Articulating our individual needs is important for everyone – especially those at the top of organisations, says Suzanne Alleyne.

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I can hear some of you asking: ‘What has this article got to do with me?’ My answer is, ‘everything’. I’d wager that for any senior arts leader, considering self-care for themselves, and listening and responding to the self-care needs of their staff, will strengthen their organisation.

We are told ‘you are getting to do something you love’, with the implication being: accept the negative stuff that comes with that

What is self-care in the workplace? It is articulating your individual needs, so you are fit and well to do your job at work. Crucially, it has often meant ‘fighting’ for these needs in the face of some form of adversity in the workplace (and often in wider society). The harsh reality is that for many, the increasing need for self-care in the workplace comes about because organisations are under pressure to perform – and in a totally counterproductive move, create structures and systems that put unreasonable pressure on their leaders and staff.

With my multiple mental health diagnoses, self-care has long been a part of my vocabulary. But in truth, I’d never thought about the need for other senior arts leaders to think about their own self-care. That was until I sat in on a meeting with some industry leaders. I came away feeling that largely they didn’t consider self-care – as defined above – for themselves, or for those that worked for them. 

So why don’t most senior leaders seem to think (or at least talk) about self-care? I’ve looked for data on this and found very little, which in itself is telling. Anecdotally, here are some possible reasons:

  • We don’t ask our leaders how they are doing. The top of an organisation can be a lonely place, and so it’s probably down to the chair of the trustees to check their lead and senior management team are okay. That can often (not always, but often) prove tricky. 
  • In the arts, we are told ‘you are getting to do something you love’, with the implication being: accept the negative stuff that comes with that. We know you have to work longer hours than your contract says and that you often get paid less than the corporate sector. And yet there is a prevailing ‘look what a nice time you’re having’ attitude…
  • We’re all managing change. Even more so than other sectors, arts sector leaders are leading change. And changing environments are stressful.

That combination of reasons means we are less likely to think we even have the right to think about self-care. 

Counterproductive

Why, then, is it counterproductive not to talk and action self-care? It’s not rocket science. Well-functioning staff – including well-functioning leaders – perform better. Leaders who are able to understand (and importantly, articulate and action) their own self-care needs are more likely to be able to listen, empathise and action those of their staff. The skills needed to do this are part of a toolkit from a style of leadership that embraces empathy and belonging. Being able to do this can lead to changing systems and processes that work better for all involved.

The knock-on effect of this is the creation of an environment where staff and leaders can be open about difficulties, difference and what needs to be changed. In turn, that helps to create an inclusive environment. Simply put, if you create the space to talk about your own self-care and that of others, you create an environment where you can talk about work challenges. If you set out to make and be the change in your work environment for you and those that work under you, then you’ll be creating the organisational change we need. It’s simply not sustainable for us to create organisations that require the hours, energy and time that we all put in.

Let’s talk about self-care, diversity and inclusion, because I believe everything is interlinked. The civil rights activist, writer and feminist Audre Lorde said: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. For those of us who work at a senior level, are part of the protected classes and often feel othered, self-care becomes just that: a political act of self-preservation. 

My own self-care experience in the workplace over the last two decades, as someone who sits at many intersections (of class, gender, ethnicity, race and mental health), has often been hell. The greater the pressure I’m under in the workplace relates directly to how much more othered I become. In turn, it becomes impossible to get an appropriate and supportive response to my self-care needs. But my self-care needs are often the same as the self-care needs of the wider team. What I’m suggesting is that creating an organisational culture of self-care will develop a greater sense of inclusion and help deliver on diversity. 

Whether you’re a senior leader who identifies as one or more of the protected classes, or you are one of the proverbial middle class white males so often talked about, we are all under pressure – and in part, this is placed on us by the organisations we work for. 

As a sector, we’re under constant pressure to take on processes and systems from our corporate counterparts. However, I believe we lead the way in many areas – and I think we should take a particular lead on championing self-care. It will drive up our productivity and position us as a sector that the corporate world can learn from.

Suzanne Alleyne is a creative strategist and cultural thinker. She is an inaugural Arts Council Changemaker through which she was Brand, Strategy and Commercial Director at Apples and Snakes. She guest lectures at King’s College London where she is a visiting research associate, is part of Signifier the consultancy and think tank and is currently working on research around power.

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Suzanne Alleyne will be leading two forthcoming events around the topic of self-care at Freeword in London. The first ‘self-care versus professional development’ event will be for everyone (26 September, 6.30pm) and the second will be aimed at those identifying as black women (date TBC). See freeword.org for booking details. The events are supported by Arts Council England, Apples and Snakes, Freeword, Afropunk, The Watch-Men Agency and ArtsProfessional.

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