Mental health in the TV industry after covid

Mental health in the TV industry after covid

Thursday, 10th March 2022
Stress, discrimination, harassment...
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New commitment to tackling the crisis...But there are still profound problems, according to a new report discussed by the RTS.

The Film and TV charity has just published Looking Glass ’21, a follow-up to its 2019 research that exposed a mental health crisis in the film, TV and cinema industry. The RTS invited the charity’s CEO, Alex Pumfrey, to discuss the latest findings with other industry professionals, including Philippa Childs, head of Bectu, Lucinda Hicks, CEO of independent production company Banijay, which includes more than 24 labels, and Alicia Dalrymple, junior production manager at Dragonfly and a Channel 4 Production Scheme alumna. The event was moderated by Conor Dignam, CEO of Media Business Insight. 

Looking Glass ’21 surveyed 2,000 people working across the whole field of production. Pumfrey revealed some headline findings. First, she said there were grounds for optimism, if only because mental health scores had not changed greatly since 2019 – an achievement in itself, given the challenges of the pandemic. “There is a real sense that mental health is now firmly on the industry’s agenda, and an emerging belief that things can and will change,” she said. 

However, she also noted widespread concern that the industry needed not just to talk, but to put in place real structures of support. 

Then, the bad news: only 32% of the respondents said they felt they had good or very good mental health, and more than half reported experiences of bullying, harassment and discrimination within the industry. 

Four out of 10 of those in black, Asian or ethnic minority groups said they had suffered from one of these – all experiences, Pumfrey pointed out, that have a strong correlation with poor mental health and wellbeing. 

Just 10% felt that reporting issues had become easier or more effective; 10% felt that the industry overall was a healthy place to work; 78% said work intensity was having a negative impact on their mental health; and 65% said they had considered leaving the industry over the past year due to these concerns (including an even more alarming 74% of disabled respondents). 

Of course, the past two years of Covid chaos have not been easy on anyone. Alicia Dalrymple said, “Covid added an additional work layer: we have to abide by government protocols, services protocols, and that additional layer translates into an extra five hours of work a week. It’s understandable that it has added more pressure on crew, but it’s also made production a bit more isolating. Morale can go down with wellbeing. You have to stay in your cohort, and you’re not mixing with anyone.” 

Banijay’s Lucinda Hicks agreed that it had been tough, adding, “Production can feel more restrictive than wider society, with a sense of unjustified bureaucracy and dictatorial standards. We all know why they’re there, but it’s really hard when you have other people outside going about their business, and you’re stuck in a production bubble.” 

One problem that hasn’t gone away is the powerlessness felt by freelancers in what is such a contract-led industry. Bectu’s Philippa Childs called it “a structural problem”. She explained: “Having power around your working environment is hugely important for mental health. The project nature of the industry does lend itself to long hours, people feeling they have no control on a day-to-day basis, and people feeling vulnerable about reporting in a freelance environment.” 

On the plus side, she mentioned the “good collaboration across the industry to put mechanisms in place and signpost people to services”. She laughed and added: “I would say, join the union, obviously. Good work is going on with wellbeing facilitators, and all the resources of the Film and TV Charity, including its helpline, but there is clearly still an awful lot of work to do.” 

...and long hours

Hicks pointed out that, for some people, freelancing brought a lot of benefits, which they really liked. “It’s horses for courses,” she said. “We can offer long-term contracts because the scale of our group means we can move people around, but it doesn’t appeal to everyone.” 

Addressing the wider topic of reporting issues, Hicks highlighted the importance of giving clear outlines at the start of any project. “What we can provide is kick-off meetings, where we emphasise expectations, the ­importance of right behaviour, explain routes for raising issues, access to HR or a third party. But I realise they are still strangers to freelancers starting on a project. It’s good to encourage things to be tackled at a lower level. The escalation process, though necessary, can be intimidating.” 

On the issue of diversity and inclusion, Dalrymple felt that some people in ethnic minority groups “feel like they’re there to tick boxes”. Feelings of being discriminated against, harassed, bullied and stressed were heightened for those in minority groups. 

She spoke highly of the Channel 4 Production Scheme but recalled how, after moving to a new company, “I wasn’t that open about my mental health, so that limited me.” She praised the growing number of accessibility co-ordinators employed on projects. “It’s a brand-new role, but it helps ease people in, makes the environment more comfortable and open.” 

Hicks added her voice to those insisting that solutions have to be found: “Broadcasters are making it a commercial priority to have diverse cast and crew. You can’t ignore it.” 

Another challenge highlighted by the survey is that of the long weeks worked by production staff at all levels. While lockdown proved that flexible hours and remote working need not hinder production, production industry employees still work an average of 10 hours a day, compared with the national average of 7.2 hours. Childs said: “Two groups we’re losing talent from are women and people who become a parent.” 

Hicks agreed, adding, “Everyone expects it to work now. It’s going to be down to individual teams to work out how it works best for them. Flexibility is key, and it’s needed on both sides.” 

Despite all the bad headlines and the procedures already put in place, the figures for bullying and harassment remain worryingly high (see page 26). Pumfrey believed the problem to be “cultural and operational”. She said: “There isn’t one single thing that’s going to solve it. We see in the media the most egregious cases, but it can exist on an everyday basis, grind people down and make them miserable.” 

For Dalrymple, it was about holding people accountable, and making ­workers feel comfortable about ­coming forward: “People need to know they can go to their line manager. We have to trust in the process, which is easier said than done.” 

With so many freelancers, especially, fearing for their job and other consequences if they report any bad behaviour, Childs agreed that this was “a real challenge for the industry. We have to put in place policies and processes so that people feel supported. At the moment, they don’t and it’s a huge contributor to poor mental health.” 

The panellists agreed that all these factors come into play when looking at those high figures of people leaving the industry. The charity’s previous report highlighted the same problem – what Pumfrey called “the revolving door”. She said: “The industry is spending a lot of money on talent attraction, but if you don’t support those people, you risk that investment and those people disappearing. We need to ­discover who is it who’s leaving, and for what reasons.” 

Childs summed up the discussion well: “Tensions will always exist between budgets, schedules and what happens in production. People want to work for companies that treat them well, give them flexibility and support them in their mental health. It’s got to be in the industry’s interest to turn this situation around.” 

Report by Caroline Frost. ‘Mental health in the film and TV industry after Covid’ was an RTS event held on 3 March. The producers were Tessa Matchett, Sarah Booth and Mike Hird from the Film and TV Charity.

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