Freelance Journalist

January 2, 2020 (Updated )

“When I first started journalism three years ago, I was shocked at how big the drinking culture was,” Sophie* tells Journo Resources. “[It was also] how pressured I felt to keep up. I started on the news desk and it made sense to decompress by going to the pub and having a chat about the hard stories of the day.”

It might seem like a simple reasoning, but for Sophie, it felt like the start of a slippery slope. “It became a regular thing,” she continues, “one drink turned into three and then six and then we’d go to the pub every day. I’d always be hungover and tired as I had to be in the office at 7am.

“The stress definitely plays a huge part of the drinking culture. Deadlines, rude editors, exhaustion. At one point I thought I’d end up with a drink problem.” It’s a subtle, yet somewhat predictable story for those already working within the industry. In short, the concept of alcohol dependency for journalists might not raise the suspicions it should on the first read.

‘At One Point I Thought I’d End Up With A Drink Problem’

Work and wine can often appear to go hand-in-hand for journalists (Image Credit: Kaleidico / Unsplash)

When you think about the type of work undertaken, it becomes even less surprising. For freelancers it might be the lonely working environment, waiting for unpaid invoices, and inconsistent working patterns. Even if you’re a staff employee, you still might find it hard to switch off – after all, how many times have you heard the “the news is always on and so are we” line?

Other journalists Journo Resources’ spoke to told us about how “the need to live up to the lifestyle is intense”, at the same time as being counterproductive to your career. Another told us how they felt they were “just on a constant ‘I know, I drink too much’ trip”. “But I do think it takes an extraordinary amount of mindfulness to duck out of the week-to-week cycle of drinking in this job,” they continued. “It’s very easy for me to drink every night of the week if I don’t think about it.”

If you’re worried about alcohol, either for yourself or someone else, several charities are on hand to help.

Drinkchat has trained advisors if you would rather not make a phone call, and you can also call Drinkaware (0300 123 1110) from 9am to 8pm on weekdays and 11am to 4pm on weekends.

Other phone lines include Alcohol Concern (0300 123 1110 and Drinkline (0300 123 1110). For those in England, Scotland and Wales you can also call Alcoholics Anonymous (0800 9177 650). Family and friends of alcoholics across the UK can also call Al-Anon (020 7403 0888).

But just how much of a widespread problem is the relationship between journalists and drink? In 2017, a survey was conducted by Dr. Tara Swart, an American neuroscientist and executive leadership coach. Dr. Swart began her study into ‘The Mental Resilience of Journalists’ with a modest 90 participants but many weren’t able to take part due to the use of antidepressants. Eventually, the survey was carried out with just 21 journalists completing the entire questionnaire and another 10 answering only some of the questions. 

Aside from other fascinating insights into the typical personality of a journalist, the small study showed that writers drink a larger number of alcoholic units than what’s recommended on a weekly basis. Those who said they drank alcohol consumed an average of 16 units per week with 41 percent drinking an average of 18 units. 

Interestingly enough, the study also showed that less than five percent of journalists drank any water, instead prioritising tea and coffee, which are mild diuretics, increasing the production of urine. Since alcohol is also a diuretic, this combination can only lead to hydration problems. For reference, guidelines set by Drinkaware are that you shouldn’t regularly exceed more than 14 units per week.

Journalism Is In The Top 20% For Alcohol Consumption

‘Unwinding at the pub’ can become a worryingly common routine. (Image Credit: Marvin Meyer/Unsplash)

Although there technically is no ‘safe’ drinking level because alcohol can affect everybody differently, if more than 14 units is consumed on a weekly basis, illnesses like liver disease, heart disease, brain damage and cancers of the mouth, throat or breast can develop. In real terms, 14 units could look like around 9 small glasses of wine or 14 single measures of a spirit. 

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But how does this compare to other industries? This information isn’t available in the UK but an American study carried out in 2015 by Donna M. Bush and Rachel N. Lipari reported that 20 percent of lawyers, 17.5 percent of miners and 15.3 percent of healthcare professionals struggle with an alcohol dependency.  Dr. Swart’s study puts journalists in the top 20 percent for alcohol consumption in the US.

It’s an American survey, but that doesn’t mean the issues couldn’t be similar on this side of the Atlantic. Although we don’t have industry-specific statistics available, according to Drinkaware, 89,000 people turn up for work either still drunk or hungover each year. 17 million sick days are caused by alcohol use and these sick days cost the UK industry £7.3 billion every year. 

As for the reasoning behind these statistics being so high, it makes sense to point the finger at stress. “I think this tends to happen in journalism because of pressure attacking from various sides,” one national newsroom manager we’ll call Tina* told Journo Resources. They asked to remain anonymous as they had previously supported multiple employees with alcohol issues.

“There’s pressure to actually keep a job, because in this field no one is indispensable. Then, there’s the pressure to be multi-skilled because of low budgets. You’re now expected to write, video, edit, go to events, do live blogs… which is again linked to the desire of holding onto a job or getting a promotion.”

‘You’re Frightened Of What Will Happen When It Stops. So You Crack Open The Gin’

(Image Credit: Bejamin Combs / Unsplash)

However, while alcohol can make us feel relieved in the short-term, the reality is that it’s a depressant that can cause the you to feel anxious and low. Writing on her personal blog, former Aberdeen Daily Express journalist Esther Beadle lays out the truth of alcohol dependency. She describes buying bottles of wine on the way home, before downing drinks at various local pubs until closing time. “You’re frightened of what will happen when it stops,” she writes, “so when you get home you crack open the gin you’d bought to pretend you had a drinks cabinet.”

“The kicks and shakes and tremors won’t come til mid-morning.” she continues. “You’re still drunk enough to manage the first burst of the shift. Not that anyone will be able to tell unless they smell it on you. Because it’s now the only way your body functions when it’s been pickled. It’s when there’s nothing in your system you go to pot. You know your copy is clean because you concentrate extra hard to make up for the fog in your brain.”

Things to look out for – both in yourself and others:

  • Not going without an alcohol drink for a number of days
  • Life starts to revolve around alcohol intake, with friends and family comes second
  • You’re concerned about where and when your next drink will come from 
  • Once you’ve had one drink, stopping is difficult for you
  • Drinking in the morning
  • Anxiety, depression, and suicidal feelings 
  • Uncontrollable sweating, feeling sick and shaking, which cease once alcohol is consumed

It might sound like an extreme case, but it’s undoubtably a reality for more journalists than we’d like to admit. And, if alcohol is consumed regularly over time, it can have very real effects on both our relationships and health. While self-diagnosing should be approached with caution, we asked Drinkaware how you can gain an understanding of your own relationship with alcohol.

“If you find it difficult to enjoy yourself or relax without having a drink, it’s possible you’ve become dependent on alcohol,” they said in a statement. “It might be surprising to hear that you don’t always have to be drinking to extreme levels to become dependent on alcohol. Anyone who is drinking regularly will have a degree of alcohol dependency.” They also point to a number of behaviours such as finding it difficult to stop after one drink, or being concerned about where your next drink will come from.

It goes without saying, that if you’re concerned about either yourself or a colleague you should speak to one of the phone lines listed, your GP, or your manager. But, perhaps the wider issue is how we change the culture around journalism and drinking itself. “This industry can be quite toxic and very political and hierarchical,” Tina concludes. “That’s not great for mental health. At the core of it all are employers. Everyone has personal issues to deal with, but if the work situation is adding pressure, that’s when it becomes unbearable. The exploitation element needs to stop and managers need to be trained how to deal with people.”

Changing cultures is something we can all play a part in – and it doesn’t have to be herculean either. “Alcohol isn’t the only way people can bond,” agrees Sophie, “and it alienates people who don’t want to be part of the culture. There are always company drinks – why can’t companies invest their money into something better, something active and healthy? There are so many other ways to socialise than just drink.”

*Some names have been changed to protect their anonymity.