UK theatre is hotbed for bullying, study reveals

Bullying at work is more common in the arts than in any other employment sector, according to new research.

Two in five respondents to a survey of theatres and arts centres in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland revealed they had suffered bullying in the workplace. This is the highest reported incidence in any single employment sector in the country – with a higher proportion of cases than those recorded by researchers conducting similar surveys within the police, the army and the National Health Service.

The research is published in a new book by arts consultant Anne-Marie Quigg, entitled Bullying in the Arts – Vocation, Exploitation and Abuse of Power. The findings come from a survey, undertaken in partnership with backstage union BECTU, collating information from 249 theatre workers in theatres and arts centres that collectively employed more than 22,000 people. Of the participants, 65% said bullying occurred “commonly” or “not uncommonly”, with only 6.4% saying they had never encountered bullying at work. Of the respondents, 99 – nearly 40% – said they had been a target.

Quigg told The Stage: “I was quite shocked when the survey results came back from the national work with BECTU at the level of bullying that was being reported. Because I’d been looking at it in other areas, I knew what it was in the police or the NHS – it’s around about the 30% mark. It’s around 39.7% in the arts. I was genuinely shocked at that point.”

She explained the research figures focused on people working off-stage, in so-called non-creative roles, but she feared the figure for bullying among performers and artists could be even higher and was hoping to carry out further research.

“I think in some ways those of us working in the arts have ourselves to blame,” she said. “Often, there’s a passion attached to the kind of work we do, a commitment to it and great admiration for good art. So, I think we actually tolerate behaviour that wouldn’t be tolerated in other sectors, because we are committed to the end result being great. I do think, in some respects, we need to open our eyes a bit more and realise that, actually, it’s not necessary to tolerate any kind of harassment or bad behaviour on the part of certain members of a team. It’s perfectly possible to create high-quality work without inflicting pain or harm on people.

“Part of our issue in the arts is that we don’t like to think there is a problem,” she added. “We subscribe to this notion that we’re all really nice people and we embrace diversity and inclusiveness. So, the idea that we are actually able to behave in this way is not one that we would welcome, I suspect. That means it is difficult to have the right kind of mechanisms in place [to deal with bullying] and, indeed, the right kind of leadership.”

The demographic breakdown of the survey results showed that “the individual most likely to be bullied would be a young, white woman working in a box office in London, outside the West End”.

Meanwhile, the study also warns that “in current straitened times, the swingeing financial cuts being made across the whole of the economy in the United Kingdom are placing increased pressure on individuals and companies, to the extent that a very sharp upsurge of bullying behaviour in the workplace is highly likely.”

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The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Photo: Noel Foster