Back after interval: Looking after your mental health as we return to creative work and workplaces
For practitioners and performing arts workers
As COVID-19 restrictions ease across Australia, many of us are beginning a gradual return to work in the performing arts industry. We also recognise that much of our creative community remain without their usual prospects, and others are working overtime to try and reopen those opportunities.
Whether we’re working, training, rehearsing, presenting or touring, we’re likely doing so after a prolonged period away. As we navigate this return to our creative practice and work roles within a new context, it’s normal to feel a range of emotions. This will be a process of change that will be experienced differently by each of us.
Whilst there may be a sense of excitement to return to these spaces, there may also be new challenges that bring on hesitation, stress and anxiety. The good news is that there’s lots we can do to look after our mental health and wellbeing, to support the people around us, and to help get our creative community back on stage.
Reflect and move forward
The last 12 months has been – in at least some part – challenging for most of us. Although seemingly endless at times, we do need to remember that this is a temporary state and in Australia we are already forging ahead. It can be helpful to take a moment to reflect on a few key questions:
- What was a difficulty you want to leave behind in 2020?
- What opportunity did 2020 give you that you want to take forward into 2021?
- What new goal do you want to strive for? For example, diversifying your creative practice, managing work-life balance, or enhancing your self-care.
The impact on our mental health and wellbeing
Mental health challenges may not be caused directly by a personal experience of COVID-19, but by the impact COVID-19 and the associated public health may have on our lives. Our mental health and wellbeing can be impacted by many things – reduced freedoms of movement and association, changes to our financial and living situations, concern for loved ones and many other factors that have been amplified through this time. We may not even be consciously aware of the ways in which we have changed in response to the events of the last year.
Early in the pandemic response, we may have hoped we could quickly go ‘back to normal’. While we have worked hard in Australia to have ‘donut days’ and with some states reaching ‘elimination’, these indicators of low risk are contrasted with the snap lockdowns and border closures that have occurred in recent months to contain outbreaks. In this context, it makes sense that our responses to re-entering workplaces will vary from person to person, and even from week to week!
Continuing to adapt
Restrictions to work and performance in the arts industry vary considerably across Australia currently and may continue to change in unpredictable ways. For some of us, the time away from our creative work and workplaces might have only been relatively short, compared to others who may have only recently returned to COVID-safe performances after almost a year away, whilst others may still not be able to return.
Even as we welcome back audiences, it’s important to be aware that we are still navigating change. Nothing about our current situation is yet behind us; we have not returned to normal. We are still learning, adapting and finding our way forward. Navigating change is not just for a global pandemic – the skills we practice now will help us find our way through other changes in the future. To be well placed to adapt as needed, it is so important to take care of yourself and to recognise the need for support early.
Navigating change together
This is a good time to reflect on what brings us together, and what we share even as our situations differ. Our sense of community in the performing arts is a strength that will help protect us from feeling isolated and alone in our emotional responses. This is a great time to embrace this community. Reach out to your colleagues, friends and peers and support each other in any way you can.
This is also our opportunity to look after ourselves and each other as we adapt together to our changed environment. Just as we became used to the restrictions and behaviours needed to keep us COVID-safe such as keeping our distance, wearing masks and washing our hands, we are well equipped to develop and implement new ways of working to better support each other as we return to work and to work-sites.
The experience of COVID-19 has highlighted a need for change that has been long established in the arts community, such as flexible work practice, managing illness and injury while continuing to work well, and feeling safe and supported to disclose mental health concerns. If this experience has taught us anything, it has taught us that physical and mental health are paramount for a safe and sustainable industry, so let’s not let that lesson go to waste.
There is no ‘normal’ response
Just as these challenges are varied and unpredictable, so too are the emotional responses of those around you. For some people, anxiety may be heightened as spaces that were previously enjoyable now feel odd, uncomfortable or confronting. The continued threat of lockdowns and restrictions may also encourage a constant, low level of worry about possible closures and cancellations.
For some people, this may show up as anger, stress, and for others as lack of motivation or apathy. Other people may be coping with low mood and a sense of loss related to cancelled work opportunities, or the loss of freedoms to create work the way it was originally imagined. With so many varied responses, it will be important to show compassion, empathy and understanding to those around you, but also toward yourself and your own emotional responses.
Whatever you feel or experience during re-entry to work or the pursuit of work, your reactions and emotions are valid. They are a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, and you are not alone. Try to allow time and space for these emotions to just exist, and practice kindness to those around you but also to yourself.
Possible guilt about still having a job when others do not
Some people might be returning to work while others remain unemployed, some theatres may be open; and others closed. Acknowledge that the situation is unfair, but also recognise the bigger picture; remember that we are in a health crisis and that health must come first. No one chose this situation and it is no one’s fault.
If you’re feeling guilty about returning to work while others may not be able to as yet, accept that this is a normal way to feel, and allow yourself to experience your emotions. Try to reframe to remember that some people must work to ensure the future of the work. In other words, the future of the performing arts industry depends on those of us still working. What we do now will result in opportunities for others to come back to, and will ensure the industry does not collapse.
Remember the basics
It’s more important than ever to be taking care of your body, head, and heart, and be asking for help. Give yourself the best chance at feeling good by focusing on the basics – eating and sleeping well, exercising, doing things that you enjoy, staying connected, asking for (and accepting!) help and support. We have complex problems to solve, so let’s not make our strategies to help ourselves stay strong and resilient to face those problems any more complicated than they need to be. Lots of small, simple strategies done consistently is the key to sustainable self-care.
You’re probably already aware of many of these strategies. But knowing what you’re supposed to do is different to actually doing it! Prioritising self-care takes more than simply understanding its importance. Identifying the motivation or learning why these strategies are so important helps keep you on track. Ensure that you have routines and boundaries in place to make self-care a norm and a habit, not a chore or a bonus that you get to if you have time. If you are pressed, do 15 minutes on a self-care strategy rather than an hour – it is better to be consistent than perfect.
Give yourself a runway
Before a plane takes off, it gradually gathers speed. If you can, ease your way back into professional life, don’t try to ‘take off’ before you are ready. Your first week or two back might feel overwhelming. If possible, move at a pace that is comfortable for you, but also challenges you to try something different regularly – each day or every couple of days. This helps build your tolerance to things that might feel overwhelming if you do them all at once.
Take note of what you’re achieving and celebrate ‘wins’, no matter how big or small. Keep a growth mindset during this period, by trying to view this period as a period of learning and development, rather than of 100% competency and perfection.
If you do start to feel overwhelmed, try to focus on rest and connection. Pay attention to how your energy levels are going and aim for a balance between time spent alone and time spent with others. Managing your commitments effectively will give you more time and space to do the things that give you energy.
Remember what’s in your control
The actions we have taken as a community have contributed to where we are today, and generally, people have been willing and responsible in complying with public health directions. As we return to work, we might experience different behaviours from those around us. While you can’t control how other people behave, you can control your own behaviours.
Role model the behaviour you wish to see, find ways to express concerns or frustrations in a constructive way (for example, journaling or speaking with someone helpful), and tell someone if you see behaviours that might negatively impact or endanger others.
Now could be a good time to consider the boundaries you keep at work. How often do you check work emails, and at what time of the day? What hours do you work? How much work do you do for free?
It could be useful to see your re-entry to work, and to working on-site, as an opportunity to set new boundaries, especially those that prioritise you and your self-care. It is best to set a boundary at the beginning of something if you can, as they can be easier to remember and stick to this way.
Setting reasonable boundaries within the requirements of our work roles is a self-valuing move. Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries sends a message to your unconscious that you matter and that your personal time, relationships, and other priorities are as significant as work. Even though your mind might tell you otherwise, you are not being unreasonable when you stick to a work-life boundary. Remember: ‘No’ is a complete sentence. You also tend to be more focused, creative and productive when you are feeling your best, so setting boundaries is a win-win for yourself as well as your team or collaborators.
Ask for help
Ask for help from a professional, a peer, colleague, employer, company manager, stage manager, supervisor, mentor, friend – you are not alone. Ask for help and accept it. Remember, support is for prevention as much as it is for crisis.
If you are worried about someone, ask if they are ok, and if you are still concerned, stay with them and connect them with other supports.
If you feel like you are in crisis, reach out and do not be alone. If you need support, please speak to your GP about options available to you for mental health support.
Support Act Wellbeing Helpline 1800 959 500
Dedicated First Nations Support 1800 959 500 (Option 3)
Lifeline 13 11 14
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
If you or someone you know is at immediate risk, please contact the Emergency Services on 000.