By Jamaine Krige

Support systems and social networks key for wellbeing of journalists

Workplace stress is commonplace, and many career professionals will admit that a little bit of stress can be a great motivator that drives them to do better in difficult situations. But what happens when the stress becomes too much? Situations that are too overwhelming can lead to burn-out and feeling demotivated. 

fraycollege alumnus Nwabisa Makunga is the editor of Sowetan newspaper, a position she stepped into as the effects of the global Covid-19 pandemic were starting to be felt in South Africa. As the former editor of Port Elizabeth-based newspapers the Herald and the Weekend Post in the Eastern Cape, Nwabisa is no stranger to working under immense pressure, but nothing could prepare her for sitting at the helm of one of South Africa’s largest newspapers amid a global health crisis. 

Speaking to frayintermedia CEO Paula Fray in 2019 when she was still editor of the Herald, Nwabisa shared some of the key strategies that she had used to cope with her high-stress environment. Today, with the industry in flux, downscaling in the newsroom and dwindling resources, these strategies remain more relevant than ever before.   

The Herald newspaper started in 1845, making it one of South Africa’s oldest publications. Nwabisa knew then that this was quite a legacy to lead, and in her time as editor she helped create a space for young and previously marginalised voices to be part of the news agenda. 

She has a reputation for being tough, direct and dogged in her quest to bring South Africans the news in all its nitty-gritty details, without compromising on the ideals of truth, fairness and integrity. These ideals shine through in her media career, which spans almost two decades and includes stints as news, business and political editor. 

While leading the conversation was not always her goal, Nwabisa knew from a young age that journalism was for her. “I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of storytelling, even before I knew that it was a profession. I went into journalism and then realised this is something I’m absolutely passionate about. It became a natural  progression to become an editor,” she explained. 

She was drawn to news because it offered her an opportunity to be in touch with the people of the country. “I love writing and I’m passionate about the idea of storytelling,” she said, adding that most people in South Africa grew up with an keen interest in the news and current affairs of the day. “When you realise the power of telling the South African story… it’s like being part of a moment in history.”

But, she admitted, this was not always an easy career path, and despite her passion for the job, the stress takes its toll. “It is quite stressful, every day, but I think you surround yourself with a great, strong support system and just try, whatever happens, to be mentally healthy,” she said. These support systems remain vital in her personal life and professional circles, and having a support system within the newsroom as well makes all the difference. 

To re-energise after long periods of sustained stress, Nwabisa said she has  found comfort in her social support networks. “I go out with my girlfriends,” she laughed. “I find that that really does help. I think a lot of us tend to underestimate the importance of a good support system. For me it is about being able to step out of the newsroom and out of the news cycle.”

Nwabisa acknowledged that working in a news environment can make it difficult to switch off, because she is always expected to have her finger on the pulse of what happens in the country and the world. “There are times when you just need to shut everything down and go into place where you are able to find peace as a person,” she advised. This is important as a strategy for resilience against the daily stresses of life. 

Instead of being further stressed out by the many hats she wears, Nwabisa explained that she is also a mother, a wife, a daughter and a friend, and these other roles have made her more resilient and better able to cope. “Journalism is one of the things I do, but it is not all that my life is. It’s so important to be with my husband, be with my mother, my girls, and just to enjoy life and not allow myself to be consumed by one facet of life.”

Family and social connections have been an important part of her life, and how she has dealt with the stresses she encounters. Despite this, she added laughingly that she knows she should be better with other forms of self-care as well. “I was talking about it with a colleague now and saying that I am finding it more and more difficult to take care of myself physically, in terms of going to the gym and doing yoga.” She started putting in an effort to prioritise physical activity, which has always been good for her personal wellbeing and general health. 

Knowing when to leave a toxic situation is also important for keeping stress to a bare minimum. “It is challenging, because obviously there is fear, but I was fortunate in that I was able to slip back into the newsroom,” she explained. Walking away from a toxic situation does not mean you have to walk away from your passion. 

Nwabisa has been fortunate, she added, because she has had powerful mentors who have guided her on her personal and professional journey. These mentors have often helped her to take a step back and see the bigger picture when she has found herself too close to a situation and unable to gain perspective. These mentors have also been her sounding boards for when life gets confusing or overwhelming. “I’ve had the privilege of being able to ask for help and that is what has propelled me forward.” 

For this to work though, one first has to overcome the fear of asking for help. “Every single one of us has challenges that we face in this fast developing world and we do need help. When I come to you and I ask for help, and you turn it around and make it worse for me, then that is really your burden.” She has always believed that if she looked hard enough and surrounded herself with the right people, help would never be far off. 

You can listen to the full conversation between Paula Fray and Nwabisa Makunga here.

You can also read more about Nwabisa’s experiences at the helm of the Sowetan during the Covid-19 pandemic here.

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