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May 19, 2017updated 23 May 2017 8:47am

Study: Booze, coffee and lack of breaks is impairing journalists’ brain function and ability to suppress bias

By Dominic Ponsford

New medical research suggests that UK journalists have lower levels of executive brain function than other groups, making them less able to suppress bias.

The study suggests this is driven by high alcohol and coffee consumption, limited time given over to mindfulness and lack of breaks.

But it also found that journalists are able to endure and bounce back from adversity thanks to a belief that their work has meaning and purpose.

Neuroscientist Tara Swart studied 31 journalists over seven months in a project carried out in conjunction with the London Press Club.

The sample group worked across newspapers, magazines, broadcast and online and were evenly split between those under and over 35.

They took blood tests, had their heart rate monitored, kept a food and drink diary and filled out a brain-profile questionnaire.

Swart said: “Results indicated that, on average, the journalists who participated were no more physically stressed than the average person.

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“Anecdotally, a high proportion of the group reported experiencing some stress, but often cited factors other than their job, including family and finances, as being the cause of this.

“The headline conclusion reached is that journalists are undoubtedly subject to a range of pressures at work and home, but the meaning and purpose they attribute to their work contributes to helping them remain mentally resilient despite this.”

Less than 5 per cent of the group drank enough water and they consumed higher than average levels of alcohol, which contributed to poor recovery levels during sleep.

She said that caffeine and alcohol intake will have contributed to the low scores for “executive functioning”. Eating late, and disturbances from children, were also said to undermine recovery during sleep.

She described “executive function” as the part of the brain “where the most sophisticated and enriched thinking takes place”.

She said: “Important aspects of executive function include working memory, focus and sustained attention.

“Low scores for executive functioning indicates less of an ability to regulate emotions, suppress biases, solve complex problems, switch between tasks, and think flexibly and creatively.

“Sleep, nutrition, exercise and mindfulness all drive executive function, and failure to perform these basics can cause avoidable decreases in cognitive performance.

“Many journalists reported no time for breaks, as well as low sensory integration, which can also negatively impact on cognitive performance.”

Swart said that 12 minutes of mindfulness a day or 30 minutes of mindfulness three times a week thickens the folds of the pre-frontal cortex enhancing executive function.

Paul Charman reported from the launch of the study:

The findings of the ‘study into the mental resilience of journalists’ were revealed at a packed London Press Club event, hosted by the Corinthia Hotel on Wednesday evening (March 17), chaired by journalist and broadcaster Anne McElvoy of The Economist and the London Evening Standard – writes Paul Charman.

Nearly half the journalists in the study drank 18 or more alcohol units a week against the recommended limit of 14, some with 20 units in one go. This meant they were permanently dehydrated, slept poorly and failed to take a break for ‘mindfulness’.

But while low pay, constant deadlines and high levels of accountability meant more stress, the study found that journalists were more able to cope than bankers, traders, telecoms and sales executives because of “the noble goals of their job meant they were more likely to be resilient and productive,” said Dr Swart.

“Many journalists said they loved their job, in fact they described it as their ‘me’ time”, she said, adding that they said other concerns over money, children or ageing parents worried them more.

One of the ‘guinea pigs’ who took part in the study, Times science editor, Tom Whipple, shared some his coping mechanisms for dealing with stress.

He recalled the advice of the chief sub during “a meltdown moment” on deadline shortly after he joined the paper in 2006.

“She walked over and said calmly ‘it’s always like this at 6pm, just as at 8pm there’s always a paper without any white holes in it’.”

Scheduling tasks also helped, said Tom, adding that his heart monitor raced more when he got home “to put the children to bed”.

He was also a pioneer at The Times, one of the first to acquire “a standing desk”.

But if journalists’ so-called ‘executive function’ – was so impaired, “how do the bloody papers come out… many seem to thrive on stress,” queried Anne McElvoy of The Economist, adding that an extra stress factor on today’s journalists might well be whether “the job you had would still be there!”

Dr Swart said that while concerns over job security were higher among the over-35s in the group, it was shared less by the young because “it’s also been like that for them”.

Her overall aim in the study was to help journalists with better strategies for stress management, such as improved sleeping habits, better eating and more exercise. Other hints included: focussing on past successes, “if I do lose my job, there are others things I can do”, and having ‘second thoughts’ – asking “why do I want that?” – before giving in to “destructive habits”.

Closing the evening on behalf of the London Press Club, Chair Doug Wills, whose day job is managing editor of the Evening Standard, thanked everyone, especially the hosts at The Corinthia for their earlier champagne reception, adding on a personal note: “While I welcome the results of this very helpful and interesting study, I do think it’s a question of terms – what some might call stress, I feel is excitement!”.

Read report on journalists and stress in full.

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