We need to cool down

Passion. It’s what we’re told is the drive for creative work. It’s what allows us to create incredible work, getting deep into its core and working on it intensely. It’s what makes us care.

It’s also what makes us work from the moment we wake to the moment we go to sleep on projects. It’s what makes us say yes to every offer that comes our way, just for the opportunity to become involved in more creative work. It’s what makes us work several jobs at once. Or more accurately, it’s what lets us put up with these conditions. It’s ok that we’re working ourselves to the bone in poor conditions because we’re doing what we care about. What we’re passionate about. I’m looking at the creative industries, but you see the same behaviour in other occupations such as nursing, where chronic overwork is also common. This is called passionate work.

Arvidsson, Malossi and Naro’s 2010 article examining labour conditions in the Milan fashion industry identifies that “The ideology of creativity serves an important function in the construction of the subjectivity of the creative worker: his or her motivations, self-image and, importantly, notions of the value of his or her work.”.  Creativity extends beyond the output of the worker and becomes their identity. Thus the boundaries of work and life become blurred, and occasionally non existent.

We can see this in the creative workers around us in our lives.. They are creative people. It’s what they do. Take the illustrator who spends all their free time sketching for example - which drawing is work, and which is pleasure? What’s the line? Or the maker who starts an etsy business off the hobby they’ve been doing when they get home from their full time job. They carry on growing the business and soon they’re coming home from one job to do another, however this work is happening under the guise of a relaxing hobby. Or the producer, who already has 4 projects on the go but takes one more because the project sounds amazing. The passion they feel carries all of them through, but it also puts them in danger of burnout.

One of the interviewees in my research on burnout pointed out that if you’re working in the cultural enterprises, there’s a good chance you want to consume culture. However, once you reach the industry event, be it a gallery opening, a show preview or a networking event, the people you meet there are often the same people you meet at work and the expected performance of your creative role kicks in. At this point, even if the event was initially intended to be a pleasure activity, it has now become work. This is something we’re encouraged to embrace - in Angela McRobbie’s book Be Creative she highlights how Professor Michael Craig Martin, mentor and tutor to Goldsmiths graduates including Damien Hirst, apparently encouraged his students to see these activities as a vital part of the work, rather than a separate activity.

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Arvidsson, Malossi and Naro in fact note that employers in the creative industries take advantage of this, positioning themselves as ‘creative’ and ‘cool’ to appeal to the values of these workers. Despite dire working conditions which included a lack of opportunity to exercise their own creativity, this sense of connection to the world they aspired to resulted in high levels of satisfaction from the employees they interviewed. This has happened on a national level, with New Labour’s promise of a Cool Britannia in 1997, reframing the arts from the stuff of heritage and the past to the basis for a creative future.

McRobbie identifies these links to creativity as ‘lines of flight’ for the worker, an opportunity to escape from family histories of blocked hopes and frustrations. This in itself is noted to be something of a middle-class luxury, rather than an option open to all. Other connotations of creative work are the romantic image of the bohemian artist surrounded by oil paints and record players and the image of fun and camaraderie that is used when writing about the working conditions. These perceptions all go towards making creative work highly desirable, especially to those who are repulsed by the thought of a nine to five desk job. Workers feel they are bypassing tradition and escaping from the drudgery of ‘normal’ work.

Once in this environment of passionate work, it is very easy to allow things that many workers may not. For example, there is a growth of working for free amongst the arts. This is a practice that is damaging not just for the individual but for the industry, as it confirms to the employer that people are willing to work without being paid. This can take the form of unpaid internships, work in exchange for the offer of ‘exposure’ and last minute project additions that were not covered by the budget. This plays on the fact that freelance artists are rarely taught how to put value on themselves and their work. As such, it becomes difficult for both the worker and the employer to recognise exploitation.

In interviews, passion was noted to be an all consuming notion. A focus on a singular goal, to the exclusion of everything else. When discussed negatively, the same behaviours may be identified as extremism. However, the language of passion is used to put a positive spin on the behaviour. In general usage, the term is most notably used for sexual and intimate encounters, which embody heightened physical and emotional sensations that cannot be sustained.

The attempt to sustain this level of passion may be where passionate work links into burnout and impacts on wellbeing. While doing one job for free or working extra hours for one week may be manageable, if not necessarily healthy, the attempt to continue these activities for extended periods of time may be unsustainable.

So what can we do? If the very thing driving us to be creative is the thing that is burning us out, how can we escape the cycle?

A good start is setting clear boundaries between life and work. If you need some tips on where to start, Luke Emery has some excellent tips on his website. Passion isn’t the only thing that ties into the problems with work life balances in the arts, but the solution is always the same - find ways to separate the two.

However, it’s also important for us to take a look at our attitudes to passion, and our blind support and encouragement for it. It is a double edged sword that can be wielded to great effect, but it should be approached with caution. If it’s true that passion and wellbeing are two sides of the same coin, lets try to get that coin to balance on its edge, and keep an eye out for friends who have let it topple over so we can support them.