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Costume designer Catherine Kodicek: Work conditions must improve for the sake of our mental well-being

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Many UK theatre workers will by now be aware of the Theatre Helpline, launched by the Society of London Theatre last year to support theatre professionals with their health and well-being. It has been strongly promoted in theatres, and this is, of course, a great benefit to those working in our industry.

Mental health issues in the workplace are important. It is estimated that 15.4 million working days were ‘lost’ to the nation in 2017/18 due to stress, anxiety or depression. Mental health charities have worked hard for many years to remove the stigma surrounding mental health, pointing out that one in four people will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime.

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It is important to point out the difference between mental health and mental illness. Everyone has mental health and, as the World Health Organization says: “There is no health without mental health.” In the course of a lifetime, not all people will experience a mental illness, but everyone will struggle or have a challenge with their mental well-being (ie, their mental health) just as we all have challenges with our physical well-being from time to time.

While the overall mental illness statistics have not changed, the number of people experiencing stress and anxiety is on the rise. Factors that exacerbate mental health issues concern money worries, confidence about work and conditions.

That is quite alarming for people working in theatre. After all, we work in a notoriously uncertain industry, we work long anti-social hours, and it is often precarious with no guarantee that what we do now will lead to more work tomorrow.

Of course, actors and directors have the added challenge that their work is critiqued by all and sundry – not just in reviews in well-known publications but also via social media, tweets, blogs and vlogs, which just about anyone with access to the technology can create. But what about the people backstage?

Working in the arts is highly desirable, sought-after work, so getting a backstage theatre job is already to find yourself privileged. It feels churlish to admit to mental health issues brought about by the very nature of the work. Some will even argue that the ability to cope with that pressure is a part of the job, a sort of “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” philosophy. If you can’t cope with the uncertainty of where your next pay cheque is coming from, get out of freelancing in theatre.

But isn’t this the same old issue we’ve seen cropping up in multiple disguises again and again? If financial uncertainty and job insecurity are seen to come with the territory, how can people survive without the safety net of a privileged background?

Is a helpline the sticking plaster that allows the working conditions to go unchecked? Fair pay, working hours that honour a life outside of work, job security – these all contribute to good mental health. Naturally, the helpline does vital work, but it is no substitute for real progress in pay and conditions.

Catherine Kodicek is head of costume at London’s Young Vic theatre. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/catherine-kodicek

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