BEI Breakfast Seminar: work life balance and career penalties in the performing arts

Professor Almuth McDowall led a lively and thought-provoking discussion at the first School of Business, Economics and Informatics Breakfast Seminar of the academic year.

On a crisp, autumnal Monday morning, academics from Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology, were joined by students, colleagues and professionals working in or with an interest in the performing arts for the first BEI Breakfast Seminar of the academic year. Rebecca Whiting hosted the seminar as this links to the department’s wider interest of working with culture, arts and the creative industries.

Professor Almuth McDowall, who was leading the discussion, began by explaining why the performing arts had become a special interest for her department. The performing arts are the largest employer in the arts and culture industry, yet there are many elements of the sector that need to be better understood. Curiously, the sector is notably absent from UK wide employment surveys and statistics such as the Work Employment Relations Survey, especially when it comes to improving work life balance. Work in the performing arts is often cyclical in nature, unpredictable and subsidised by another job to make ends meet. This is a sector where job sharing makes headline news.

Career penalties in the performing arts

Professor McDowall shared the key findings of Balancing Act, a survey carried out by academics from the Department of Organizational Psychology in collaboration with Parents and Carers in the Performing Arts (PiPA). While performing arts professionals are highly engaged at work, there is a toxic mix of high levels of job insecurity with low levels of employability. Of those who were surveyed, 54% didn’t have full time contracts, in contrast to 15% of the general population, and those with caring responsibilities were much less likely to be in full-time, secure roles.

Women were found to be disproportionately affected by precarious working practices than men due to the ‘second shift’: cooking dinner, making sure birthday cards are bought and continuing to ‘work’ in many ways once their paid working day has finished.

Women also suffer a pay penalty in an already low-paid industry; the median part-time earnings of women surveyed were £5,000 less than men, suggesting that they have to rely on social and financial capital outside of work in order to pursue a career in the performing arts.

When it comes to caring responsibilities, 44% of women and 36% of men have had to change their work roles for this reason, for example, by not touring, or choosing not to work in the West End in order to spend more time with the family.

Furthermore, respondents who had left the performing arts industry did so almost unanimously to become a parent, with those able to continue their career relying on their social capital (partners, friends or family) for support.

In an environment that is practically hostile to working parents, 12% of respondents reported facing discrimination and bullying at work, with one survey respondent warning that “[t]he industry will not care for you”.

The case for change

So, Professor McDowall asked the room, is the ‘deal’ in the arts to accept job insecurity? As a woman, should you try to marry rich, since that’s strategically your best career move? Since performing arts workers are ‘lucky’ to be doing a job they love, should they just keep quiet about the downsides?

As an alternative to accepting the status quo, PiPA has developed a best practice charter for the performing arts industry, starting with recruitment. Professor McDowall stressed that practical solutions do not have to be expensive or call for extra resource, they can be as simple as giving performers and backstage workers more notice of future scheduling.

She also called for more research in order to understand the role that social capital plays in the workforce, and how to equip people working in the arts to craft their careers and negotiate a better deal.

The talk was followed by a passionate discussion from industry professionals both seeking support and sharing best practice. In response to a question about the biggest barrier to change, Professor McDowall suggested that organizational culture remains a barrier, and that more work needed to be done to “research into the active ingredients that will promote culture change in the performing arts, as it’s not an industry where there is a lot of time to reflect and take stock.” The demands of the arts simply require that often getting the next production on stage will take priority over more people focused activities.

Far from just accepting the status quo then, the morning ended with positivity that change can be made in the performing arts industry, since, as Professor McDowall put it, “surely there is an onus on the performing arts to better reflect society?”

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Building better workplace wellness: a practical guide

On World Mental Health Day 2019, Birkbeck and CIPR Greater London Group came together to discuss how to manage the ‘always-on’ culture in the workplace.

Work, Workaholic, Writer, Programmer, One, Laptop

In the 26th year of World Mental Health Day, CIPR’s Steve Shepperson-Smith acknowledged that organisations are starting to take the issue more seriously – and rightly so, when mental health is the number one concern raised by PR practitioners, above finding or keeping work. More concerning still, is the fact that nearly a quarter of those in the industry who did raise mental health concerns with their managers reported that nothing had happened as a result. Clearly, then, there is more to be done.

In an evening of discussion between experts in workplace mental health and PR, we looked for practical solutions to combatting the ‘always-on’ culture in the workplace.

A key refrain of the evening was that actions speak louder than words – it is, of course, fantastic that organisations are acknowledging the importance of mental health, but this must translate into concrete steps to support their workers.

A case study of good mental health practice

Darryl Sparey, Business Development Director at Hotwire UK’s honest account of his company’s approach to mental health showed ways that well-meaning words can become more through a company-wide approach.

What will people think of me? is something that people ask themselves too often before they’re honest about their mental health in the workplace”, he said. Hotwire UK have developed a thoughtful working policy, where “We see work as a thing you do, not a place you go. We treat our staff as adults and let them do what works for them – if that means taking a break in the middle of the day for a run and returning to work later, then that’s what you do.”

Staff can also access a number of benefits that focus on mental health: the employee assistance programme includes a free helpline providing confidential support, both directly related to mental health and on issues that cause stress, such as legal and financial concerns.

From the top down, Hotwire UK have also worked to create a culture of openness, with everyone from the CEO to junior colleagues talking openly about their mental health day-to-day. Through actions as well as words, then, the organisation have shown their commitment to creating an environment of openness, where everyone can bring their whole self to work.

Mental health support at Birkbeck

The impact of leadership on workplace wellness was picked up by Charlotte Williams, head of Birkbeck’s counselling service. She shared the work of Birkbeck’s mental health consultancy, who are considering how leadership impacts workplace wellbeing, as well as how leaders can look after their mental health.

Williams stressed that mental health, like physical health, is a continuum, and when one in six British workers are affected by a mental health problem every year, it’s something that needs to be taken seriously. As the theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day is suicide, she spoke of the need for people to talk about their problems – “There’s a misconception that talking to a suicidal person might prompt them to take drastic action, but in fact talking about mental health almost always diffuses the issue,” she said.

While self-care is important on the side of the individual, Charlotte also had some practical advice for employers: “Value health and wellbeing as core assets in the workplace; train compassionate line managers so they are equipped to support their employees; address discrimination so that the wellbeing policy doesn’t just sit on the shelf; and ensure the CEO sets the tone for the organisation by talking about mental health.”

The research behind the ‘always-on’ culture

Almuth McDowall, Professor of Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck, shared how the changing world of work is fuelling the ‘always-on’ culture. She addressed the ‘double-bind’ that technology brings, providing at once greater opportunities for flexible working and a way of being forced to continue working outside designated hours.

“There is a culture of longer working hours developing, where it’s almost a badge of honour to have been in the office the longest,” she explained, “but in actual fact, once we work for longer than 50 hours a week, our productivity and performance nosedives, and the worst thing is that we don’t realise it.”

A few attempts have been made across Europe to address this new working culture. A law has been created in France where employees have the right to disconnect from their devices outside working hours. Meanwhile, in Germany, some companies are opting for systems where emails are held on the server and not sent to recipients during the evening or overnight.

Professor McDowall is sceptical of these one size fits all approaches, calling instead for organisations to work with employees to develop strategies for their unique setting and for everyone to build up their e-resilience by pursuing purposeful engagement with technology and e-communications, so that it is healthy and sustainable.

How to go about doing that? Professor McDowall advises beginning with the questions below, then starting a conversation in the workplace about mental health.

Some Questions:

  • Do you check your phone on the toilet?
  • Do you regularly take sneaky peeks at your laptop/tablet/phone while doing other tasks?
  • Do you multi-task on other gadgets while watching TV/films on your laptop?
  • Are you more likely to be on your gadgets at night than read a book?
  • Do you tell your kids off for always being on the phone, but don’t hear it when they speak to you because you’re checking emails?
  • Do others comment on your message checking behaviours?
  • Are you more likely to check your messages first thing in the morning than cuddle your partner or do other things?
  • Do you talk to others about, and if necessary negotiate, your technology and gadget use?
  • Is your bedroom a gadget-free zone?
  • Do you consciously think about how you use technology?
  • Do you set an example to your staff/co-workers about when and how to use technology for communications?
  • Have you communicated clear expectations about e-comms at work?
  • Would you rather speak to people than write an email?
  • Do you set yourself actual limits/boundaries for how and when to use technology?

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Survival story: Jodie was diagnosed with cancer four times while studying

For Jodie Cole, who graduated on Thursday 2 May with an MSc Organizational Behaviour, the path to graduation has been longer and harder than she could have envisaged when she applied to study at Birkbeck in 2012, 16 weeks before being diagnosed with stage four cancer. Given a 23% chance of survival, Jodie was determined that she would get the degree she’d always dreamed of having.

For most Birkbeck graduates, receiving their degree represents the culmination of many months or years of hard work.

For Jodie Cole, who graduated on Thursday 2 May with an MSc Organizational Behaviour, the path to graduation has been longer and harder than she could have envisaged when she applied to study at Birkbeck in 2012, 16 weeks before being diagnosed with stage four cancer.

Since then, Jodie has undergone four rounds of cancer and treatment, and will this month be celebrating not only her graduation, but 18 months cancer-free.

In 2012, Jodie had been working in HR for over two decades, and had a college diploma from her native Australia. However, she felt what she describes as a ‘burning passion to obtain this elusive piece of paper, in order to quiet that saboteur voice inside my head and prove to myself that I was as good as everyone else’.

Jodie, who lives in Geneva, Switzerland, explains: “I was the single mother of two teenagers. I never had the time or finances to further educate myself before that – it was poured into the children’s education. Once I was finally able to, in late 2012, as my teenage daughter applied to universities, so did I.”

A few months later, in early 2013, Jodie’s application was forgotten about, as she was diagnosed with stage four cancer; cancer in the breast, liver, ovaries, lymph nodes and bone. She says: “As I lay on the sofa feeling ill from the chemotherapy treatment, an email popped into my inbox stating the university had accepted my application for the Master’s programme.

“What was I to do?  This meant so much to me, and was something I had wanted so badly for so long. I was finally being offered a position at university and the possibility of achieving a major goal – a dream – of mine. How can I do this, yet how can I not?!”

So, despite having no hair, feeling sick, and having cancer, Jodie pressed the button that said ‘accept’.

In October that same year, after 18 weeks of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and still in the middle of her treatment, Jodie arrived in London as a university student for the first time, for the first weekend workshop.

“I turned up with a gleam in my eye and pride in my heart. I had made it this far, been accepted, got through cancer and was sitting there in a real university lecture hall. The feeling was exhilarating.”

During that first weekend, Jodie met fellow students whose friendship and support was invaluable during that year.

Unfortunately, Jodie’s breast cancer returned before the second year commenced and she had to defer her studies for another double mastectomy and more treatment. Most of her friends continued their studies and went on to graduate without her. Disheartened to be left behind but still keen to complete the programme, she was in the process of enrolling once again the following year when she was diagnosed for a third time with breast cancer. Her studies were deferred again. It took her many months to recover from this round as a more radical double mastectomy was required, followed by weeks of radiotherapy. When she thought there was a light at the end of the tunnel, her fourth diagnosis revealed she had liver cancer again.

She remembers: “I was becoming a broken record at the university admissions department. ‘Sorry, I have cancer, can I please defer?’ That piece of paper felt like it was getting further and further away from reality for me.”

It was in October 2017, while still on chemotherapy that Jodie says she: “threw caution to the wind and re-enrolled for my final year, determined to remain cancer free and complete my Master’s. That piece of paper was like a shiny beacon in my world. I wanted it, I had to have it, I was determined.”

The reality of studying while on chemotherapy was tough. Jodie describes it, saying: “the chemo was addling my mind, making me tired. Plus, I was now working on this alone at home, with no more comrades in arms like my first year. I was distance-learning, logging in remotely to listen to lectures and study at hours that suited me (and the doctors’ schedule). Sitting exams was the toughest part for me as my memory was not what it used to be at all, and then there was the research and writing of the dissertation. I am absolutely sure all of my girlfriends and family were just as pleased and relieved as I was the day I mailed in my dissertation paper.”

When Jodie received her ‘confirmation of award’ letter from Birkbeck it was a moment of intense emotion. She says:  “To me, the piece of paper represents survival. It represents crossing that finishing line and being given the gold medal – for everything I’ve been through in the past six years, and for being alive. That piece of paper means believing in myself, in achieving my goals and that I CAN do anything. That piece of paper is success.”

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Graduation Spring 2016: Teacher becomes student (Part 2)

This post was contributed by Dr Frank Watt, who this week graduated from Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology. Sharing the platform with Dr Watt on the day was his PhD supervisor Professor Patrick Tissington, Head of the department. Not just that, he was also a previous employee of Dr Watt’s! Yesterday, Professor Tissington told his side of the story (read his blog entry here). Today, it’s Frank’s turn.

Dr Frank Watt

Dr Frank Watt

After gaining two masters degrees, I guess I could have been satisfied with academic achievement and left studying behind. For me however, the challenge of successfully completing a PhD was more than tempting, it would satisfy a personal desire or need. I could put it down to ambition, taking on something big or even sheer curiosity but, it was simply a love of research and learning and I really wanted to do it; no, I mean I really wanted to do it.

Having completed 33 years in the fire and rescue service I was able to retire and move on to do something else. So timing was perfect. The work associated with a PhD would perhaps fill the void created by not having to meet the demands of being an Assistant Chief Fire Office.

I enrolled at Aston University in early October 2008 with Patrick Tissington as my main supervisor. This was more complex than a than it would seem as Patrick, now Professor Tissington, was my student in all things fire service when undertaking his PhD during a secondment to the Fire Service College in Moreton in Marsh. The role reversal appeared to work as we had already established rules for working together only this time it would be me on the receiving end of feedback and timely reminders that a piece of work was overdue!

The following couple of years were mainly focussed on looking for a subject area that provided a gap in knowledge and sufficient contribution to research at PhD level. There were quite a few false trails but whilst attending a review meeting with Patrick, the conversation wandered into discussing efficacy at self and group level and there it was, the focus of my research. With my background in commanding natural hazard emergencies and developing pre and post disaster plans I was always curious as to how or if members of a community could contribute to deployed professional resources. By extending the concept of efficacy to community level would it be possible to measure the likelihood of a community getting involved in preparing for a natural hazard event.

Just as I was in the moment so to speak, I had a bit of a wobble. A very dear friend collapsed and died in front of me and despite my life saving efforts I was unable to help him. Thirty three years dealing with deaths and injuries had not it seemed prepared me for such an event. It would be six months before I could concentrate and return to my research. At this point, it may seem callous of me to suggest that ‘life happens, deal with it’, but that’s exactly how it is. People including you will be affected by deaths, births, marriages, divorces and all the other events that can and will occur during the time it takes to complete a PhD. I was fortunate as according to a 360 degree psychometric, I have a high degree of tenacity and personal resilience that kept me going.

Sometime later Dr P. Tissington became a professor here at Birkbeck and I was to follow. Now that I had moved and settled into the Birkbeck way my research started to gather momentum. I reached out to friends and family to test their responses to my research. Using social networks and a landing page for my questionnaire, I was able to tap into any number of sources including organisations that were involved in communities and risk planning.

(L-R) Dr Frank Watt and Professor Patrick Tissington

(L-R) Dr Frank Watt and Professor Patrick Tissington

One of the major successes was securing over 500 responses from residents living in high risk flood zones. This data provided me the quantitative results that both supported my qualitative results and the research rationale as a whole, leaving rather smug. However in my rush to submit my thesis in order to comply with a self-imposed deadline, I was careless in my writing and did not meet the high quality level demanded in order to gain a Birkbeck PhD and although passing the Viva, I was left with a substantial rework of the submission. This coincided with the selling of our family house and moving into a motorhome.

In all the upheaval I still managed to submit an amended thesis which was accepted allowing me to graduate in April 2016 some 7 years, 7 months after filling in a PhD application form in Patrick’s office. On reflection my research was at times a labour of love, a mill stone round my neck and all consuming. I believe I appeared selfish in my focuss to achieve and I apologise to my wife family and friends for any offence or discomfort caused.

The written element occurred anywhere I found time to sit down with my laptop, iPad, phone or just plain pencil and paper. I wrote substantial pieces on trains, planes and sat on the playas or waiting for the weather to clear whilst climbing in Scotland. The mantra must be ‘write, write and write some more’. During the seven years I have climbed 178 mountains, cycled 1000 kilometres across Spain and competed in many triathlons and endurance events, but my research which was never very far away was without doubt my most difficult undertaking.

My last observation would be, procrastination was my enemy, tenacity and resilience were my friends. I’d be glad to introduce you to my friends.

(Read part 1 of this story)

Watch below to see Prof Tissington and Dr Watt speaking after the spring graduation ceremony

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