If you’re now persuaded to jump into a work redesign, get ready to start with what Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer calls “an almost anthropological” study of what people do, hour by hour, day by day. A redesign may usher in some unfamiliar ways of doing journalism, but failing to adapt can mean “you’re going to have to face the health consequences,” says Pfeffer. “The question is, do you make that trade off?”

If you have any experience with design thinking — or even an interest in the type of design that attracts millions of HGTV fans — that’ll help jumpstart your ideas about how to redesign work. After all, people changed their workspaces and their work style during the pandemic lockdown “because we had no choice,” says organizational consultant Kason Morris. “But it got people thinking like designers in relation to their work.”

Here’s a potential step-by-step redesign process and some points to consider:

A detailed task analysis should be the first step in a job redesign. Use a spreadsheet, or try an app like Desktime (there’s a two-week free trial). Each manager involved in the redesign should track how much time they’re spending on specific tasks as well as which hours of the day.

Calculate and compare how many managers are performing the same tasks and when they’re doing them. Are there too many cooks in the kitchen at any given time? For example, are editors/managers available to read/review stories before noon, but unavailable for the afternoon crush of copy? Are managers in meetings at the same time, causing a post-meeting backlog? How many managers are spending weekends trying to complete employee evaluations to meet a corporate-mandated deadline? What else are managers doing that eats up considerable time but has little measurable payoff?

Find solutions to these workload problems by brainstorming with top leaders and decision-makers, along with people who are direct beneficiaries of the work (for example, reporters). Consult experts, in particular those who have experience with elements of the proposed redesign, and ask for any applicable data and feedback. Tackling long-held work flows will require communication and creativity.

Use “red-teaming to understand the downside of each decision made in the job design. For example, red-team a proposal that editors work a four-day week. What can go wrong, and is there a way to fix that? Some managers at startups and non-traditional newsrooms rave about their companies’ benefits like unlimited mental health days and generous vacations. But it didn’t take long to realize this meant that someone (usually a manager) had to handle the absent employee’s workload. One solution was to suspend some of the employee’s work  — for example, a newsletter  — in their absence.

Get it in writing: Revamp current job descriptions with the intention of reducing stress. When you’ve agreed on a new work design, share the full roadmap with managers and their direct reports.

Finally, and importantly, rethink and rewrite job postings. I reviewed several recent management job postings specifically to gauge the potential stress level of the position, and was appalled to find that most of them painted a picture of holy hell. I’m as guilty as anyone. I’ve helped create job postings that ask the applicant to do what appears to be the jobs of four people, never mentioning how company leaders would support the newly hired manager or offering any hint that a healthy work balance was important to the company.

Here’s a recent, and very typical, job announcement for a managing editor position in a midwestern news company. This manager would be in charge of six newsrooms and  would be expected to pitch in as a reporter “while always looking to the future of digital and print media.”

“This is a broad action packed role responsible for long-term strategic planning, growing audience numbers, providing editorial content, completing administrative functions, is responsible for all news content published and the style and spacing of the publication, has overall responsibility for the production of these digital and traditional papers, and will serve as the primary point of contact for readers who have questions, concerns, or comments about the paper’s coverage.This position also positively represents the papers within the community… This position is responsible for the success of direct reports and will train, teach and mentor others and be a good role model. The Managing Editor will supervise and direct the news team to cover local and regional news stories, sports, and features. This position works with reporters to determine beats and assignments, ensures ethical journalism principles are followed, and that coverage is handled in a manner appropriate for the story and locality. As a team player, this position may also be called upon to assist their team working “hands on” by pitching in as needed to write news stories.”

A skilled, creative and diverse workforce can’t be attained with job descriptions like this. Local journalism can’t be saved on the backs of overworked leaders whose careers are breaking them. Burned-out managers have been leaving the profession for many months, and it’s time to create a change in the bad bones in journalism’s historic work structure.

As burnout expert and journalist Jennifer Moss says: “We have a shot at truly preventing burnout, and we can’t say that it’s too hard or too much work or that it requires too much change.

“The best moment to make a move is when everything is up for grabs.”

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You also might be interested in:

  • This is a column on how to measure well-being for yourself and your organization. By the end, you’ll have a clear direction and quantitative ways to chart a healthy path forward for your journalists.

  • Experts define moral injury as the suffering that comes from witnessing, perpetrating or failing to prevent events that violate one’s own deeply held moral beliefs and values. It is not classified as a mental illness, but it can lead to depression, substance abuse or burnout, which is one reason news managers need to understand the phenomenon of moral injury — and ways to address it or head it off.

  • For many newsrooms, changing the systems that protect unhealthy culture could be a few sustained decisions away from reality.