and took Twitter off, and I told my boss that I would not be available by work email after work hours and to call me if something blew up. 

Sometime in the spring, I had awful insomnia for about a week and could barely function by that Thursday, so I asked for the day off. I think I told my boss why, but there’s no need to disclose. You can just say you don’t feel well and use a sick day for something like that.

I’ve asked to take time off and unplug probably once a quarter since this all started (sometimes for a week, sometimes for just a long weekend). Again, there’s no explanation necessary: We all have vacation days we’re entitled to use, and it’s a good way to recalibrate. 

When I’m quarantining for some reason (my boyfriend’s parents just moved and he wanted to be able to see them for their last weeks here), I tell my editors I need to only work from home and not expose myself.

How do you know what to ask for? 

Smith: Usually if I’m feeling off or overwhelmed I’ll talk about it with my therapist to help figure out what in my life needs to give or what I could try to change. I’m the kind of person who needs a gut-check on asking for help, so even if I’m pretty sure about what I need I’ll run it by someone (usually I call my dad for work-related gut checks). When I feel like I need an answer from someone versed in journalism, I’ve got a few mentors with whom I feel comfortable being vulnerable.  

What happens if you ask but don’t get what you need?

Smith: Honestly, it’s so unique to everyone’s situation. A few overall thoughts:

You can try a compromise to tide you over. You could also push back and explain why you really need whatever it is you’re asking for and outline a plan to make it work. Find other people in the newsroom to talk to and strategize with about how to get what you need (i.e., maybe your direct editor isn’t being responsive but a colleague who has been in your newsroom longer knows that your managing editor will probably back you). 

If you’re working somewhere that just keeps ignoring a reasonable ask, maybe take a step back and think about whether you’re in the right place for your mental health. Don’t do anything fast. Talk it through with loved ones, mentors, a therapist, whomever. You’re not trapped in this one job forever. A friend I admire tremendously quit her full-time newsroom job a few years back and moved to freelancing and writing a newsletter and says it’s done wonders for her. And again, it’s different for everyone: I know people who are privileged enough to leave a job that’s not healthy without anything in hand, and I know people who are not and would have to sort through thinking about a new job while working the current one.

But give yourself the space to be upset, angry, hurt — whatever it is. It’s awful to be told “no” to an ask you know you need.


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