The arts—in virtual, masked or socially distanced forms—have been a much-needed salve during the past two years, offering moments of levity, inspiration and even simply a distraction from the pandemic and its stresses. Within the field, however, many arts workers have been facing their own stress and burnout with increased demands on their time and resources and the ever-present concerns about renewed lockdowns, unemployment and other looming uncertainties. Though many employers at the beginning of the initial lockdowns struggled to address these concerns, more and more arts organizations are now focused on providing their employees with tools to help address their mental health needs, especially important as we begin another year colored by the pandemic.
In a recent blog post, Elizabeth Merritt, American Alliance of Museums’ (AAM) vice president of strategic foresight and founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, offered a bit of advice to arts workers from her own experience: “[N]ever be afraid to ask for help. Our work culture, (heck, American culture overall) often stigmatizes vulnerability as weakness. Knowing when you need support, and asking people to play a role in your recovery, isn’t a weakness but a strength.” (Note: AAM is the national service organization for museums and museum professionals.)
Burnout Is Real
Merritt listed steps both organizations and individuals could take to combat fatigue and hopelessness on the job, even suggesting that staff create an “burnout plan.” Such measures are essential, Merritt says, to adequately support people working at museums, who according to an AAM survey from March 2021, reported to be suffering from many variations of burnout.
Administered one year after many museums temporarily shut their doors, the survey found that a large portion of the nearly 2,700 respondents suffered from mental and financial stress. When AAM fielded the survey, the unemployment rate was six percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which was considerably lower than the rate’s high in April 2020 but still 2.5 percentage points higher than its pre-pandemic level in February 2020. Nearly half of paid museum staff surveyed reported increased workload, and more than 40 percent of respondents reported that they lost income due to the pandemic (on average, over 30 percent of their total income). Further demonstrating this strain, respondents assigned an average rating of 6.6 (on a scale of 0-10 where 10 indicates very strong negative impact) to the impact of the pandemic on their mental health and well-being.
The survey also underscored that the pandemic had exacerbated existing race and gender inequities in the museum sector, mirroring broader issues in the United States. BIPOC respondents cited higher financial stress and fewer financial resources than white respondents. For instance, 19 percent of BIPOC respondents were more likely to say that they were living paycheck to paycheck, as compared to 12 percent of white respondents. Additionally, women were more likely than men to cite increased workload (50 percent compared to 41 percent respectively) and unfavorable effects on hours, salary, mental health and well-being—relatedly, slightly more of the women than the men respondents (56 percent versus 47 percent) were more likely to pinpoint burnout as a potential barrier to remaining in the museum sector.
Similar findings surfaced in another survey last spring by the Actor’s Fund, a national organization that serves professionals in film, theater, television, music, opera, radio and dance industries. The survey, which polled nearly 7,200 people, uncovered that 79 percent of respondents reported that the pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health, including increased feelings of anxiety or depression. Adding to their stress and negatively impacting their overall well-being, 76 percent of respondents reported that they lost income, and a little under half claimed reduced food security during the pandemic. Unfortunately, as seen in the museum field, responses from BIPOC participants convey that they were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic—BIPOC-identifying respondents were more likely to experience reduced food security, forced housing change, increased debt and/or having to change utility usage as compared to white respondents.
Prioritizing Health & Wellness
Both the Actor’s Fund and AAM have created resources to respond to some of the needs that emerged in their surveys. The Actor’s fund has offered workshops including national support groups for dancers, “Mindfulness Meditation” sessions, “Good Grief Support Group” and “Mind Body Spirit-A Group for Black Women in Entertainment.” AAM has published a webpage of resources that measures the impact of the pandemic on people in the museum field and includes a list of actions, derived from the survey responses, taken by employers that made respondents feel safe, valued and supported.
AAM has applied these learnings internally as well, for example, expanding the organization’s acceptable uses of sick leave to include bereavement while creating a new emergency category that allows employees to use sick leave to care for the mental and physical well-being of themselves and their loved ones. Speaking to the significance of their broadened sick leave allowances, Megan Lantz, AAM’s director of content and community engagement, shared: “As a parent of young kids during COVID, I can tell you the expanded emergency sick leave has already been transformative for me. The leave provision afforded me the bandwidth and margin to take the pressure off myself to try to work and provide childcare 100% of the time, especially during periods where my kids were home for extended stretches of time.”
In addition to its refreshed leave policies, AAM has encouraged employees to take wellness breaks, ranging from virtual yoga and caregiver check-ins to instituting “meetings-free Mondays” organization-wide.
Other arts service organizations and unions have been responding to the needs of their members as well. The League of American Orchestras, which leads, supports and champions America’s orchestras and the vitality of the music they perform, presented a 90-minute webinar, “Mental Health & Wellness: A Conversation,” where the goal was to normalize conversations about mental health and provide strategies, backed by scientific research, to its members and beyond. In addition to the discussion, the League has posted resources on its website—including links to musician resources, the LooseLeaf NoteBook podcast series that focuses on nurturing self-care, and a list of free and affordable counseling groups. Along with the ongoing coverage of health and wellness in classical music on the League’s daily news site, The Hub, its magazine, Symphony, published a major article reporting how musicians, orchestras and therapists are helping their colleagues with wellness issues during the pandemic.
OPERA America—a nonprofit organization serving the country’s opera community—also presented a special series of mental health webinars where licensed mental health specialists joined opera industry professionals to provide insights, tools and resources for prioritizing mental health. Each of the 45-minute sessions took on a specific topic related to the unique mental health challenges experienced by those working in opera. In the first of these sessions, “Mental Health Care for Creators and Artists,” costume designer Jessica Jahn joined Beth Clayton, a clinical mental health counselor and operatic mezzo-soprano, for a discussion on a question many artists and performers have been grappling with as a result of being un- or under-employed over the past 18 months: How do you maintain a sense of identity and purpose when you cannot practice your profession? For anyone contending with this, Clayton recommends trying to conceive of your identity through your skill set rather than title. For example, she says, “[instead of] ‘opera singer,’ you could say ‘master organizer,’ you could say ‘linguist,’ ‘communicator,’ ‘scheduler.’ You are your own business.” Clayton also notes that this period of being “on pause” might provide an opportunity to work on skills you may not have had time to hone before—or simply to take a break.
Other organizations, too, have been making mental health a focus. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), for example, has launched IATSE C.A.R.E.S. (Coronavirus Active Response and Engagement Service), a new initiative designed to provide support to their most at-risk, elderly and/or disabled members during the pandemic. The American Federation of Musicians (AFM) has also been publishing mental health resources (https://www.afm.org/what-we-are-doing/covid-19-and-mental-health/), highlighting strategies to help manage and reduce stress.
Though the pandemic has created innumerable challenges, it has also sparked many vital conversations with the potential to reshape the way that we live and work. Clearly, the focus on mental health will be at the forefront. With this in mind, and with the promise of a new year, we leave you with another sentiment from the always forward-thinking Elizabeth Merritt: “As we all face the uncertainties and anxieties that come with slowly re-engaging with the world, let’s be compassionate towards ourself, our family, and our colleagues, and support each other in doing the work we love.”
Full disclosure: American Alliance of Museums, The League of American Orchestras and OPERA America are among Wallace’s arts service organization partners.