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Sebastian Cater says cultural sector managers who make mental health a priority aren’t virtue signalling, they’re leading by example.

Someone operating a lighting board at the mercury theatre

Pamela Raith photography

We have now lived through more than a year of the pandemic and, in the theatre industry, no-one has been left unscathed. Leaders have made incredibly tough decisions to ensure their organisations survive. Those working have been multi-tasking more than ever before, with added workload to cover colleagues on furlough or lost to redundancy. Many have not been able to work at all – the 70% of self-employed people in our industry are among the most affected.

Before the pandemic, increasing amounts of research showed UK workers were finding it hard to cope. According to the Office of National Statistics, 15.4 million working days were lost to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017/18; that’s the equivalent of 57% of all work days lost to ill health. In a 2020 entertainment industry mental health evaluation, 58.7% of respondents said they currently, or have previously had, a mental health problem. 

A culture of exhaustion

The sector was starting to take collective action to address this huge problem through the UK National Arts Wellbeing Collective. Formed in 2019, its purpose was to link like-minded organisations and individuals across the country and improve health and wellbeing in arts, cultural and heritage employment.

Now with the added impact of a global pandemic, Society of London Theatre (SOLT) and UK Theatre wants to reach as many people as possible to provide support. We’re halfway through a series of 10 webinars promoting mental health and wellbeing in the theatre sector, timed to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week, running from 10 – 16 May. Presented by expert facilitators, the final five sessions will cover topics including creating an organisation resilience checklist, leading healthy and productive teams, and creating a racism defence strategy. 

The theatre industry has a tendency for working long working hours and encouraging a culture of busyness – what academic Brené Brown describes as “exhaustion as a status symbol”. Laura White, the facilitator of our final webinar on developing preventative strategies and finding balance, has directly addressed the situation many of us find ourselves in. We wait until it’s too late to look after ourselves: “Taking care of our mental wellbeing can seem like an impossible task and often we wait until we burnout or get to rock bottom,” Laura says. 

These webinars complement other mental health and wellbeing resources provided by SOLT & UK Theatre. These include the Theatre Helpline (a 24 hour confidential support service), Theatre Support (a website created during the pandemic to signpost existing charitable support) and the Theatre Artist Fund (providing financial support for theatre workers in need). 

More engaged managers

In addition to sector support, it’s also important that we as leaders look at the psychological environment we foster. We need to think about what we can do to create a more supportive and in turn, more productive workplace. 

Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School, has said that, “to enhance wellbeing, we need more line managers with emotional intelligence, or EQ. We need people who manage by praise and reward, and who realise when you have unrealistic workloads or unmanageable deadlines”.

Leaders need to create a more engaged work environment by discussing their own approaches to mental health. This is not virtue signalling – it is leading by example. Personally, I’ve learned over the years that I have perfectionist tendencies. I get easily overwhelmed by the volume of work to do and the never-ending deluge of emails to reply to. I have various strategies for managing this so, while the volume of work doesn’t go away, I can control how I respond to it. I find mindfulness, meditation and physical exercise helps, but others will have their own strategies for building resilience. We need to create a workplace where discussing our strategies for mental health is as normal as talking about those for our physical health. 

Recovery needs

Research increasingly shows that there is a need for organisations to create a culture of wellness, but recovery from the pandemic will preoccupy us in the immediate future. At SOLT and UK Theatre, our long term plans involve upgrading our Theatre Helpline to include a live chat function and undertaking the mental health and wellbeing sector survey we were about to launch just before Covid-19 hit. 

As the sector reopens, it is essential the wellbeing of all staff is considered, and mental health strategies are integrated into recovery planning. We hope that theatre workers take advantage of our wellbeing webinars and other services and we look forward to hearing from our industry colleagues about any work they’re doing in this area, so we can highlight and share best practice.

Sebastian Cater is Head of UK Theatre & Workforce Development.

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