Why we are burning out in the arts

Working long hours for low pay, fighting for budgets and the emotional exhaustion tied to creative output are a recipe for burnout. Learn how to avoid it.
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Even by arts industry standards, poet, playwright, fantasy novelist, columnist, librettist and performance critic Alison Croggon has a lot to juggle.

She admits she has ‘flirted with burnout’ for years.

‘Burnout is an occupational hazard in the arts,’ said Croggon. ‘There’s no doubt that artists face particular issues, which are largely to do with the fact that so many work outside institutions, often alone, and have no structures to assist them or any kind of financial stability.’

Burnout is a challenge for anyone who works hard in a competitive and unrelenting profession. But there are particular issues for those in the arts industries.

‘I’d say a major pressure in the arts comes from living a life of constant financial insecurity. Artists work very hard, usually in multiple ways on several different projects, but this labour seldom gives you a regular income, so you’re coping with stresses that don’t have to do with your work, but are a result of it.

As Croggon progresses in her career, such stress has become harder to handle. ‘A life in the arts is rewarding in so many ways, but you have to be very lucky just to make a living wage. When I see stuff about superannuation, I just laugh. What superannuation?’

Read more: Anti-burnout advice for freelancers

With a career spanning finance, human rights, academia and the arts, Head of the Academy at UWS James Arvanitakis is in a position to observe that people in the arts are particularly prone to burnout.

Working in a field which can not only a passion but also provide a sense of identity for many, means there are tendencies for arts workers to never switch off, and accept any work including low paid and sometimes unpaid opportunities.

‘Combined, this means working for a lot of hours for not much pay… people tend to live quite precariously in the arts and can burn out,’ said Arvanitakis.

Josephine Ridge, Artistic Director, Melbourne Festival said the under-resourcing of arts organisations may also contribute to the problem. ‘People somehow expect that they work long hours and accept it as normal that we are often working during what other people call weekends,’ she said.

‘I think the level of resourcing in most arts companies would not be acceptable in the corporate sector.’

The pressure to do more, more, more

In an industry where we are constantly reminded of how difficult it is to break into, when opportunities do arise it can feel as if there is a pressure to say yes, or you will get left behind.

But for Arvanitakis, taking on more than he could manage wasn’t doing anyone any favours. ‘I was producing substandard work that I didn’t think was up to scratch. I thought I’d rather do less stuff and do it better, than continue to just do more and more with the fear that I’d be left behind.’

‘It’s really important that we confront the fear of missing out and recognise that it is okay to say no to things, those opportunities will come back again. I think we do need to accept the fact that we can’t do everything,’ said Arvanitakis.

When being ‘busy’ is mistaken as a badge of honour, there can be a stigma in admitting you are suffering from burnout that only exacerbates its symptoms.

Angharad Wynne-Jones, Artistic Director at Arts Melbourne, Arts House and North Melbourne Town Hall told ArtsHub, ‘I think when my energy is depleted I feel most vulnerable and lacking in confidence, so admitting that I am exhausted feels really exposing.’

Such hesitance to admit when we need to take a step back can be harmful. ‘It’s definitely counter-productive: it just means that people feel that they have to be superhuman, or else they’re failures. Which only adds to the pressure,’ said Croggon.

As a freelancer there can often be a pressure to continually work, said Croggon. ‘It’s both internal, your home is your workplace, and external – the need to pay the rent. Most writers I know seldom take holidays, and if they do, they’re usually work-related and seldom have days off.

‘The plus side is that your time is your own to manage, but it’s too easy to fall into a default of working all the time. When you combine that with having a life, family and so on, it can just wear you out. It’s not dramatic, it just creeps up.’

The problem with the work-for-free culture

Emerging curator Sabrina Sokalik is currently working at the National Institute of Experimental Arts and has observed that the sector relies a lot on unpaid work.

‘I personally find that deeply problematic, partly because it only allows certain people with more resources to enter the sector – people from lower socio-economic backgrounds have more difficulty as they don’t have the capacity to work unpaid,’ said Sokalik.

‘When I was doing my masters I knew so many administrators who were working full-time and studying full-time, and then volunteering and doing unpaid work, all because this is so standard in terms of career development.

‘I saw burnout all the time and have certainly experienced it myself because of the high expectations we put on ourselves,’ said Sokalik.

To help combat the culture of working for free, Sokalik encourages creatives to define what they are worth.

‘What projects are worth your time? What projects can you afford to give time to for free and sometimes?’ she asks.

‘Maybe it’s not a good idea to give a big institution your time. Maybe your own individual or collaborative projects may be more valuable,’ said Sokalik.

To maintain the health of the individual workers, it’s essential that the industry continues to be an advocate for adequate compensation for labour, said Arvanitakis.

‘We need to educate people to take responsibility and pay artists – it’s about raising consciousness that people need to get paid for their work, it is as simple as that.’

‘The arts is not peripheral to society – it is society. And the role of the arts in society has never been more important’

The paradox of doing what you love and switching off

Josephine Ridge has been working in the arts for 30 years and has observed that the blurring between professional and private life can lead to burnout.

‘When I go to the theatre, am I working or I am not working? I don’t know,’ said Ridge. ‘There are not a lot of professions where the thing you do for work is the thing you chose for your recreation.’

‘So how do you switch off, where do you go, what do you do? I think very often you do spend your leisure time within the arts.’

Aside from long hours and low pay, there is also the emotional toll that comes hand in hand with working in the arts.

‘Imaginative work requires an intensity of empathetic labour that can be very demanding,’ said Croggon.

‘The thing I find most insidious is emotional exhaustion, which mostly comes from fiction writing; reviewing, responding to other people’s work, is tiring, but in an entirely different way.’

Prioritising self-care

‘We often talk about sustainability of the planet and of other people, but we rarely practice it ourselves,’ said Arvanitakis.

One way to practice self-care is to continue to raise the issue. From 29-30 October, Footscray Community Arts Centre will invite leading arts professionals to share advice on how to manage self-care while examining how the sector advocate for funding and recognition in Making Time: Arts and Self-Care.

Arvanitakis also suggests building solidarity networks and checking in on each other. ‘It is important that we as artists or arts workers are always keeping an eye out for each other and asking if people are alright.’

Self-care is incredibly subjective, making it important to recognise our own limits as opposed to comparing what we do to others. While Ridge has not experienced severe burnout, she acknowledges everybody feels tired and has learned how to manage her time and energy.

‘It is incredibly personal, but I manage my time well. I know when I need to rest and I know when I have more energy to do more things. You just have to listen to your body and be very self-aware of your emotions and stress levels.’

Croggon has also become a lot more vigilant about monitoring her energy levels. ‘This year, when I found myself so exhausted, I realised I had to confront some things.

‘I made some practical decisions: I turned down a bunch of work that I knew would stress me further, I stopped going to theatre that I wasn’t being paid to review, and so on. I had a good look at my life.

‘I checked out my health with the doctor. I am trying to be better at self-care, exercising, eating well, making sure I get enough rest and not feeling guilty about it. I dealt with some personal relationships that had been emotionally punishing me for years to no good end, and started taking more care of the people I love.

Ultimately, it is about finding ways to make her existence sustainable, said Croggon. ‘I still want to do all the things I do, I just have to get better at managing myself, or risk crashing seriously.

‘For me, the solution has to be holistic, because being an artist is a way of life, and resisting burnout means looking at every aspect of how you live,’ she said.

While arts workers may associate self-care with selfishness, ultimately keeping burnout at bay enables you to better care for others and advocate for the sector.

‘The arts community has to get better at looking after its own. There was a session at last year’s Australian Theatre Forum in which dozens of independent artists discussed how to deal with significant stresses they face, and I think the fact that people are talking about it, sharing experience and resources, is a really important thing. But it’s only a beginning,’ concluded Croggon.

Have you experienced burnout or witnessed it in others? We want to hear your stories and how you have dealt with some of the challenges of working in the arts.

Further reading:
50 ways to take care of yourself in the arts
Madeleine Dore
About the Author
Madeleine Dore is a freelance writer and founder of Extraordinary Routines, an interview project exploring the intersection between creativity and imperfection. She is the previous Deputy Editor at ArtsHub. Follow her on Twitter at @RoutineCurator