Don't mention the s-word

Short-term contracts, freelance work and job insecurity are imposing new pressures on journalists. But haven't hacks always thrived on stress? Glenda Cooper and Jennifer Rodger report
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The Independent Online
The tributes to the late Vincent Hanna last week spoke admiringly of his boundless energy and prodigious ability for hard work. "One of the most richly and variously gifted journalists of his generation, he simply did too much for too long. Until yesterday, he never stopped," said Andrew Marr, writing in this paper. "Hanna packed more into his 58 years of life than most people would get into 88."

Simply contemplating Hanna's punishing work schedule would have made most people faint. Although a unique character, he was one of a growing number of "portfolio journalists" who presented radio and television programmes, and wrote newspaper columns and books. On top of that, he clung to old Fleet Street habits of enjoying life to the full, eating, drinking and conversing hard.

Journalists are working harder today as a result of changes in the industry, and where journalism leads other professions will follow. Casual work and short-term contracts are now the norm, as staff jobs decrease in number. More and more writers are having to prove themselves versatile enough to earn a living as "portfolio" journalists. While Hanna worked because he wanted to, many freelances just cannot say no to work and end up with overloaded schedules. But Professor Cary Cooper, an organisational psychologist at UMIST, warns that this increasing casualisation of the workforce is a major source of stress in the industry.

"The majority of the industry is now freelance or short-term contract, so the first form of stress is the insecurity," he said. "The second leads on from that: the inability to say `No' - the terror that if you say no they will never ask you again rather than thinking `I'm going on holiday' or `I'm too busy' or `It's eight o'clock on Saturday night.' "

Sarah Katz, of the Health Education Authority, says: "Research does show that sustained intensive work patches do have progressive implications. You can only work 12-hour days for a couple of days before mental fatigue sets in. Extended male working hours have also been linked to family breakdown and the fact that there are 5,000 extra deaths through coronary heart disease a year in the UK can be linked to the stress of working more than a 48-hour week."

Professor Cooper also feels that there are particular aspects of a journalist's work that can make the situation worse. "For a lot of journalists, deadlines are the source of frenetic activity," he says. "There is also the stress of having your work rejected or immediately evaluated. How many people work in the public arena like this? Journalists also jump from story to story, which can be stimulating, but means there is no continuity and can ultimately be less satisfying."

But nobody forces anybody to be a journalist. Ian Jack, editor of Granta and formerly editor of The Independent on Sunday and an award-winning writer on The Sunday Times, thinks that journalists are the sort of people who need the pressure of a deadline to get anything done: "In my case I probably wouldn't get anything done without one. It's a very helpful form of concentration - a bit like death - if you aren't the self-motivating, organised kind of person."

Professor Cooper agrees that journalists enjoy the stress of the job: "They are the kind of people who like living on the knife-edge." Ms Katz agrees that it attracts the kind of people who thrive on stress. "A certain amount of stress can be stimulating," she said.

But one of the best-known portfolio journalists is dismissive of the health warnings attached to the work. "In the Nineties when people talk about stress, it makes me want to vomit," says John Humphrys, who presents Today, On The Record and You Decide. "I don't have too many things to do more than seven or eight days a week. I cope with this just by doing it. I believe that work expands to fill the time available and if you believe that then you believe it works the opposite way also.

"I make time to relax. I switch off the telephone and sit down and read for two hours. This is an essential part of my day."

Nikolas Wood, business correspondent with Business Breakfast (6-7am daily, BBC1) and Working Lunch (12.30-1pm daily, BBC2) says the amount of travelling is the most stressful part of the job: "I am away from my family for maybe a week at a time. The deadlines are quite stressful, especially when we are doing a live performance as there is more room for error and the unexpected.

"I have a home where I can relax with my family... When I am away and have a bit of time off I will go and play golf or ride my bike or play tennis. It takes a bit of effort sometimes but it's worth it."

In the past year, Jonathan Dimbleby has done a five-part series, presented weekly television and radio programmes, written a book on Hong Kong and anchored the ITV election coverage. He has also tried to make a conscious effort to relax: "My attitude to my workload varies. I am very bad at saying `No' but I am getting better at it, otherwise I wouldn't have a life. I think the way to cope is to just carry on. It is really only when I stop that I start to feel tired. It is also very important that I am blessed with a very understanding partner so there is no guilt-related stress to cope with. In the end I enjoy what I do."

Anybody tempted to hark back to the good old days of lighter workloads should bear in mind what Ian Jack has to say about journalism in the 1970s: "You could hardly call it an industry... The Sunday Times under Harold Evans is held up as the apex of journalism and it was a lovely thing to partake in but there were a lot of unhappy people who would see the only piece they had written for two weeks getting spiked."n