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Burnout while Parenting and Podcasting

Burnout is a topic we’ve been consistently keeping tabs on for a while here at Hot Pod, especially since the substantial reader response we got to this piece last spring. From all the conversations I’ve had about this since, I’ve come to realise that there are several traits specific to podcast work that can amplify existing stress, including: the relentless production schedule of a weekly podcast; the fact that many professional or semi professional podcasters work either alone or in very small remote teams with each person fulfilling multiple roles; and the personal or confessional nature of plenty of audio work.

Put simply: even in the best of times, podcasters are prone to burning out, and the last few months have most emphatically been the worst of times.

Unlike some areas of the media and entertainment industries that have had to pause production all together, podcasting has largely been able to keep going after a fashion, with producers working from home and contributors rapidly adapting to recording in their closets. But even if most audio production work has been able to stay somewhat the same, an awful lot about the rest of podcasters’ lives have changed dramatically, especially for those who are parents or caregivers to children.

With schools and childcare providers necessarily closed — for now, anyway, particularly within the American context — people are not only trying to podcast from home, but also fill in for what kids are missing out on at school or daycare. Of course, this has been a challenge across all industries, with it being obvious to lots of people from the start that the maths of working full time remotely while at the same time running a homeschool timetable just doesn’t compute. It’s an impossible situation, one that Farhad Majoo summed up pretty well in this New York Times opinion piece back in April.

But for those who work in audio and need to edit for long periods, or record links and tracking to the highest possible standard that the moment will allow, there’s the extra challenge of finding the space and quietness to do that. It might just about be possible to bash out an email with one finger while comforting a toddler, but you really can’t narrate a segment of a show like that. “Take after take just gets nuked,” was how one anonymous podcaster put it to me.

I’ve had lots of conversations with parent-podcasters operating under these conditions in the past couple of weeks, and a few consistent themes started to emerge. The first was the constant disruption of the day, which makes it really hard to settle down with any one task and get it completed.

“In the heart of lockdown, I felt that I couldn’t focus on any work for more than 10 minutes,” Canadian producer Lauren Bercovitch said. “I could shoot off an email here or there, but actually giving dedicated brain power or a sustained hour of thought toward one thing was nearly impossible. So tasks like writing a script, reading a script, giving notes on an edit — I couldn’t accomplish any of it.” Her husband Chris Kelly, who is also her colleague at the Vancouver based production shop Kelly & Kelly, echoed this, describing how the days were segmented into “little bursts of work.”

The second big topic that came up was just sheer exhaustion. As a non-parent myself, I hadn’t truly appreciated the scale of this task until one of my correspondents (who wished to remain anonymous) pointed out that there was never a waking moment when she wasn’t working, parenting, or both. “Down time no longer exists,” she said over email. “After bedtime in the evening is one of the few times I can get any uninterrupted work done, so I stay up really late now.” Bercovitch added that lockdown had reminded her of being postpartum, because of “all the unexpected mental labour, and there being not enough hours in the day.”

The third thing that came up a lot was the strain induced by the open ended nature of this situation. Some people I spoke to expressed that it would all be easier to handle if there was a definite end point — like a concrete date when in person school would resume, for instance. Yet that kind of certainty seems a long way off, with many places reintroducing some lockdown measures and a lot of doubt about when or even if schools can safely reopen.

Meanwhile, it’s summer. Freelance writer and producer Samantha Hodder said that the start of the school vacation had reduced her available time even further. “While ‘school’ was still happening, online, we had a wee bit of a schedule. And I could get up early and work away for a bit until they woke up,” she said. But now? “It’s completely nuts… It’s exhausting. It’s frustrating. And the bottom line is it’s not very productive.”

Bercovitch and Kelly both said that finding a routine had been crucial to getting work done. “We had to become really focused and intentional with our time and what kind of work you could try to accomplish in that timeframe,” Bercovitch said. “We eventually built out a routine that gave space for each of us to accomplish what we needed, but it was massively reduced hours.” They traded off their kids so that one person could get stuck into an edit for a few hours, and then swapped over, but were still trying to cram what would normally be a full day’s work into a few hours.

While I was looking into all of this, I revisited the World Health Organization’s definition of burnout, which it classifies as an occupational phenomenon — rather than a mental health condition — with three major dimensions: chronic workplace stress, energy depletion, and reduced professional efficacy. This seemed to me to encapsulate what the parents I’d spoken to were describing perfectly — a classic burnout presentation, in other words.

I finished a lot of these conversations wanting there to be a solution to all of this, which of course there isn’t, beyond it becoming safe for childcare to resume. I was surprised to find that most of the parents I spoke to were fine with that. Many requested to speak on background or anonymously because of concerns that employers would react poorly to accounts of bad working experiences at the moment.

What many did want, though, was solidarity and visibility. As Hodder put it: “Maybe I just need some virtual high-fives and mild encouragement. These days feel long and the windows for productive work are short.”