Can Working in Creative Industries Harm Your Mental Health?
In my last post I wrote about how certain characteristics of being a creative person – sensitivity, for example – can make your working life more challenging, stressful and may tip you into mental health problems if you happen to be tended that way.
Now I’m exploring how the creative workplace presents specific challenges for keeping ‘your head when all about you/are losing theirs and blaming it on you’, as Rudyard Kipling put it in his famous poem If.
While creative industries don’t create mental health issues in people, obviously, earning your crust in these competitive environments can exacerbate struggles with depression, anxiety, addiction and the like. This tends to happen in two ways.
One, many creatives are self-employed and self-directed. Not just artists and novelists, but freelance creatives, designers, stylists, landscape gardeners, writers, bloggers. Creating something alone is immensely isolating. The average novel is 60,000-80,000 words. The average art exhibition takes months or years to put together. The average blog becomes an all-consuming monster, demanding you generate post after post, even when heartbroken, anxious about rent or down with manflu. Any self-employed person (unless they make it big) is their own manager, employee, PA and HR person. On a good day that works fine. On a truly bad one, those inner employees are equally incapable of getting you out of bed in the morning.
Two, if you’re not self-employed, particular pressures associated with creative professions definitely don’t help. Vis, deadlines. Whether you’re at an advertising agency, digital start-up, magazine, website or innovation agency, it’s not like manufacturing baked beans. It’s re-inventing a different 57 variety every single day or month or pitch. This is exciting and fun at first – one of the reasons creative industries are staffed largely by those in their 20s and 30s. But day in day out, month in month out, year in year out it gobbles up ideas (and enthusiasm) and hustles you quickly down the road towards burn-out. Zero creativity is a major burnout symptom. Meanwhile the methods some people employ to cope with the pressure – drink, drugs, dissociation, working longer hours – can eventually become the problem.
Since the 2008 financial crash brought stringent cut-backs, many creative businesses are operating with fewer staff, less cash and fewer resources. One of many detrimental side-effects of this is that people get promoted into senior jobs, perhaps managing others for the first time, with very little guidance, experience or supervision. There simply isn’t the time. Best-practices like appraisals quickly go out of the window and no-one gets mentored.
If you’re prone to anxiety, people-pleasing or both, the extra responsibility combined with the fact you barely know what you’re doing can take you to the place at which most people come to therapy: overwhelmed and feeling you’re not coping. In my years as an executive coach in the media and then a therapist, I’ve worked with more creative people at this point than any other.
There are other factors specific to creative professions that pile on the pressure. Like the fact there’s no empirical right or wrong answer. It’s all opinion. You may think you’ve pitched the perfect idea, but your boss, client or even that ambitious PA might have other ideas which mean you have to start all over again from scratch. And while there’s no empirical right or wrong around content there’s more data available than ever before, what with digital analytics, numbers of downloads, views, comments, Facebook likes and so on into infinity and beyond. This can mean your ideas are endlessly analysed after the fact.
Since the working world began there’s been a tendency for managements to operate in a fashion we could term all stick and no carrot. But now, due to the aforementioned cut-backs and their detrimental impact on management practice in general, there seems to be an epidemic of criticism out there, some of it based on the aforementioned analytics.
The vast majority of creative people are motivated primarily by recognition, whether in the form of a by-line, credit or a word of praise from their boss. But if you never get ‘well done’, only ‘that didn’t work, try harder’, over time your average artistic type wilts like a poppy in a dry jug.
If there’s an epidemic of criticism, at the same time we have a contradictory culture of ‘positivity’. If an employee has lost their motivational mojo, they can be told they’re just being negative, not believing in themselves enough. This might be true. Or it might be the world’s most confident individual would only last a year in the job.
It’s certainly not like creatives are in it for the money. Increasingly writers, photographers and musicians are expected to work for free. Or, if not free, for the dust at the bottom of the peanuts. Finally, the advent of email, social media and smart phones means workers are never ‘off’ in the way they were before. Which doesn’t help.
If all these factors didn’t trigger a genetic tendency towards depression, anxiety or hitting the bottle, it would be hard to say what would.
So what helps?
First and foremost - making self-care a priority. The best early-stage antidote to burn-out is taking a holiday. But perhaps you’re afraid to insist on one. Or you’re so exhausted you can’t think straight enough to see it’s what you need. Or the work that piles up before and after a break makes it seem not worthwhile.
But. In a world where you’re only as good as your last great idea, you can’t afford to get burnt out and you owe it to your inner creative self to maximise self-care. Because if you’ve a predisposition towards some kind of mental health issue, you only need an extra factor like a break-up, bereavement or professional setback to trigger it. A major burnout symptom is losing perspective so you’re not thinking straight or, indeed, seeing the wood for the trees. Which is why therapy or counselling helps. Having someone else’s mind on the subject – someone neutral and trained to help you build your self-confidence, tackle your job more assertively or break a pattern of behaviour –helps you not only recover but be stronger and more robust than before. As Picasso said: ‘Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.’ He might have added, ‘once we grow up and try to earn a living in a creative field’.