A new collective is enabling the sector to share insights and ideas to support better mental health and wellbeing, writes Laura Edralin.

A photo of a man and a woman drinking coffee

In April, the Royal Albert Hall (RAH) hosted the launch event for the UK National Arts Wellbeing Collective. We brought together over 100 representatives from arts, heritage and cultural organisations to share ideas on reducing the stigma of mental health in the workplace – identifying trends and common challenges, supporting staff who need help, and promoting good health and wellbeing within the sector. It was great to have organisations and like-minded people coming together to work on a shared goal. But how did this national network for wellbeing come about, and why do we need it?

Hard work, long hours and high pressure can push individuals, teams and organisations to their limit

The creative industries are packed with highly passionate people, where hard work, long hours and high pressure can push individuals, teams and organisations to their limit. Two years ago I felt this first hand when I returned to work full time after my second child was born. As a producer, promoting RAH events in the main auditorium during a period of rapid growth in the number of shows we put on, I prepared myself for a life of late nights and early mornings.

But within a few months, I felt myself losing grip on my work-life balance. With a busy job at the RAH, a busy time as a mum and ongoing political uncertainty, I felt surrounded by pressure. It’s particularly hard raising a young family and reading relentless negative stories in the news. I broke. It felt like the world was closing in and I couldn’t breathe. My anxiety shot through the roof and a sense of hopelessness washed over me, to the point where I struggled to move from the sofa. My kids knew I was unwell. My husband knew I was sad. My doctor signed me off work for a week and referred me to the NHS mental health service, IAPT.

A common problem

I soon found myself trying to explain how I was feeling to my manager, HR, friends, colleagues, family, medical professionals and counsellors. Yet, I was in the lucky position to feel like I could talk – not everyone does. The Hall were compassionate – I felt comfortable discussing my situation with my line manager, who encouraged me to use the employee assistance programme. I eventually found the strength to call and visit my GP, but it was not easy.

As I recovered from the experience (through a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy, time, self-care and reconnecting to creative outlets), I realised I was not the only one going through this. In fact, it seemed like everyday conversations in the workplace often raised concerns around stress, workload and struggle. Mental Health First Aid England report that “mental health issues are responsible for 91 million working days being lost. 15 million working days are lost from stress, anxiety and depression alone.” And I found out more recently from Mind that “one in five workers have called in sick due to stress but 95% gave a different reason to their boss”.

It can be difficult for line managers to support people experiencing poor mental wellbeing. And it can have a big impact on teams, both for individuals and the wider group. Organisations might face particular challenges in specific areas of the workforce, especially if there are varying types of contracts and occupations. How can we better understand and address the issues facing our sector, our staff and ourselves?

Inspiration from Australia

At the Hall, we had watched, in awe, the inspiring work being done in Australia. Arts Centre Melbourne had led the way, setting up the Arts Wellbeing Collective. We quickly began exploring the idea of establishing a similar collective. The venue had made some internal steps in appointing mental health first-aiders, as well as establishing a wellbeing network of staff volunteers across the workforce. But we knew we didn’t have all the answers. We realised the need to identify trends, share ideas and discuss best practice with others across the sector. We also recognised that the Hall has a voice. We wanted to put our hands up and ask “how?” How to help staff stay healthy? How to reduce the stigma around mental health? How to ensure we have a strong, supported workforce? How to encourage and enable staff to bring their whole selves to work?

Within months we had a date for the launch, and sent invites out to friends at arts, heritage and cultural organisations who were also interested in learning more, inspiring others and asking the same questions. The day was filled with networking, talks and inspiring activities. This helped develop a sense of purpose which could be taken back to organisations to continue promoting ideas and ideals.

We have since set up a website (where you can register to become a member for free), a LinkedIn page and a YouTube channel to help members access resources and share information. We’ve also established a group of 12 strategic partners – including the Society of London Theatre, Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Football Association – who will help us establish a clear long-term plan. We hope the collective will continue to grow, and gain the support and momentum it needs to address mental health issues across the sector.

Laura Edralin is Senior Programming Executive at the Royal Albert Hall and a Co-founder of the UK National Arts Wellbeing Collective.

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Laura Edralin