New research shows that people working in the industry experience much higher levels of mental ill-health than the wider population. Why is this – and what can be done about it? Tim Dams reports.
Over the course of 2019, mental health shot right to the top of the TV industry agenda.
High profile cases, such as the suicides of contestants who have appeared on shows such as Love Island and The Jeremy Kyle Show, have forced TV executives in the UK to take more account of the well-being of the participants on programmes.
The Harvey Weinstein revelations have also led to a closer examination of the culture of the creative industry itself. Within society at large, awareness of mental health is much higher too; in the UK, Prince William and Prince Harry have talked openly about their mental well-being, helping to reduce the stigma that used to be associated with mental health.
Last year, The Film and TV Charity conducted the Looking Glass survey to research the well-being of TV workers. It was astonished to receive nearly 9,000 responses in just three weeks, a far higher number than it had anticipated.
“The responses flooded in,” says The Film and TV Charity’s CEO Alex Pumfrey, describing a “huge outpouring of emotion” and “pent up feelings” in the replies.
The full findings of the survey will be released this month, but early figures show that the proportion of people in the film and TV industries who have experienced mental ill-health is 86% compared to 66% in the general population. “It’s very markedly higher,” says Pumfrey.
Asked why this might be the case, Pumfrey points to the structure of an industry where two-thirds of workers are freelance, subject to the ups and downs that comes with this way of working. “It’s also very hard for people to show any sort of vulnerability because the person they might open up to is also the person who is going to be booking them for their next job.”
Long hours, bullying and lack of support
She goes on to cite three specific factors that might be causing a higher number of mental health problems. The first is to do with industry working practices: the intensity of production work and its long hours, tight deadlines and often being away from home.
This, of course, has long been a feature of the industry, but the survey gives a strong sense that this is accelerating as budgets get tighter and expectations become higher. “The hamster wheel is turning faster and that translates to increasing pressure on people,” says Pumfrey.
Secondly, she says that while there has been some progress on sexual harassment in the wake of Time’s Up and MeToo movements, bullying is as prevalent as it ever has been, and was “a very strong feature in what we saw in the research.”
“The hamster wheel is turning faster and that translates to increasing pressure on people,” says Alex Pumfrey, The Film and TV Charity
Thirdly, she explains that there is a lack of support that is easily available and accessible for the freelance community. “As a freelancer, you could be working under the auspices of a broadcaster which has got fantastic support in place for its employees. But it’s very difficult for them to extend any meaningful support to you as a freelancer.”
The findings certainly chime with Will Hanrahan, creative director of indie producer FirstLook TV. He talks of hearing “horror stories” when recruiting production staff, who tell of 15-hour working days and bullying behaviour by bosses at some companies.
Hanrahan thinks the problem has got worse in the past three years. He says structural changes to the industry lie at the heart of the problem, and that ultimately it comes down to financial pressures. Larger production companies, he explains, have financial targets to hit. Producers and production managers are under pressure to help hit these targets. If that means hitting tough deadlines or making additional, last minute changes to projects to keep a broadcaster onside, then crew will have to work extra hard to make it happen. “All of a sudden we’ve got these constantly shifting creative targets and deadlines, as well as constantly shrinking budgets. And that equals stress.”
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People who are up against tough deadlines and budgets are more likely to behave badly, he adds. That’s even more the case if they are “subject to a series of judgements on their work”, with three or four executives having a say in what they have delivered.
Icon Films’s director of production Andie Clare also agrees that long hours and short contracts are problematic issues within the industry.
“All of a sudden we’ve got these constantly shifting creative targets and deadlines, as well as constantly shrinking budgets. And that equals stress.” Will Hanrahan, FirstLook
Bristol-based Icon runs an employee assistance programme, run by Health Assured, which is available to everyone who works at the company. A confidential support service that is staffed 24 hours a day, it’s a resource for people to talk about issues ranging from financial worries, relationships, bereavement through to mental health. She says it’s also a useful resource for line managers to draw on if they don’t feel qualified to help deal with certain staff problems.
Icon also runs a wellbeing programme, which includes Yoga lessons through to desk-based massages. Clare says such programmes don’t just benefit staff, but Icon too as it looks to attract staff to the company. In Bristol, she says, a lot of new production companies have launched recently, increasing competition for talent. “All companies here are doing a lot to make sure that they are places that people want to work and where they feel supported.”
Clare notes that younger people are more comfortable talking about mental health issues than older workers, and feel more able to talk to her or their line managers about them. Often, they are not caused by workplace issues but other matters in their lives, whether relationship breakdowns or parents who are ill. But, in general, Clare agrees TV is a “very high-pressure industry. People find that long hours and short contracts are tough, especially when they enter the industry – it’s not something you necessarily realise when you think you want to pursue a career in this industry.”
However, resilience, she adds, is important as well. “There is a responsibility to power through” to get some jobs done.
“TV is a very high pressure industry. People find that long hours and short contracts are tough, especially when they enter the industry.” Andie Clare, Icon Films
This is a point echoed by Tamara Abood, who retrained as a psychotherapist after working in TV as head of factual entertainment at Dragonfly and as a commissioning editor at Channel 4.
She says many therapists are concerned that there is a general trend towards labelling the normal day-to-day stresses and challenges of life as “mental health issues” when in fact they really are just the normal stresses of life.
“That said, I know from my own experience that the TV industry is a very demanding one, and the scale of the response to The Film & TV Charity survey speaks volumes.”
In her psychotherapy practice, Abood sees a lot of TV people who are experiencing very high levels of stress, some of which relates to the actual demands of the work and some to dysfunctional personalities or toxic work environments. “The two go hand in hand. In stressful environments people behave badly,” says Abood.
In this respect, she doesn’t think that TV is any different to any other industry. Abood sees clients from across the spectrum of the creative industries, from fashion to digital marketing, as well as lawyers and people working in the financial sector, and says they’re all talking about similar issues.
“I think where TV differs, or why the incidence of mental health issues might be higher, relates to the short-termism of the industry,” says Abood. “People move from project to project, and so what happens is that rather than those in charge looking at their working practices at a systemic level, they operate at the project to project level.”
It means employers can ask people to do the long hours and give up their weekends because a project is finite, or they can bury their heads about a problem director or series producer because they know that person will move on when the production ends.
“The difficulty for many people working in production is that what they may be willing to tolerate over the course of a production, in fact, becomes their way of life because the people running their next project take the same short term approach.”
Abood also thinks that there is not enough honesty within the industry about what it really takes to get programmes onscreen.
“What’s needed are more honest conversations about the impact of current working practices,” Tamara Abood, psychotherapist
“There is a dance that is done in TV in which broadcasters say, ‘Can you make this program in this time with this money?’ and production companies, wanting the work, say, ‘Yes, we can do it’. But they can only do it because they are so heavily reliant on the goodwill of freelancers and their staff to put the rest of life on hold. It takes a very strong person to push back, to say “No, I have enough on my plate” or “I need to go home now, I have a life”. That attitude is likely to lead to their premature exit from the production or not being invited back onto another production.”
The lack of respect for boundaries and for people’s work-life balance is enabled in part, says Abood, because there is an implicit understanding that if you won’t do it, there are hundreds behind you who would jump at the chance.
“I think what’s needed are more honest conversations about the impact of current working practices. We marry unrealistic time frames to unrealistic budgets and high levels of stress is the result. And under stress, our decision-making becomes impaired and we can start to lose our perspective, affecting our relationships with colleagues and impacting on our health. It’s a toxic brew.”
These are all points recognised by Will Hanrahan at First Look TV, who puts forward a solution to the issue. “We have a rule here – be kind.”
Like at Icon, the rule makes good business sense. First Look is also a regional indie, based in Stratford upon Avon, so having a reputation as a nice place to work is important for attracting top talent. But the rule is also about simply doing the right thing, and attempting to lead the way in tackling the high levels of stress within the industry. “In my experience, our industry is full of lovely people,” says Hanrahan. “Everybody is up against it though. So what can we do as influencers to help sort the problem? My answer is to turn up the kindness.”