At the end of 2018, Theatre Forum carried out a survey on pay and working conditions in the performing arts. The results of the survey were accompanied by testimonials from artists who spoke candidly about their financial struggles. These were well-known theatre and dance artists, artists who make a new show every year, who have won awards for their work and toured internationally. They are so obviously successful in their chosen careers that it’s natural to assume that they would also be making a good living but despite appearances, their livelihoods still felt precarious. The results of the survey proved that this was more than just a feeling. According to the 144 artists and creative practitioners and 97 arts organisations who responded, average weekly earnings in the arts in 2018 were 30% lower that the average across all sectors (€494.98 compared to €740.32). As well as low wages, the precarious nature of the work means a lack of financial stability, as well as difficulty keeping up with PRSI contributions. There’s also the fact that most arts organisations do not make employer pension contributions or provide a top up to state maternity benefit.
People don’t go into the arts for the money. Jobs in theatre in particular are not sought after for their earning potential. As a result, theatre artists tend to be resourceful and good at surviving on low wages. When they turn around and say that this is no longer sustainable, it’s a clear indication that we have reached a crisis point in the industry. Not only are wages falling while inflation rises, there is also a lack of opportunity for career advancement. The possibility of getting to a point where you can earn higher wages, or have the security of regular work is becoming more and more distant. Theatre and the arts are not the only careers where career progression is slow and sometimes seems impossible. The idea of spending your entire working life with one company is becoming more and more unlikely but now even permanent jobs are becoming harder to find. Temporary contracts are becoming the norm, as well as freelancers being hired for jobs that 5-10 years ago would have been full-time, in-house roles. A lot of jobs are precarious nowadays, and job insecurity, especially when it is combined with financially insecurity, can really mess with your head.
How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation is a Buzzfeed essay that went viral last January. In it, Anne Helen Peterson writes about how people now in their twenties and thirties, entered the job market during in a recession which meant they were competing with a larger number of applicants for a reduced number of jobs. She talks about how these workers learnt to be the most efficient worker bees possible, optimising their leisure time so they could do more work and spending their free time “curating” their social media feeds to make themselves standout and be more attractive to future employers. But all that optimisation didn’t have the expected result. Peterson writes;
“Our efficiency hasn’t bucked wage stagnation; our steadfastness hasn’t made us more valuable. If anything, our commitment to work, no matter how exploitative, has simply encouraged and facilitated our exploitation. We put up with companies treating us poorly because we don’t see another option. We don’t quit. We internalize that we are not striving hard enough.”
The essay goes on to describe how this always on, always striving way of life almost inevitably leads to burnout.
Burnout can be described as emotional depletion caused by too much responsibility with too little authority. Burnout feels like the constant fluttery panic that you’ve forgotten something. Burnout makes you forget things. It disturbs your sleep because your brain can’t switch off. It keeps you hopping from task to task because your attention-span is shot to hell. It has you on the verge of tears when someone asked “how are you?”; because you don’t have the words to describe how you are but you know you’re not ok. Burnout is insidious. It creeps in slowly, like the lobster in the pot of water slowly being boiled alive. It’s hard to feel the water heating up because the idea of working all the time has been normalised. It’s worse than normal – it’s held up as the best possible way to get what you want and be successful. After all, everybody else is doing it and they seems fine so if you’re struggling, then you must be the problem.
This is the other thing that makes it really hard to spot burnout – you’re too busy blaming yourself. You’re not working hard enough; if you just get through this week, or this project, or this year, then you’ll catch your breath, get organised and it will all be fine again. Or maybe you need to try harder to have a good work/life balance, maybe you should try meditation or exercise or a self-care bubble bath. But these are just more things to fit into your day and none of it makes you feel better. You’re chasing something that’s impossible to catch, like the hamster on a wheel, running all the time and getting nowhere. It’s not even any fun anymore – the running, the projects, the work. That should be a red flag – when you stop enjoying things. If you’re not getting any joy or job satisfaction when you complete a project, when good news doesn’t feel like something to celebrate because it’s just another thing to stress about; then something has to change. The work isn’t going to get easier, you can’t work hard enough to fix it; you’re not broken, the situation is.
Anne Helen Peterson describes burnout as the base temperature for millennials, that it helps to recognise it but there’s not a whole lot we can do about it because it’s the way that the world is set up. She’s right – burnout can’t be fixed with self-care rituals or a life-hack. We have to change how the world is set up. We need to stop worrying about self-care and start dismantling the system.
Most improvements to labors laws happened as a result of trade union activism. Things that seemed radical at the time like weekends and paid overtime and holiday pay (things that arts workers still don’t always get) happened because of pressure from workers and their unions. Artists often aren’t considered workers in the same way as bus drivers or teachers. They’re told that they are “lucky to do something they love” and are always in danger of having their work treated as a hobby. But artists are workers – they are doing a job and trying to make a living – and they should be entitled to the same rights and conditions as other workers. Art workers also struggle with the same things that cause hardship for other workers, things like the high cost of rent and child-care. As well as working to improving conditions within a workplace, unions also work to improve the conditions of the society we live in.
The only time I was a member of a union was when I worked for a trade union. It wasn’t compulsory but it was encouraged. There were union reps on staff and every now and then an email would go round asking if anyone wanted to join. Joining was easy – you just filled out a form and the subscriptions would be deducted from your salary. There were also semi-regular meetings which you got time off to attend. This meant the union felt active, even though we didn’t have any big disputes while I was there. This also meant I got to see the “business as usual” work of a union. Unions bring people together – nothing bonds people quicker than a common enemy – but at union meetings the bitching about the bosses that happens in quiet corners around the office, start happening around the table with everybody. It’s taken seriously and instead of just venting, you get to decide what action you want to take. There was often discussions around pensions and wages; unions are really helpful to bring money issues into the open. Concerns and complaints can be raised by “the staff” so no one person has to worry about repercussions or drawing attention to themselves. A company responds different to the union. That collective bargaining is pretty radical stuff.
At Theatre Forum’s annual conference in June 2019, there was a panel called Valuing Artists that looked at a lot of these issues. One of the speakers was Ann Russell from Irish Equity. They are a trade union that represents actors, theatre directors, stage and set designers in Ireland and are part of SIPTU. She put the membership at 600 members which I felt was surprisingly low compared to the number of people working in theatre in Ireland but at the same time, Equity doesn’t have a very visible presence here. The workers that Equity represent are often freelance artists so they are not in a workplace where everyone’s a member of the union and joining is just the done things to do. It is harder for freelance artists to get involved in a union but it is worth doing. Equity has had some recent wins on behalf of its members; they got the welfare system for actors extended (often referred to as the artist’s dole) last year and they are also working on getting a three year tax assessments for artists. The strength of a union is in numbers. Equity membership costs less than €2 a week. (That figure is from an Equity spokesperson at another Theatre Forum event in December, I can’t find a breakdown of subscriptions on their website.) Being part of a union gives you somewhere to go with complaints and grievances, whether they are about unfair work practices or bullying and harassment.
Having a strong, collective voice is a vital part of improving working conditions in any sector but it can be hard to find that voice in an industry that’s made up predominately of freelancers. Trade unions and member organisations like Theatre Forum help their members make their voices heard because they speak louder because they speak together. Another organisation that shares this aim is the NCFA.
NCFA (National Campaign for the Arts) is a volunteer-led, grassroots movement that makes the case for the Arts in Ireland. It was formed in 2009, during the last recession and seeks to ensure that the arts are recognised as a vital part of contemporary Irish life. Often this means asking the government for more arts funding and suggesting better ways of distributing that money. In Budget 2020, the arts received just under €193 million. This is still a long way off the pre-recession, 2008 arts budget of €245 million. Of course there are many under-funded services across the state but the choice doesn’t have to be to fund a hospital or fund the arts. Trump’s visit last year cost the tax payer more than €10 million. The Papal visit in 2018 cost €18 million. These are two events only that took place over a couple of days. The Arts Council received €80 million in the most recent budget and that’s for the entire year.
Arts funding is not about giving artists money to make stuff, it’s about enabling artists to share their work with audiences and making the work accessible to as many people as possible. By funding the arts properly, a government not only demonstrates that it believes art is important, it also shows that it values its citizens and believes they deserve to have art in their lives. Supporting artists is important because art is a valuable, necessary part of life. We need stories and new ways of seeing things. Art is a way of keeping the darkness at bay. It can be a place of refuge when you are feeling burntout and empty. The value and importance of art is what the NCFA is trying to get across to the government. You can find out how to help on their website. You don’t have to work in the arts to support the NCFA, you just have to think that art is valuable. They are currently running a survey to find out what is most important to people when it comes to the arts. You can fill that out here and you can also sign up to help campaign in the upcoming General Election and make sure the arts is on the political agenda.
Getting involved in organisations like NCFA is a good way to help bring about change but it can have more immediate benefits as well. On the same Valuing Artists panel at the Theatre Forum conference in Wexford, theatre director and NCFA steering committee member Eoghan Carrick said that getting involved with the NCFA was beneficial for his mental health because it meant he felt better informed about what was being done or not being done. Doing something is always better than doing nothing. Generally, the more in control of your life you feel, the happier you are. Getting informed and involved helps you take some control. It’s the opposite of the feeling of too little authority that contributes to burnout.
The way the world of work is currently set up is not good for us. Work isn’t meant to feel like an endless slog that drains the joy from every other aspect of your life. Hoping that it will get easier or that you’ll get better at coping isn’t going to work. If you’re feeling burnt-out, recognise it, name it and try not to blame yourself. You’re not the one that’s broken. At the same time, try not to indulge in burnout behaviour or expect it from others. Take time away from work, don’t say yes to too many tasks, get a hobby. It can be an indulgence because being busy feels good, as Emilie Pine articulates beautifully in her article about the pleasure of overworking – When Burnout Becomes a Badge of Honour. This is another reason why it’s hard to make changes on your own and why we need to change the system that encourages and rewards this destructive behaviour. So mind yourself but also join a union, get involved politically and help create the world you want to live in.