Recent years have seen concerns around mental health and wellbeing in TV and film production rise up the agenda. But the uncertain nature of the work and the heavy reliance on freelance talent still poses huge challenges. Pippa Considine reports

The Film and TV Charity’s most recent Looking Glass research reported 80% of its respondents noting positive change to mental health on productions, albeit in minor increments. The Charity’s Whole Picture Toolkit, backed by broadcasters and streamers, is gaining traction. Production companies have upped the ante to support staff and crew and initiatives have sprung up to offer training and advice.

However, the Looking Glass research is still showing over 80% believing that the industry has a negative effect on their wellbeing. Right now, with unscripted commissions down, the industry union Bectu has declared a crisis. “Many have already faced incredible challenges brought on by the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, and work long hours to the detriment of their mental health, family lives and work/life balance,” says head of Bectu Philippa Childs. “Broadcasters must better communicate with freelancers and give them a seat at the table to find solutions to a system that places all of the risks of employment and unemployment on the individual workers.”

Retention Challenges

Some job roles appear to be harder hit. Anonymous group Production is Broken recently polled almost 1,000 production management professionals. Over three quarters said that they had either left the role, or considered leaving, citing “pay inequality, working conditions, departmental welfare, skills shortages
and increasing workloads.”

The irony can’t be lost on the TV industry, that this situation exists alongside a drive
to retain and recruit a larger and more diverse workforce.

There are legal responsibilities. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 includes a right to work in properly controlled health and safety environments, which extends to mental health. And studies have shown that over half of all time lost at work is due to work-related stress and mental health issues. The Health and Safety Executive sees prevention of stress and mental health as a top priority.

Meriel Beale is an unscripted executive producer who was a driving force behind Bectu’s anti bullying campaign, Unseen on screen. “I am an optimist, I think things have shifted,” says Beale. “People are not just talking about things, they are making changes.” But she still sees grass roots pain. As a Bectu rep, Beattie is in touch with freelancers. One says: “Desperate to shout about how angry it makes me, but also don’t want to put myself in a vulnerable position now I need work.” Others talk about tick-box exercises. “We don’t need guided meditation sessions or Prosecco and painting or mental health terrarium workshops. We need transparency, communication, decent pay and actual mental health services.”

Beale worries that freelancers are unable to budget, to plan their lives and may leave the industry. “The dream, I suppose, is to have some kind of retainer system…So indies have got this ready-to-go workforce.”

The challenges can be similar for those on a company payroll. Zeb Chadfield founded post production house The Finish Line in 2011. Before that, having worked in post since the age of 15, he suffered from a mental health breakdown after working excessively long hours on staff. “One cause of the problems is that it’s an industry in production and post that is built on exploitation,” he says. “Ultimately, young people that are really enthusiastic, that love the work, would do anything to be successful, at the cost of their own personal life, their relationships, their friendships and everything else.”

An eight hour day is a pillar to Chadfield’s business. The company’s Talk Club uses prompts on Slack to check in with staff: ‘how are you feeling today’ or ‘what win have you had this week?’ His own experience as a dyslexic has given him insight into neurodivergence, but he realises that there are different issues for everyone. “Ultimately if you fix it for the people that are struggling, you make it better for everyone.”

“It is economically, I would say more difficult, because you’re leaving money on the table,” says Chadfield. Where another company might assign someone five days for a task that takes seven, “from a business standpoint they are able to compact more work into a smaller period of time, even though the metrics don’t really work out.” He doesn’t want his staff to collapse after 14-hour days. “I need to make sure they find joy outside of work as well.”

Chadfield makes up costs by saving on real estate. While it does have some bricks and mortar, The Finish Line has virtual workers and takes its own kit to productions. “Nowadays, there’s less resistance. We’ve been vocal about our opinions on the industry and mental health struggles enough that clients who come to us understand that it’s part of our principles.”

Transforming Workplace Relationships

Talking, and more importantly, listening, are the focus of the Reverend Peterson Feital’s current research. Feital founded The Haven fifteen years ago, to look after those in the creative industries mentally, spiritually and emotionally. “In production, in the film industry, they are storytellers, but very often they’re not listening to each other’s stories very well.

“I’m helping people to understand how we listen to each other and relate better, because it’s all to do with relationships.”

One focus is on freelancers – how stress and distress is knitted up with financial wellbeing and how this impacts family life. “I’m interested in the family ecosystem, people don’t often understand what happens in the families,” says Feital.

He has also observed “a lack of understanding of what healthy boundaries look like.” Especially in an industry where formal and informal often blur. “Sometimes they don’t know what is appropriate to share,” he says. “For example, they might disclose about a hidden disability and then feel insecure…I have to help them think, ‘what does a healthy relationship look like in the workplace?”

Another of Feital’s suggestions for work-life balance is to think twice before saying yes to a request. “Think: what am I saying no to for myself?”

Among the growing number of organisations set up to help with mental health and wellbeing in film and TV, Tell Jane, founded by Lisa Bell, helps production companies to investigate situations where toxic behaviour is reported, but also to prevent it, with training around inclusion, building frameworks and working with managers and HR.

“The freelance nature within the industry creates a fear around speaking,” says Bell. “We want to create environments where people feel confident that certain things won’t be tolerated.” She wants producers to encourage cast and crew to speak out if they feel lines are being crossed so that toxic behaviour can be nipped in the bud.

Cultivating Change

Where there’s bullying, she describes different personality types. She asks, “are they unaware or do they not care?… A freelancer might have moved around on different shows, may have been super successful in the industry, but because they don’t belong to an employer, they haven’t been invested in from a training perspective, developing people skills.”

For those bullies that do not care, says Bell, “they might not care about the impact on the individual, but if you talk about their reputation, they’re more likely to change. You’ve got to create incentives.”

Feital who has been bullied himself, underscores how vital it is to face down bullying individuals. “If we are not careful about this idea that we idolise the creative genius, that this excuses bad behaviour, then we are in trouble. When it comes to bad behaviour, we have to call it out.” Precisely why the Call It App – a reporting tool for the industry- was launched in 2021.

For those that might be subject to bullying, harassment or have other mental health issues on productions, there’s a growing band of mental health first aiders. At Dolly, Jude Spencer trains first aiders and teams in mental health awareness. “I’ve seen it go from individual freelancers, paying for training themselves, to companies wanting to really try and address their culture.”

Spencer is wary on behalf of those she trains. “I always say you have to be really mindful about when you offer this up, what productions and what companies, because you have to look after your own welfare. It does need to be backed up by support from the company.”

Prioritising Support

There are two big answers to how mental health conditions can improve, says Spencer: “Number one, realistic schedules; number two, a line item dedicated to mental health training and support for crew and for that line item to not be removed by broadcasters and commissioners.” Including a contingency for people who need to take bereavement leave, or time off sick. “It’s described as compassionate leave, which is slightly strange, isn’t it?” says Spencer. “But it shouldn’t be down to compassion, it should be that it’s a done deal, they should have that time off.”

The role that will help to usher in a better environment on production, Spencer says, is the independent wellbeing facilitator on a production. She also works with Six Foot from the Spotlight, where director Matt Longley has developed this role, to encompass mental health first aid, mental health risk assessments, bullying, harassment and discrimination prevention.

Six Foot from the Spotlight is a not-for-profit company that gives wellbeing advice across the industry. Other organisations in this space include ScreenSkills, which offers a number of free elearning modules. While Pact runs workshops and training programmes. Anjani Patel, head of Inclusion and Diversity at Pact, has seen a real shift in the six years that she’s been there. “There’s a greater level of consciousness around issues of mental health and wellbeing and a genuine attempt by most producers to do more.”

“If we can all take a small bit of responsibility in making positive change, it won’t be long before bigger change happens,” says Spencer at Dolly. “I think there are a lot of individuals that care very deeply about this, that are doing a huge amount to make changes for themselves, their teams and their companies. But ultimately, it all needs to be backed up with financial support from broadcasters and streamers.”

This article first appeared in the Summer 2023 edition of Televisual Magazine

Jon Creamer

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