Madeleine Dore| ArtsHub | Monday 16th November 2015

Burnout is a perpetual risk for anyone working in the arts. How can we shift responsibility from the individual and fix the problem from the top?

Paper leaf – Sydney by street artist Miguel Marquez

For many arts workers across literary, performing, visual and community arts sectors, 2015 has been a taxing year with narrowing budgets and funding pools.

Yet it’s also held many important conversations about the prevalence of burnout and how we can better take self-care.

Arts work will always be emotionally and intellectually taxing but avoiding exhaustion and burnout is not simply about encouraging individuals to take care of themselves. The breadth of the problem shows the onus must be on organisations and improving the foundations of the arts ecology.

‘With the word burnout you instantly think of a person, an individual who has just worked too hard and thrown themselves into it,’ said Esther Anatolitis, Director, Regional Arts Victoria.

‘But it is never about an individual, it is about the social and professional pressure that they feel to go way above and beyond. So we have to address it at a social and professional level, so that the thing to brag about is no longer about lack of sleep, but rather feeling healthy.’

By looking at the systemic issues within the sector, the responsibility can be shifted from the individual, allowing burnout to be addressed from the top. The entire ecology must interrogate why we are so exhausted. Why do we keep getting asked to work for free? Why might we retire with no superannuation? Why is art so often left on the periphery of society despite its proven societal value?

‘Every organisation I know is also talking about how to address issues of burnout, the low salaries across the arts sector and how we can look after each other and staff better. So I think not only is it a really pertinent issue for artists and cultural workers, I think organisations and boards are really taking that issue quite seriously,’ said Jade Lillie, Director, Footscray Community Arts Centre.

Inspired by discussions at the recent Making Time: Arts and Self-Care forum at Footscray Community Arts Centre, combined with speaking to industry advocates and revisiting thoughts shared at the Senate Hearings across the country, we have collected ideas and strategies for how the sector can address burnout.

Create structures within an organisation

‘It’s not up to individuals to change an organisation’s culture,’ said Anatolitis. ‘The organisation has to make it clear to everyone that each individuals’ health and wellbeing is vitally important to the organisation.

It is essential that people feel empowered and confident in their work. ‘Think of the workplace as being an environment of complex human beings with daily cycles, with weekly and monthly and yearly ones. Really think about what are the things that foster the best environments for people to be healthy and fulfilled in their environment.’

At Regional Arts Victoria, the organisation is structured to support staff as people with lives, creative pursuits and families. From professional development to fortnightly art salons designed to spark conversation and the introduction of flexible work weeks, the organisation is setting benchmarks for self-care in the arts.

‘There is a small number of practical things that the entire industry needs to do – we need to consolidate with one voice and make clear nationally impactful statements about the value of the arts. We need to value everyone’s work as individuals, and we need to lead transformative cultural change such that we have the healthiest, most fulfilled people working in the arts,’ said Anatolitis.

When we prioritise OH&S in our workplaces, we should equally prioritise mental health and self-care by developing policies and procedures, making Mental Health First Aid Training being as commonplace as First Aid. Country Arts WA has developed a thorough checklist for arts and mental health projects which could be adopted to help organisations prioritise self-care.

Don’t be afraid of change

If an existing policy, structure or initiative isn’t working and staff are ‘fraying at the edges,’ Jade Lillie has a manta: ‘Be brave enough to change it.’

‘In the arts, the years are really big ones and it is important to consistency check in throughout the year and make sure you are tweaking and adapting along the way.’

One of the biggest contributors to burnout in the arts is working long, often irregular hours. While Lillie acknowledges this would be difficult to change due to the very nature of working in an industry that doesn’t abide by nine to five work hours.

‘It doesn’t mean that we can’t manage our time better. Something organisations can do is offer additional benefits as a result of observing those hours.

Lillie suggests implementing a salary increase plan , but acknowledges that can take years of benchmarking and financial planning.

Creating policies around rostered days off, giving staff a holiday for their birthday, or providing time off during the Christmas period that doesn’t affect their annual leave can provide staff with much needed recognition for the hard work.

Put self-care in the budget or contract

As many people working in the arts are freelancers or contractors, it is those without an organisation that provides annual leave or self-care policies that can be the hardest hit when it comes to burnout. Building self-care policies into individual contracts that outline exactly what the entitlements are is a start.

‘Particularly for independent practitioners, it should be encouraged to include costs such as professional supervision and professional development because those are the sorts of things that really contribute to someone being able to prioritise and appreciate their own self-care,’ said Lillie.

Above all, it is the responsibility of the organisation to establish if someone is an emerging practitioner or hasn’t worked with an organisation before and take the extra time to make sure they understand their rights, said Lillie.

A delegate at Making Time suggested that the “stop and check toolbox meetings” mandatory on many construction sites should be adopted by the arts. During a project, organisations must check in with contractors so that any potential dangers in terms of health and wellbeing are identified.

Nicole Beyer, Director, Theatre Network Victoria and co-convenor, ArtsPeak National said that it comes back to the empowerment of artists.

‘Within company situations, we need to empower the artist more. We need to lay out expectations in advance about the process of creating the work or presenting it – there are a whole lot of issues about creative control, where the control lies, who has got the right to make changes, who you are expected to work with, what resources you are allowed to use within a company environment. Making all that clear will empower artists and lead to happier artists,’ said Beyer.

Transient social connections as a result of working project to project also makes it hard for freelancers and contractors, said Beyer. ‘You don’t get to build up that social capital that you might if you are in one stable job, and that’s part of the problem. The sector can help build those networks and connections.’

Self-care should also be part of a funding application. ‘We need to do a bit of capacity building across the sector and look at what does professional self-care look like, as opposed to personal self-care where you might talk to your friend or get a mental health care plan from your GP.

‘But what are the things we consider professional self-care items that funding bodies could start to accept in budgets?’ asked Lillie.

Eradicate work-for-free culture from the top

With a sector relying heavily on unpaid work, working for free is a systemic issue in the arts. While not all artistic work is for money, Esther Anatolitis said it is the responsibility of the organisation to set the standard.

‘We talk about the culture of self-exploitation and being clear about what our personal boundaries are, but that assumes a level playing field between artists and salaried people, independent producers and companies.

Anatolitis referred to this the ‘dark side of exposure’. ‘If you are freelancer, you don’t always feel you can say no to something because this is someone who is in a position of power and they might not recommend you to others.

‘Given it is not a level playing field, it is up to the person who is making the approach to stop and think about the ethics of what they are doing and what it means to ask someone to work entirely for free when it is actually how they make their income,’ said Anatolitis.

NAVA has created a Code of Practice to assist creative professions in the visual art, design and craft sector that could be extended to encompass the work of writers, performers, directors, arts administrators, producers and the endless list of professional individuals who are frequently called upon to work for free.

Stop doing more with less

Lack of resources is often what prompts organisations or individuals to ask people to work for free. By addressing the problem of too much to do and not enough hands, think about taking a step back in your output before turning to free labour.

Managing FCAC’s venue and programming capacity is essential in making sure communities, artists, projects and ideas are supported, but that the organisation ‘doesn’t burn internal staff out in the process,’ said Lillie.

‘Have an awareness of your organisation’s capacity. We make sure we haven’t completely filled our program each year and we do that intentionally so that emotionally, spiritually, and energetically we have room to support the people we should.’

With the cuts to the Australia Council for the Arts budget, it is more pertinent than ever to stop trying to do more with less.

‘Stop giving the decision makers beyond government departments the sense that they can make cuts but that the arts will continue to thrive. There are real consequences and they are going to be difficult,’ said Anatolitis.

While coming from a well-meaning place, arts organisations often think they must keep doing the same amount of work and support the same number of artists, despite smaller purse strings.

Anatolitis views this as counterproductive. ‘Sometimes we can help artists better when we help fewer artists with more. If organisations are spreading themselves too thin, then there is a real risk that you are not going to have the time to offer the thoroughness and the rigour that is required.’

Eyes on the money

The precarious nature of arts work often requires juggling several roles and switching between freelance and salaried jobs, adding stress and instability that can contribute to burnout.

For Beyer, it is of fundamental importance that we advocate for better pay and conditions. Theatre Network Victoria recently completed its biannual salary survey and found that 77% of respondants earn less than $60,000.

‘That’s from any work they do, not just their art. On average, independents are working 11 different jobs per year.’

Initiatives such as the salary survey help raise awareness of these issues and has even seen payrates go up. ‘We know that having done the survey for small to medium organisations in 2009, the salaries have increased because a lot of people use it as a benchmark.

With the average yearly income for an author in Australia remains low at just $12,900, writer and outgoing Director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Sam Twyford-Moore sees a function of a formal literary body to look at pay rates and lobby for the sector.

‘Government needs to be shown that we are not just losing people because of burnout, but losing people to other industries because the money is not there and they are being treated badly.’

As pointed out by independent musician and co-director of Clocked Out, Vanessa Tomlinson, in the Senate Hearing in Brisbane, a lack of support for emerging and independent artists will lead to a ‘creative brain-drain’. Australian talent will be lost to other industries and countries if it is unsustainable to pave a career in the arts.

Another suggestion is for an arts funding body to have quick turnout funding scheme for emergency travel and cover accidents such as damaged laptops and other tools of the artistic trade.

Prioritise cultural diversity 

At the Senate Hearing in Paramatta, Sydney, editor of Mascara Literary ReviewMichelle Cahill pointed to the persisting racial hierarchies that create barriers when it comes to maintaining sustainable careers in the sector.

‘Culturally diverse writers are required to navigate inordinate obstacles. Too often, these become impassable barriers to overcome, or if they do succeed it is at great cost to their family, their livelihood and their health.’

To eradicate barriers to self-care for a diversity of cultures in the arts, Liss Gabb, team leader at cohealth arts generator, said the dominant white culture needs to interrogate its own unconscious bias.

‘It is a really big issue in the sector. While I consider my organisation to be pretty forward thinking in terms of cultural competency training and mental health first aid, we don’t actually do anything about examining white ignorance and looking at the systems of power that we are complacent in,’ said Gabb.

At the Making Time forum, Karen Jackson, Director, Moondani Balluk, Victoria University, said at every meeting, she puts her hand up and asks, ‘Have you thought about diversity?’

Recognising what structures a diversity of cultures need for self-care is essential. For Jackson, this means creating policies and ensuring Aboriginal academic staff are recognised for their work in community, its importance, and the time it takes.

Alongside an organisation’s code of conduct should be a statement that recognises the traditional owners of the land. ‘People question why we would need a statement that talks about trauma and history and loss, but you have a code of conduct that talks about being admirable and being open, so what is wrong with having another statement on the walls that talks about the real history of the land,’ added Jackson.

Provide support, not competition

With the cuts to Australia Council Funding and the confusion over the Australian Book Council, Twyford-Moore has observed that physical and mental health issues within the sector are ‘getting worse.’

Burnout is exacerbated by competition within the arts, said Twyford-Moore. ‘By its very nature the arts is competitive, grants and funding are competitive, we are told how highly competitive things are, but just because finances are competitive doesn’t mean you need to be competitive in your personal behaviour.’

It is about leading by example and not being so competitive, said Twyford-Moore. ‘Infrastructure in the form of a community based initiative could be the answer. I’d like to see more upper echelon, medium to large organisations providing support for small organisations and individual artists.’

‘Art can function without competitiveness,’ he added.

Jade Lillie agrees. ‘Our work really runs into all parts of our lives because we really love it, and we want to keep loving it so it is important to celebrate with each other.’

Budget cuts and limited funding pools will no doubt see individuals and organisations ‘go above and beyond and help each other out,’ said Anatolitis.

‘The best way to do that is to come from a place of strength, confidence, physical and mental wellbeing,’ concluded Anatolitis.

IMAGE CREDIT: Paper leaf – Sydney by street artist Miguel Marquez