Open letter to Steve Hasker, president & CEO of Thomson Reuters
Sunday 20 September 2020
Hi, Steve - I was head of mental health and wellbeing strategy at Reuters for three years until January. I left the organisation because of the widespread resistance I faced from management in trying to make the mental health of Reuters journalists a top priority and the terrible stress that caused me.
I suspect you will find much scepticism among Reuters journalists to your well-intentioned desire for Thomson Reuters to place “increased long-term focus on mental health and the overall health of our people” and “embed wellbeing” into the workplace culture.
Believe me, I tried to change things at Reuters. And I brought street cred to the table. I joined Reuters in 1993. I’d covered events such as the Bali bombings and the Boxing Day tsunami. I was Baghdad bureau chief at the height of the Iraq War. Three staff were killed on my watch. I was the first top news editor for Asia. I have PTSD and a few psych ward admissions under my belt, so I know journalism and mental health.
My job description as head of mental health was to increase awareness around journalist wellbeing; improve and expand the Reuters peer network; make recommendations on trauma support; improve staff wellbeing through existing and new initiatives; collaborate with HR to draft policy to strengthen trauma support and speak at industry events.
The honeymoon didn’t last long.
In April 2017, I was told my job had unnerved some people: “It’s the unknown. People are asking lots of questions,” I was told. As a result, I’d have no direct role with Reuters’ external provider of trauma support and counselling or the peer network. Focus on mental illness prevention and training managers on how to look after the mental health of their staff, I was instructed.
After months of work, I submitted an 80-page report to my boss and another senior manager in August 2017 that detailed the mental health risks to Reuters journalists, identified gaps in support and made recommendations. I’d spoken to nearly 50 current and former staff. I interviewed colleagues at other media, journalism experts and trauma specialists.
“Many current Reuters reporters, bureau chiefs and managers across all our media disciplines told me they were very stressed,” I wrote in the introduction. “They said they were under enormous pressure to perform. Those demands combined with a reduction in senior staff in many bureaux and the 24/7 news cycle make it impossible for staff to switch off … I believe we should review the demands and expectations placed on our managers, bureau chiefs and reporters … I don’t think we are getting the balance right.”
I suspect my report was buried. In my view, stress among staff had worsened by the time I left Reuters.
Among the many setbacks, a proposal I made in September 2018 to create a mental health team to help me “create clear and transparent policies that deal with stress, burnout, mental illness, trauma, substance abuse, sexual harassment and bullying” was rejected. One issue was cost, I was told. A proposal for the global peer coordinator to work full-time on peer matters and report to me was rejected. (I’d decided it was ludicrous I had no formal role with the peers.)
I was blocked from playing any role in a restructuring of editorial that was launched in late 2018. The project, called Newsroom of the Future, came with layoffs that spread fear and uncertainty. In January 2019, I used an internal bulletin board to say the mental health and wellbeing of staff should be “a centrepiece” of the project. That wasn’t the focus, I was told. Undeterred, I tried to speak with the architects. They brushed me off.
Legal flexed their muscles after I spent 18 months creating a mobile-friendly website called the Reuters Mental Health & Resilience Resource. The site had a big section on resilience and self-care. I put internal blogs on the website. Reuters journalists in New York sketched or painted 15 illustrations for the site. One mental health expert called the website an “outstanding resource” for journalists. My boss agreed to make it public to share Reuters’ resources with the wider journalism community.
On the cusp of launch in mid-2019, I was told legal wanted to gut the site. One objection was apparently liability over the content, much of which came from the Reuters trauma support and counselling service and the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma.
The most bizarre resistance I encountered was in August 2019 when I was blocked from arranging a meeting with the news leadership ahead of a trip to London. They might not be the right group to meet, I was told. Don’t make mental health “too forced or single-track”. We don’t want to make it like, ‘Dean’s in town, let’s talk about it’. IT being the mental health of Reuters’ 2,500 journalists and 1,500 stringers.
“I feel like I have to fight for every inch of territory to make the mental health of our journalists a priority,” I wrote in one email as my request was being scuttled. “Everything I do feels like a battle, often with people who give opinions and remain anonymous. I'm left out of decisions that concern me and the work I do. Given my vast knowledge of trauma and mental health, it makes me feel like the organisation wants to marginalise me … Barely a month goes by when I wonder why this role (was created) for me.”
Life, however, can be quirky. Around the same time, I gave a presentation in Sydney to Kim Williams, chairman of the Thomson Reuters Founders Share Company. Enthused by my presentation, which included a review of the Reuters Mental Health & Resilience Resource, Kim asked if I’d be in London on Oct. 10. I would, I said. He asked me to address the Founders Share Company board when it held its annual meeting.
I went to London to launch the inaugural Reuters Mental Health Week, which had been been timed to coincide with World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10, 2019. This was a week-long campaign on mental health, resilience, wellbeing and the importance of switching off from the 24/7 news cycle.
My presentation to the Founders Share Company trustees went very well. I spoke about various mental health initiatives for 45 minutes then took questions. I showed them the yet-to-be-launched website. I explained why I thought being a Reuters journalist today was tougher than any time in history.
I never addressed the news leadership during the trip, nor at any time during my tenure.
I wish you well, Steve.