Health in the performing arts industry – whose responsibility?
Every year BAPAM helps with hundreds of inquiries about health problems related to working in the performing arts. These include musculoskeletal problems caused by strain and intensive use of parts of the body, vocal health issues which need specialist diagnosis and treatment, psychosocial problems including performance anxiety, stress related to the uncertain nature of the work (82% of the workforce are freelance) and more complex and enduring mental health conditions as well as hearing health problems. Performers, in common with other freelancers, tend to ignore health problems and seek help at a very late stage. The research shows that, at any one time, 75% of performers will have a health problem.
We were delighted when the Royal Society of Medicine chose to partner with BAPAM on a professional development event held on March 27, 2019 to consider occupational health in the performing arts sector and its relationship to the wider ‘gig economy’. We were lucky to have a stellar line up of speakers from the arts, academic and clinical worlds to provide a range of perspectives on this question.
Kicking off the conference, Jane Dyball, former CEO of the Music Publishers Association outlined the complexity of the industry and the relationship of an artist to industry bodies at different times of their career. In the early stages, the artist may be very dependent on promoters, venues, managers, but that relationship changes when they are successful so that those bodies are dependent on the artist for their own success.
Dr. Colin Thomas, Chief Medical Officer of the BBC, added to the picture as he described the plethora of jobs undertaken by freelancers in broadcasting and the difficult balance between their tax status as self-employed workers and the duty of care issues that organisations owe to both employees and freelancers.
Zeb Soanes, BBC Radio 4 broadcaster and BAPAM Patron, described the moment when he suffered paralysis of one of his vocal cords and his journey back to full health and employment. He spoke with courage of the isolation and anxiety of losing your identity and the difficulties of accessing the right care in this very specialist area.
Professor Aaron Williamon of the Royal College of Music’s Centre for Performance Science, described results from recent research which demonstrated the lack of general fitness, particularly amongst student musicians.
In the afternoon we heard examples of good practice from Peter Garden of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Professor Emma Redding, Head of Dance Science at Trinity Laban. Peter outlined Liverpool Philharmonic’s approach to developing and supporting performance excellence through providing health and wellbeing services to orchestra musicians. He and the Board have seen the impact of this investment on enhanced performance, improved employee satisfaction and engagement, and positive signs of reduced reliance on freelancers to cover sickness absence due to playing-related musculoskeletal injuries. Professor Redding outlined the advances in healthy practice in dance education and how a specialist health insurance scheme is helping to provide access to occupational health services.
Dr Rob Hampton, RCGP representative at Public Health England and a practising GP, described his own caseload and the difficulties for freelancers in accessing support with work-related health problems, the impact on the NHS and the evidence that working itself improves health. Dr John Etherington, NHS lead for rehabilitation, drew on research on performance enhancement in the military and in sport to demonstrate that effective training for the physical and vocation-related psychological demands as well as good rehabilitation after an injury can significantly improve health.
In this conference, the problems were clearly laid out and examples of solutions are available, but whose responsibility is it to drive the improvements? With over £5bn in UK annual revenue coming from the performing arts, it doesn’t seem sensible NOT to look after the health of the workforce, and leaving this role to charities on their own is not a sustainable solution.
Here are some thoughts from the BAPAM team on how the current position might be improved. First of all, to answer the question, who is responsible for improving performing arts health?
- Employers and Education Providers. These bodies do have a duty of care to employees and students. Liverpool Philharmonic has demonstrated the economic and artistic case for employers investing in healthcare. Many employers can and do support occupational health for performers. A consistent approach here would improve the health of 18% of the workforce. There are 50,000 students in performing arts education and Professor Williamon’s research, the practice in Dance Education and the work of the Healthy Conservatoires Network demonstrate what can and should be done to develop healthy behaviours in students and ready them for the realities of working life.
- The Freelance Performer. The performer is responsible for their own health (however, see point 3 below), including seeking help at an early stage and following the health behaviours which are evidenced to reduce the likelihood of health problems. Freelance performers who have learned these behaviours in education should be equipped for the working environment, but many performers have not had access to performance education. The provision of educational sessions and written and online materials together with peer support networks is crucial for this group. The Musicians’ Union, ISM, Equity, Help Musicians, Music Support as well as BAPAM and many other individual coaches and writers are currently offering support in this area.
- The Performance Environment. Research evidence tells us that good self-care is best achieved within organisational structures that support individual wellbeing. While other organisations in the industry may not have a direct responsibility for performers, they do have a responsibility for ensuring that the environment enables the performer to carry out their personal health responsibility. In addition to statutory health and safety duties, a culture and environment that encourages and supports healthy practice will help performers. As a very basic example, hydration is vital for performers – if there is no water available in a venue, it becomes difficult for the performer to practise this behaviour. What if the acoustics are so bad in a venue that the only way performers can hear themselves is turning the amps up excessively? What if there is a culture in your organisation that discriminates against certain groups or individuals, contributing to negative social relationships and mental health problems? What if the people you depend on don’t know where to go for help when they need it?
If this is a structure we can organise around, then what would a Health Manifesto for the Performing Arts look like?
- Everyone in the performing arts world needs to understand what healthy practice means, from the educator to the employer, individual performance professionals and any organisation or individual working in the business (managers, promoters, agents, labels etc).
- Everyone needs to know where and how to get clinical help when they need it.
- All funding options should be explored to develop a system-wide approach to providing for the health needs of performers, combining charitable funding sources with other sources of support including industry-specific insurance schemes, access to work funding etc.
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