In 2016 when we initiated the #time4change mental health charter to seduce drama colleges, we wrote a charter that included agents, producers and theatres. The idea was that those colleges reluctant to buy into the idea of better mental health support would simply buy into it to be in the same “cool gang” as the groups they wanted some involvement with. The strategy worked and indeed no doubt made the charter ever stronger.
At the time we had quite a bit of good feedback from the agencies that had really adopted the charter, noting that it had prompted some good and useful discussions with their clients. A few producers/production companies also reported back that the Charter had opened the door to healthier conversations within their organisations.
#time4change was always intended to start a conversation, it didn’t pretend to have all the answers, it simply provided proactive information in a bid to educate people about the early symptoms of various potentially debilitating mental illnesses.
Even back then a few producers spoke to me about how they were feeling isolated within the industry, and several embryonic discussions took place to explore what could be put in place to give producers a “safe space” to talk. In fact we had similar discussions with agents and casting directors – but limited time and resources meant that these discussions never actually led anywhere.
Fast forward to now and I can only begin to imagine how bad it is for professional producers. If they were struggling 7 years ago I dread to think the pressure that they’re under today. Having produced a fair few shows during the pandemic at The MTA, I know too well the additional stress that covid has put on our industry.
People being off work ill, covid ripping through companies, shows having to be cancelled, now add into that the massive increase in costs to do anything, and even the added pressure of all the strikes, massively disrupting travel plans for both the companies and our audiences. Producing in the UK in 2023 must feel like climbing Everest every single day.
So what can be done about it? Whilst I don’t have the answer I sort of know the solution. Having run a college with a “whole school approach to Mental health” for 14 years, and having now been instrumental in getting the same policy implemented in another organisation, I’m confident when I say that “trickle-down well-being” is the answer. I just don’t quite know how to get it implemented.
Generally speaking the people looking after organisations need to prioritise their own mental health, whereas in reality most will be running around like headless chickens attempting to keep everybody else happy. They will falsely believe that if they look after their employees well-being this will create a healthier or easier environment for themselves. However I now believe that the opposite is true. If the people at the head of the table prioritise their own well-being, it actually enables them to look after their “colleagues” better.
Therapists will often use the phrase “put the oxygen mask on yourself first”, a metaphor based on the idea that if the plane is going down, you could help more people if you look after yourself first. Now if you’re in charge of an organisation or a company this common sense approach is often counter-intuitive, as you see others struggling around you so you quickly run to their aid. However in doing that you’re actually just burning yourself out. There will always be a fire to put out, there will always be another issue. So far better to ensure that you’re working at your optimum capacity by exercising self-care.
What invariably happens is that when the head of an organisation sees the benefits of self-care they will encourage their colleagues to experience it too. The result. . . a happier, less stressed boss, which allows you to be more thoughtful in your responses to situations and indeed to people.
Several times over the years I’ve encouraged producers and agents to buy in some “safe space” time, be that with a therapist or a life-coach, or even a trusted colleague. You’d be amazed how affirming it is to just sit in a room for an hour with somebody that’s not going to judge you, somebody that you can explicitly trust, but somebody that’s meta to your everyday life. Having informal debriefs with somebody that has got nothing to do with your company.
The argument is always “but I don’t have an hour, I’m far too busy”. However, I think that the time has now come for those people heading organisations to acknowledge that by not finding that hour a week or an hour a fortnight, they’re effectively shooting themselves in the foot. That stress and burnout is real, and it’s preventing them from effectively running their organisations.
So I would encourage them all to find that hour and save themselves now . . . before it’s too late.
Always happy to chat to people more about this in private if it’s something that you’d like to explore for yourself/your organisation. Honestly . . . it’s transformative and most importantly of all, you don’t deserve to feel this bad all the time. Protecting “that hour” will in time, save your sanity (and potentially your company).