Mental wellbeing: why the creative industry is harming its employees

creative professional at desk looking sad/depressed
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Free yoga classes won’t fix mental wellbeing in the creative industries. It requires a bigger shift in culture and leaders with more emotional intelligence.

You don’t have to look back far at some of the greatest figures in literature, the arts and music to find tragic stories about mental health.

From Sylvia Plath to Robin Williams, the image of the troubled artist has almost become synonymous with creative expression.

When you consider how stressful and uncertain the conditions that come with working in the creative industries are, it’s all too easy to see how doing something you love can turn swiftly very sour.

In fact, research by wellbeing charity Inspire and Ulster University highlighted that people working in the creative industries are three times more likely to suffer from mental health problems than the general public.

The most common diagnosed disorders amongst creative employees were anxiety (36%), and depression (32%).

Given that one in four people in the UK will experience mental health issues at some point in their life, it would be remiss to not consider that employers have a part to play in prevention and support.

An employer’s market

The impressive growth performance of the UK’s creative industries, from design and advertising to video games, film and music, has meant they are recognised by the government as a national strength and a priority for industrial policy.

They generate more than a billion pounds per year for the UK economy.

Despite this, in the creative industries, HR simply doesn’t wield as much clout as in the mainstream corporate sector. I’ve heard of plenty of companies that don’t even have an HR manager, let alone department or outsourced provider. Contract? Forget it.

That’s because it’s a much sought after sector to work in, with huge competition to land coveted roles.

If someone leaves you can be sure there’s a stack of CVs in the drawer to ensure a successor is in their seat by the afternoon.

Yes, there may be beanbags, free yoga sessions or bicycle hire marketed as staff benefits, but that won’t fix the sheer scale of mental health issues in the sector.

A lack of effective leadership

One of the first things to suffer in a creative maelstrom can be appropriate leadership and management.

Often, those who rise up the rungs are uber-talented visionaries for whom textbook approaches to business and management are culturally and psychologically inappropriate.

Unfortunately, they are probably not going to be the most approachable when a direct report is in distress.

That’s because creative practice isn’t seen as a job in the traditional sense, more as a calling, bound up with our identities – it defines us, it ‘is’ us.

As individuals and as employers or commissioners, we need to think about the ways we work and the pressure we put on ourselves, and on each other. 

One of the particular difficulties of working in the creative industry is that the work can feel so personal – our ideas, designs, words, and strategies - they all come from our hearts.

Therefore getting stressed, pulling all-nighters, getting irritated with people who aren’t working how we want them to can all feel reasonable because the project is our ‘baby’.

Throw into the mix the juggling of skills – the fact that you have to be full of ideas while at the same time doing the figures and meeting tight deadlines and it’s easy to see why it often requires superhuman attributes. It can also be immensely isolating work.

No-one wants to look like they’re not up to the job and will put themselves under ridiculous pressure to mask their emotions. It’s one of the many things that make it hard to talk about mental health in the creative professions.

Putting wellbeing policies in place

As individuals and as employers or commissioners, we need to think about the ways we work and the pressure we put on ourselves, and on each other.

It’s not about naming and shaming ‘bad’ employers, it’s about sharing ideas, best practice and support mechanisms to ensure we preserve and foster the world’s greatest talent bank.

As Picasso said: ‘Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.’

It’s not that I think employers don’t want to create structures to support their staff’s mental health, I just think often they don’t have the time or knowledge as to how to begin or what to do.

The good news is that people who are creative are very likely to be much more in touch with their feelings and highly responsive to psychotherapeutic interventions.

Psychotherapy lends itself well to the creative process and it can also help employers create better environments. In fact, creativity and psychotherapy are two sides of the same coin.

One of the many things psychotherapy can teach in the workplace is self-care – how to recognise stress and ensure that your coping strategies are healthy and sustainable. Knowing when to take a break is critical to avoiding burnout.

For managers, self-awareness is so crucial to forging positive and motivating working relationships.

It cannot be underestimated how powerful it is to discuss the challenges and thrills of working life with a non-judgmental, highly trained professional.

It’s a huge myth that psychotherapists just work with individuals ‘on the couch’, in fact quite the opposite as they work equally with pairs and teams.

As Picasso said: ‘Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.’  

Next steps

If you are an HR professional working in the creative sector, the good news is that there is a growing resource of support for you in ensuring a mentally healthier working environment:
  • Effective treatments for mental health issues and emotional problems include talking therapies. Find out where to speak to a highly trained and regulated psychotherapist here
  • Consider Mental Health First Aid training. Find our more here
  • Mental health needs should be met with an understanding of the pressures of working in the industry such as Artsminds and Music Support
  • Employers should seek advice with Time to Change. Online and telephone support services for employees' emotional needs include Samaritans and Sane Line
  • Awareness building of alcohol and substance abuse and the effects on creativity and health should be made. Head to sites including Frank and Drinkaware for help and advice

Interested in this topic? Read Employee mental health and wellbeing – are you doing enough?

About Sarah Niblock

Professor Sarah Niblock

A journalist, broadcaster and academic, Sarah became CEO of UK Council for Psychotherapy in September 2017, and is tasked with shaping the organisation to play a leading role in improving access to high quality talking therapies. She is cut from very different cloth to most professors and CEOs we know. She is a published author on musician Prince, has arms full of tattoos and writes from her houseboat on a north London canal.

Sarah’s own background is not “average” for a chief executive. From a working class family in Merseyside, she was raised solely by her mother from the age of two. NCTJ-trained, she worked first as a journalist in the North-West reporting on stories like Hillsborough and the murder of James Bulger. She then moved into university lecturing, training students in journalism, before relocating to London in the mid-1990s. She subsequently achieved a Masters and a PhD in psychoanalytical theory and visual culture.

Previous to joining UKCP, she was professor and associate dean at University of Westminster’s School of Media, Arts and Design and she has published research on media, trauma and ethics as well as popular music and identity. An academic fellow of the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University, she commentates on media ethics, specifically trauma and journalism, for a range of outlets. Sarah is co-author (with Stan Hawkins) of 'Prince: The Making of a Pop Icon' (Ashgate) and numerous other books, chapters and articles. She has presented to the paying public on pop culture at Latitude, the Southbank and the ICA.

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