Risk burnout or join the Fun Police?
It’s not always a simple choice.
A freelance career in theatre and events can be both the most rewarding and the most unsettling thing ever.
When you start out, you will be desperate to take every job you can find – filling your empty diary with days here, there and everywhere for whoever offers them. It’s about making the contacts; enjoying the excitement of going to new places and meeting new people. And being involved in the creation of things you’d always dreamed of being involved in.
It’s a struggle for many. Making enough to pay the bills each month, often not knowing where the next job is coming from or whether you’ll even make the rent. And watching friends around you; judging yourself against their success.
For some, that’ll never stop. It’s why many freelances eventually look for permanent jobs – to avoid the constant worry about the months ahead and to put some routine and regularity into their lives.
Finding the Holy Grail often referred to as a ‘work/life balance’ can seem impossible. You book social appointments only to then be offered a day’s work. Do you cancel on friends or turn down an often-sizeable pay packet. Then your regular hobby turns out to continually conflict with jobs, meaning it’s no longer regular; you end up dropping out.
Contact with friends and family reduces to texts, messaging and social media. Real social activities become hanging out with the people you’re working with after hours, especially if you’re away from home working. This often involves drinking and chatting (mostly about work) until it’s a socially acceptable hour to head for bed, before hitting the repeat button a few hours later for another 12-hour shift. Usually, bedtime is long after the socially acceptable hour.
If you don’t 'invest' in the drinking time, then you might miss out on the next job offer. But if you do go, and then try to reign in the over-indulgence, you still join the ranks of the Fun Police. And make no mistake… no one likes the Fun Police with their ridiculously sensible ideas.
For a busy freelance, work can become an addiction. You take each job offered, fill your diary for weeks ahead, and never plan a holiday because something will always come up that you can't turn down.
Eventually, if you do have a day off, you have no idea how to fill your time and, doing nothing, feel like you have just wasted an entire day. Your hobbies have expired. Your social circle have made their own plans. And you think about the money you just lost by not working.
It is sustainable. For a while at least. And if you’re not always the one putting your hand in your pocket at the bar after work, you might even be saving significant sums to buy that dream flat or house. You’ll hardly ever sleep there when you do, but all the same, it’s yours and that’ll be in your favour when you finally quit work. You can justify the hours and the disproportional work/life balance because of the long-term benefits.
But beware the burnout. It can be triggered by so many events outside of your direct control.
A few years ago, I witnessed a string of successful, driven and respected professionals who suddenly found they had pushed themselves too hard for too long. The very nature of people working to create art, in whatever form, means they often don’t have an off switch. They are driven to believe that the show must go on, whatever happens. If they’re in a management role, it’s likely they will hide their own fears from their team (if they have one) and push on past the limits of endurance.
It can be those 16-hour days, where you wake up faced with a text or email alerting you of a problem. Your job is to fix it. But you already had a full day lined up. Where do you slot the new issue? Which is the priority? You have three meetings lined up already. Who do you cancel on to spend time on the latest challenge? What will that mean to them? To the show? Are you failing if you don’t answer everyone?
Put that into the context of working four 6-day weeks in a row, with travel to and from work, and perhaps a couple of drinks to unwind and you are now operating on less than 6 hours sleep a night. I guarantee that your 7th day is also no longer a day of rest. It’s a day of playing catch-up; trying to get ahead of the approaching week and fixating on the problems faced.
So, how do you make up the extra time required? You skip meal breaks. Either eating on-the-go, diving into Tesco for that morning croissant (and buying an extra one for some emergency scoff that’s bound to be needed later) or just not eating at all. I could name so many people who won’t eat all day when under pressure on site. I’ve done it myself on occasions and the results are rarely anything to be proud of.
How often do you hear of friends in the industry proclaiming they’ve just finished a 24-hour shift, or topped 100 hours in a week, as if it’s a badge of honour to be worn, proudly declaring how busy they are? Have you ever felt pressured to accept working through your break, into the night or finish a shift after midnight, only to be called back to the space for a 7am start? You tell yourself it’s just this once, to push through, or that to protest might label you a troublemaker and the company will look elsewhere next time.
Eventually something will break. It might be fear of showing up, because you’re just overwhelmed and exhausted. It could be an actual medical manifestation (chest pains, anxiety attacks, depression). It could be an addiction (to alcohol, drugs or both) – anything that gets you through to the next day. Or the breakdown of relationships.
When chasing the dream, self-care is so important yet also so very difficult. You need to accept that you can’t take every job. You can’t work on every project. That someone might always look like they're doing better than you. That breaks are important and benefit everyone around you, as well as yourself. That eating properly actually helps.
In the end, it is just work and rarely life and death. We are in the entertainment industry. We are not soldiers, doctors, nurses nor, thankfully, politicians.
And while I talk mostly about freelances, the same principles easily apply to those in permanent contracts. Unreasonable demands on your time, missed breaks, tough programming schedules and limited staffing budgets can all mean someone on a fixed 40-hour working week schedule can quickly be topping 70 hours (and still not getting everything done). Buyout contracts often bring the same pressures, as the required hours quickly mount up to exceed the expectations when you took the job.
I’m sure it’s the same in many other professions, but theatre and events workers seem programmed to deliver the product at almost any personal cost. We have a fixed deadline and fixed resources. But we must succeed, which we are told again and again requires sacrifice.
Self-care does not have to mean donning the uniform of the Fun Police. It means accepting
your limits and expecting others to respect them too. There is a balance to be found. Without it, you may find your career has an earlier expiry date than you expected.
Think of it like a steam train. To keep the engine running, you need to continually stoke the fire. But even a steam train cannot carry limitless reserves of coal. Eventually it has to stop and take time out of the journey to refuel. Otherwise it will simply run out of energy somewhere along the tracks and require rescuing.
Footnote: the irony here is discovering that I’ve missed lunch while writing this blog.