Staying strong while working in the arts

Six strategies to assist arts practitioners in achieving a healthier professional life.
Staying strong while working in the arts

Staying balanced takes practice; photo by Jeremy Thomas via Unsplash.

It’s ok to have a bad day at work.

Perhaps you don’t quite manage to complete the jobs on your to-do list, or you’ve had a big idea but nobody shares your enthusiasm. The ride home from work is filled with thoughts of how things could have gone better, and when you finally flop in your lounge with a tea (or wine) in hand, you start to wind down.

Eventually, you realise Netflix is more interesting than ruminating about your day, and by the end of the night you feel rejuvenated to face whatever tomorrow will bring. Perhaps the day hasn’t been quite so bad after all.


This is not an unfamiliar experience to those who work in offices across any industry, and for the most part is a normal side-effect of professional life.

But when is a bad day at work not ok? And how can we prevent a negative experience from perpetuating?

For those of us in the arts, we are working together within a small and challenged industry. Thanks to unstable federal funding, it’s a tough time to gain resources for our projects or careers. Not only does this place tension on the industry; it is a source of financial stress among individual arts practitioners working across mediums from music to writing.

Beyond this, we are working harder than ever, with the average Australian clocking in the equivalent of more than 200 hours of unpaid overtime a year. In my own arts career, I was once told by a manager that I would give a bad impression if I didn’t contribute unpaid overtime. Similar experiences are reflected in dialogue about the unfairness of arts internships in Australia, which are often deemed exploitative.

Needless to say, there has never been a more important time for us to look out for each other. But it’s not always so easy or straight-forward, and that’s why I’ve put together some pointers on how we can work toward achieving a healthier professional life as arts practitioners.

1. Create a work-free environment for yourself

You may have heard the phrase (or, the challenge): ‘Don’t take your work home with you’. This is a common rule for a healthy work-life balance, but in the arts it can be a little cryptic. Many of us work freelance from our home computers – so where do we go for a break?

The best strategy I’ve found is to dedicate one room or corner in the house to working, and set a deadline so you know to clock off at a particular time of night. Cook meals at home and rest in the evening without checking your emails every few minutes. If you work away from a home office, then it’s important not only to keep your physical work in that space but also to keep office politics where they belong – in the office. Set things aside after work, and focus on feeling fresh to face them when you’re back at the desk.

2. Always check in with your co-workers

When was the last time you asked your co-worker if they are ok? We can’t always tell if we are working with people who are taking on more than they can cope with, and reaching out is a simple gesture that may help others when they need it.

Similarly, you don’t want to create stress for anyone else, either – so be sure that you’re treating those around you with kindness. It’s always important to respect the priorities of others as well as your own.

3. Be confident in expressing your own needs

As arts practitioners we must feel confident in expressing our needs – whether the need is a day off every few weeks, someone to provide feedback on our work, or anything else we feel necessary for productivity. Expressing our own needs will not only give us a sense of pride and respect for the work we choose to undertake, but it will guide those around us by helping them know our expectations and capabilities.

4. If you need to, get help

We contribute many hours to our work in the arts, so when conflict arises it can drain our time and energy. If you feel you are not being treated fairly, ask for help. Conflicts in the workplace – whether it’s an office, newsroom, rehearsal, or even freelance gig – can often be resolved by healthy communication between colleagues. But if you are feeling unsure about how to respond to conflict, it may be appropriate to source to a second opinion. Learn your appropriate point-of-call for seeking help.

6. At the end of the day, remember why you chose to work in the arts

‘Life in the arts will be really easy,’ said nobody, ever. We all know it takes a lot of work – personal maintenance as much as professional development. We are required to work obscure hours, balance multiple projects at once, and be responsible for our own incomes as we complete endless grant applications and create crowdfunding campaigns.

So why do we do it?

Because for a writer to deny herself words is unnatural. For a musician to lock away their desire to practice for hours each day is unhealthy. We work in the arts because, by nature, we must. So while we all share this, let’s work our hardest to support each other in a challenging industry.

Stephanie Eslake

Saturday 20 May, 2017

About the author

Stephanie Eslake is a Hobart journalist who writes arts criticism for national publications, one of which is Limelight Magazine. In 2017, she was named Hobart’s Young Citizen of the Year, and won the inaugural Kill Your Darlings New Critic Award. In 2018, she won the Tasmanian Young Achiever of the Year Award (Arts).

The former Mercury staff writer now works in higher education as a tutor and course content creator. She also volunteers her time to run Australia’s classical music publication CutCommon as its founding editor.  CutCommon was named one of the top 10 classical music projects in the world when it was shortlisted for the Classical:NEXT 2017 Innovation Award.