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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