I recently completed my masters degree in creative producing, through UWE partnered with Watershed. It was a pretty intense roller coaster of a year, learning to translate all the things I had been doing off my own back into a professional context. But it culminated in writing a dissertation on burnout in the creative industries, and looking at how it affects sustainability.
When I say sustainability here, I’m not referring to the natural ecology of our planet, I’m referring to the cultural ecology - the networks, individuals and projects that touch our lives in so many ways.
Burnout, i.e. a breakdown in an individual’s mental and/or physical health due to occupational pressures, is common in all industries, but for years I’ve seen it affecting my creative peers repeatedly. Aside from the personal impact of this, there’s a larger impact - when people burn out, their contribution to the cultural ecology takes a back seat. There must be countless incredible projects that have never seen completion because the driving force behind them pushed themselves to the point they couldn’t continue. Alongside the ideas, we loose people, when they come to the realisation they can’t keep working themselves to breaking point again and again.
There are plenty of reasons for burnout - alongside desk based research, I interviewed several people working in the creative industries and put out an anonymous survey, looking into the causes of burnout and how it affected its victims. This is the first in a series of blog pieces about my findings.
One recurring factor that seems like a good starting point was the fact that it isn’t common for creative workers to discuss their wellbeing situation. It can be seen as unprofessional, and the fear of it affecting your career in a sector where finding work can be difficult to begin with is pretty intense. What if the next job you go for goes to someone else because they know you had a work related breakdown? While none of us want to believe this sort of discrimination goes on, fear is rarely a rational emotion.
Yet at the same time, it seems that it’s an open secret - people know the people around them are stressed, but the discussions themselves often happen behind closed doors. Stigma around health issues is decreasing, but it’s easy to be scared in an industry where networks and connections are central to your work.
So we end up with a performance of being the perfect worker - healthy, always present, always working, and willing to put in all that they have (and a little bit more on top of it). This isn’t to say everyone does this - there are exceptions to all rules. But it is to say that this performance is damaging on several levels. Alongside the pressure that maintaining the persona puts on an individual, it adds pressure to people coming into the sector to fit the same mould.
And so, I propose a call for honesty. A call for people to answer the question ‘how are you?’ with something other than ‘I’m not bad, how are you?’ (Unless you’re actually not bad. Because that’s pretty great, if you’re not, and let’s celebrate that). A call for people to say openly how they work best, whether that’s at a desk, 9-5, or on a sofa in the early hours of the morning. Sure, your best working environment might not work for an organisation you’re working with meaning you have to adapt, but It shouldn’t hurt to say it.
I’d be a bit rubbish if I didn’t follow through on this call myself, so here’s my dirty laundry: I have a tendency to throw myself very intensely into a project, then fall apart when it’s all over. Most recently, that was the very dissertation I mentioned above. In the final weeks, I worked ridiculous hours on it, putting my own wellbeing to one side to make sure it was as good as it could be (something that was wonderfully ironic in retrospect, given that I was writing about the dangers of doing so). After I submitted it, my mental health (and physical health) slumped, and I’ve spent a few weeks moping around with depression, alongside other mental hiccups that would be a bit long winded to go into here (but feel free to ask me about them). I’m going to pick myself up off the floor, as I normally do, but there you go.
How are you?