“An organization that goes through massive transitions faces the question of what are the things that we want to hold on to? And what are the things that we want to let go of? Where do we see an opportunity to bring in something different and better? … We ask ourselves, what must be rebuilt, and what must we build anew?” — psychotherapist Esther Perel, “Breaking News Has Broken Us”

The core purpose of work design (also called job design) is pretty simple: Identify what employees need and what the organization needs, and then remove the obstacles that get in their way.

Looking deep into the elemental structure of newsroom jobs and responsibilities and investigating how it may contribute to untenable stress and the exodus of talent is a bit more complex. That’s especially true in today’s news organizations, which typically still follow the DNA of decades-old job design.

From an economic perspective, manager overload is a prime target of work design. It’s crucial that managers handle their own burnout risk so they can support and retain their staff.

Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer says companies “take current job designs and work arrangements for granted, thereby foregoing opportunities to seriously reduce workplace stress.”

Most organizations, he says, “consider their work environments and habits necessary and never question what they are doing or how they are doing it.”

But the way work happens — the way it’s designed — has changed regularly throughout the history of some industries. Jobs were redesigned in the 19th century, for instance, to improve safety for laborers like railroad workers. Those job changes expanded when OSHA was launched in 1971.

Generally, those moves were aimed at employees’ physical wellbeing (and, yes, the companies’ exposure to lawsuits and bad PR). But it’s taken years for industries to commonly recognize the importance of mental wellbeing. Corporations like Microsoft Japan have experimented with four-day work weeks as a way to reduce stress, or initiatives such as limiting all meetings to 30 minutes and no more than five people.

The business case for work redesign is clear: “Talented people quit when they become overwhelmed by work or resentful of unrealistic demands, voting with their feet after being expected to do too much for too long,” wrote work design experts Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen in MIT Sloan Management Review. “When they exit, their employers lose expertise, knowledge, and sometimes valuable customer relationships.”

From an economic perspective, manager overload is a prime target of work design. The University of Central Oklahoma’s Desiree Hill says it’s crucial that managers handle their own burnout risk so they can support and retain their staff. Numerous studies show that what’s called “perceived organizational support” — the feeling by employees that their companies are well-managed and well-designed — results in “less turnover, more productivity,” says Hill.

The next section of this report will suggest work redesigns specifically for media organizations looking to reduce stress, burnout and attrition among managers. In general, here are the characteristics of a job designed to decrease burnout in managers, according to the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance:

  • Managers have high levels of autonomy and control.
  • Duties and responsibilities are varied, with fair distribution of high-value and mundane tasks.
  • Difficult tasks that can cause stress or trauma are shared among managers, not concentrated in one job or department.
  • Schedules have flexibility and layers of back-up plans.
  • The needs of those served by the job — employees, stakeholders, customers — are represented in the design, allowing managers to interact directly with those people they’re serving.
  • The design should allow for growth and learning. Among other benefits, this can ensure that managers can support and “backfill” their colleagues.
  • Whatever the task list for a particular job, managers strive to make it shorter. They identify outdated, low-value work and eliminate it. Productivity will be maintained; it will simply be applied to more high-value work. (You can find examples of “stop doing” ideas — including a Maine newsroom’s decision to stop writing live stories from nighttime local government meetings — in this August 2021 article from the American Press Institute.)

Next chapter: 7 ways to use work design in your newsroom

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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.