When I found out this year’s World Mental Health Day theme was ‘mental health in the workplace’, it certainly gave me pause for thought. What is my workplace, exactly? Until three years ago the answer was relatively simple – it was the office of the company I worked for. I went there five days a week and sat at my own desk. At the end of each day I went home. I got paid the same amount of money every month.
These days it’s more complicated. For two days each week I work as arts lead for the Mental Health Foundation, but the nature of my job means that my workplace is more often a rehearsal room, an auditorium, a community centre, a café, or a train, than my desk in the charity’s Glasgow office. The rest of the time I work as an arts freelancer, and my workplace is wherever my laptop happens to be – my dining room table, my sofa, sometimes the working surface in the kitchen, trying to answer urgent messages while making dinner for my children.
In lots of ways, this suits me quite well. I like working from home, the amount of time it allows me to spend with my children, and the freedom it gives me to take breaks when I choose and switch between different ways of working. In mental health terms, though, the freelance lifestyle presents clear and consistent challenges – from trying to make ends meet (the most obvious source of stress for anyone with irregular working patterns) to setting clear work/life boundaries, especially when you have to combine work with childcare.
About a year ago, after struggling to balance taking care of my young son with the daily demands of freelance work, I made a point of setting an out of office message on my email, clarifying – hour by hour and day by day – when I probably wouldn’t respond to messages. I decided to share this on Facebook, and was taken aback by the response – dozens of messages from people praising me for my bravery, many of them wishing they could do the same. Brave? Surely it was just practical and sensible? Many people, though, are so afraid of missing an offer of work, or of messing up the piece of work we are currently doing and not being offered more, that we chain ourselves to our laptops and phones 24 hours a day. Sometimes I’ve sent work emails to fellow freelancers at 11pm at night, anticipating an answer the next day, and instead had a response within 15 minutes. (This is true for many people on contracts too, of course, although for freelancers the financial stakes are much higher).
How do you maintain positive mental health in a scenario like this? The answer, on the face of it, is to make sure you switch off for at least some of the day. Except that for those of us who work in the arts it can actually be difficult to say whether we’re switched off or on much of the time. If I go to the theatre, or a gig, or a film, is that work or play? Am I relaxing or researching? What if my way of relaxing is researching? For a storyteller, even a conversation in a pub can feel like work, as friends’ anecdotes inspire ideas for plays, poems or songs. No wonder so many artists seem to prefer swimming, running or yoga as a way to unwind – away from laptops, phones and other people with infectious ideas.
If the work you’re making is exploring mental health – as is the case with most of the artists I work with – those work/life boundaries can be even blurrier. On the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival website just now you can read SMHAF associate artist Emma Jayne Park talking about making It’s Not Over Yet, a show for this year’s festival about her recent cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment, and the impact this had on her mental health. She describes “frequently having to decipher between when I am making the work and when I am simply processing what I am going through”. It’s a common conundrum for artists. Elsewhere on the site you can read Jenny Lindsay pondering the difficulty of balancing work, life, and creativity.
In my three years of developing and programming new artistic work that explores mental health, I have been very aware of a troubling irony – that, while so many more artists are now opening up about their mental health experiences (which is a positive thing), the process of making work about those experiences is not always good for your mental health. Imagine, for example, performing a show about living with depression and anxiety at the Edinburgh Fringe, a scenario in which you – already a freelance performer with no job security and little guaranteed income – are working long, exhausting hours not just performing but promoting your show, against intense competition, in financially precarious circumstances, while watching other shows – shows that are also about mental health, increasingly - hoover up awards and four star reviews while yours languishes in obscurity. How well are you coping with your anxiety right now? An important part of our work at the Mental Health Foundation, then, has been trying to support artists throughout this process, and ensure they are not taking on more than they can handle. This year, for example, we ran an event at the Edinburgh Fringe called Mental Health is a Fringe Issue, a workshop for performers to share their experiences with likeminded people.
Ultimately though, there is only so much we can do. If you’re a staff member for an organisation, while there is certainly no guarantee that you will be living with positive mental health, talking about it is theoretically straightforward. We can talk – as my Mental Health Foundation colleague Chris O’Sullivan did a few days ago – about the benefits of good line management. We can talk about mindfulness, or team-building, or the role of Mental Health First Aiders. At the Mental Health Foundation, as you’d expect, we do this a lot. Over my two days a week here I benefit from a supportive and understanding line manager and a regular team of colleagues who are a great source of camaraderie and solidarity. It is the first workplace I have ever been in where I have felt comfortable talking about my long-term struggle with anxiety and depression (which is, unfortunately, not a great reflection on workplaces in general). This, though, makes me all the more conscious that I have none of this support in my freelance work.
I am also aware that I can handle freelancing partly because I have already spent 20 years establishing myself as a safe pair of hands, mostly while working with the safety net of long-term contracts. I have also had 20 years to learn how to take care of my mental health – something for which, as a freelancer, you have to take full responsibility, not only in terms of managing a healthy work/life balance but also in terms of managing the stress of having to constantly chase money, and somehow not taking rejection personally (inevitably you will pitch, and apply for, many more sources of money and employment than you will get).
If I’m not coping, then – and sometimes I am not – I worry deeply about the mental health of everyone else without steady work, particularly the generation below me, so many of whom have never had the luxury of a staff job that is in any way fulfilling – and for whom even a staff job will often mean a zero hours contract for an exploitative employer which strongly discourages trade union membership. And things don’t seem likely to get better. A 2015 report by IPSE found that the number of freelancers in the UK increased by 36% between 2008 and 2015. Tax Research UK, meanwhile, last year reported that almost 80% of self-employed people in the UK are living in poverty. The typical self-employed person earns 40 per cent less than an employee and is more likely to live on a low income.
I don’t have an answer to this. But I do know that to bring up the idea of ‘mental health in the workplace’ requires us to confront some difficult and painful truths about the way so many of us currently live and work. So I’m glad it’s being talked about. It needs to be, urgently.
You can find more information about World Mental Health Day, and resources for managing mental health in the workplace, on the Mental Health Foundation website.