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Recovery roadmap webinars: Mental health advisory

Co-presented with Creative Victoria, the last of our four-part webinar series looks at the importance of maintaining good mental health in these challenging times.
Recovery roadmap webinars: Mental health advisory Image supplied
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Richard Watts

Friday 25 September, 2020

It’s a cliché because it’s true: collectively, we are working in unprecedented times.

As a result, said Kirsty Ritchie, Associate Director of the Arts Wellbeing Collective at Arts Centre Melbourne: ‘We need to give ourselves and each other extra love and extra care. We need to be providing more protection for ourselves and for our teams, and a road to recovery won't be achieved overnight, but it can be done.’

In the fourth and final webinar in our Recovery Roadmap series, Ritchie discusses the importance of resilience and self-care and suggests we think about mental health in the same way we think about our physical health.

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‘Understanding when you're feeling down, what are some of those things [that make you feel that way?] … Understand that and pay attention to that, the way you would if you had a headache. You would do something about it. If you're feeling like you … don't have as much positive energy that you could, think about the things you do when you know you're at your best, and think about doing those things much more consciously,’ she said.

‘Self-care is – I don't want to say medicine because it's the wrong word – but self-care is looking after yourself and looking after your mental health, paying attention to those basics and making sure that you are … staying positive, thinking about the things that give you energy and doing a lot more of those, looking after rest, nutrition, connection, care, sleep, exercise – they are the things that actually nourish you and give your body and your mind the resilience that it needs.’

Ritchie also addressed ways in which arts leaders and managers can better support their staff during the pandemic.

‘One of the things from a leadership perspective is to be really role modelling good practice yourself, and that can come from role modelling self-care, role modelling connection with your team, role modelling support,’ she said.

‘So if your organisation has access to things like employee assistance programs and support programs like that, make sure you know about them, make sure you know how you and your employees can access that help if it's needed, when it's needed.

‘And for leaders, I would really encourage them to be very, very familiar with the services that are available from an employee assistance perspective so that you can speak with confidence and credibility about those services and the benefits that they bring,’ Ritchie explained.

Transcript provided by The Captioning Studio

RUTH GORMLEY: Good afternoon, everyone. While we are currently all in different locations, I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands on which we live and work. I pay my respects to their elders past and present, and to any elders who may be here today. I'm Ruth Gormley. I lead the Strategic Marketing team at Creative Victoria and my preferred pronouns are she and her. I want to welcome you all to this Recovery Roadmap webinar: Mental Health Advisory with Kirsty Ritchie. We hope you're finding these webinars valuable. Creative Victoria is proud of our work with ArtsHub to present them as part of our Creative Exchange program.

On the housekeeping front, as with all the others, this webinar is being live captioned. If you want to see the captions, just follow the link we will pop in the chat. You will need to be using Google Chrome for them to work. We're also recording this session, so any questions you ask will be on record. The recorded webinar will be available through the Creative Exchange page on the Creative Victoria website and on ArtsHub. We will be sending out a survey following the webinar, so please fill that in and let us know how we've gone. I'll now pass over to Richard Watts from ArtsHub, who will be moderating today's discussion. Richard.

RICHARD WATTS: Thank you, Ruth. And hello, everyone. Thank you for joining us for the fourth and final in our webinar series, our Recovery Roadmap Webinars, and today looking at the issue of mental health with the topic Mental Health Advisory. I am Richard Watts, I'm ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and I'm speaking to you today from the lands of the Kulin Nation, as is our guest, Kirsty Ritchie, Associate Director of the Arts Wellbeing Collective at Arts Centre Melbourne.

Formerly a dancer with the Australian Ballet and a number of other companies, Kirsty later retrained in organisational development and change management, holding senior roles with a number of companies before joining Arts Centre Melbourne in 2018 as the Associate Director, Learning and Organisational Development. She took on the role of Associate Director, Arts Wellbeing Collective in January this year.

Now, as we all know, particularly those of us living in Melbourne and Victoria more broadly, mental health has been one of the big issues of lockdown, and today Kirsty will talk about some of the ways that arts organisations – around the country and across a range of artforms – can look after the mental health of their staff as they face challenges like working from home, balancing new priorities and fostering resilience.

Some additional housekeeping before we get properly underway. If you have questions you want to ask during the webinar, please use the Q&A function at the bottom of your screen. We've been sent a number of questions in advance, which I'll be drawing upon during the question and answer session after the presentation. And if you would like to amplify this discussion, please use the hashtag #RecoveryRoadmapWebinars on the social media platform of your choice. Kirsty, over to you.

KIRSTY RITCHIE: Hey, Richard and Ruth. Thank you so much for that lovely introduction. It's really lovely to be joining you today. And, wow, what a time we do find ourselves in. Such a time as I'm sure none of us ever expected to experience. We have heard and seen the impact of COVID 19 so deeply across our industry, but how wonderful that we are all taking the time out today to come together to think about the road to recovery, to turn our minds to the journey to the other side.

For some context about today's topic and to frame who the Arts Wellbeing Collective are and what we do, I wanted to go back and give a little bit of background and acknowledge that, even before COVID 19, we knew that performing arts workers experience mental health challenges at a higher rate than the general population. We also know that the challenges of working in the performing arts are felt right across the industry, not just by artists, dancers, musicians, actors, but by technicians, marketers, front of house, directors. All the roles are experiencing challenges in the industry that we work in.

We have known this to be the case anecdotally for many years, and it's for this reason that the Arts Wellbeing Collective was created, and we're so glad it was and that we have had four years of working with people right across the industry, four years of working with experts and industry professionals to better understand what stood behind the stories and where those impacts were coming from, and four years of digging deep into the challenges and working on the best ways to help.

Arts Wellbeing Collective was already here because of the challenges, and we're so grateful that it was.

Read: A toolkit for a healthier arts sector

For those of you who are familiar with the Arts Wellbeing Collective, welcome back. For those who are less familiar, Arts Wellbeing Collective, as the name suggests, is a collective of arts and cultural organisations committed to improving the mental health and wellbeing of people who work in the performing arts.

It is an initiative of Arts Centre Melbourne and it promotes positive mental health and wellbeing in the performing arts industry. We are a growing community of practice, and it comprises hundreds of arts and cultural organisations working together to create long-lasting, positive, systemic cultural change.

Since our pilot in 2017, the Arts Wellbeing Collective has grown rapidly to be a really comprehensive and sector wide initiative. It focuses on systems and structures, ways of working that impact the mental health and wellbeing of people who work in our industry. Our programs, services and resources are prevention focused and evidence based, informed by contemporary research into workplace mental health, organisational development and extensive sector knowledge. We are unashamedly performing arts experts.

The Arts Wellbeing Collective team collaborates with many, many organisations – our member organisations, numerous, thousands of subject matter experts, performing arts practitioners and clinical and positive psychologists – to co-design these initiatives that have been shared widely across the industry.

We understand the industry, and that's where we're the experts. We can identify issues. We can listen. We can empathise. And then we can work closely with the expert psychologist or whoever is best placed to help us with solutions, to tailor strategies and techniques for our industry.

Working in the performing arts comes with its own particular pressures and challenges, and these challenges have only been amplified by COVID 19 closures and restrictions.

Our focus, as ever, is on finding and articulating conditions which allow performing arts people and performing arts to thrive. So though the impacts of COVID have been felt deeply, widely and completely by everybody across our industry, from a mental health perspective, we've not seen any new issues emerging.

What we have experienced, though, is that the whole sector has been impacted altogether, all at once, so a very collective impact that I am sure we never expected to experience.

So we find ourselves dealing with a pandemic and working to improve what was already providing challenges for us as workers in this industry. So at this time, we really need to cut ourselves some slack. It is really hard but we will get through it. We need to give ourselves and each other extra love and extra care. We need to be providing more protection for ourselves and for our teams, and a road to recovery won't be achieved overnight, but it can be done.

'We need to give ourselves and each other extra love and extra care. We need to be providing more protection for ourselves and for our teams.' 

And in a really strange and interesting way, one of the reasons it can be done is because we are all experiencing this at the same time together.

At the Arts Wellbeing Collective, our focus is squarely on how we can seek to ensure the performing arts industry emerges from this disruption more resilient than ever, and we want you and your organisations to come out the other side stronger and ready to thrive.

And I just love this quote, so I couldn't help myself but pop it in. Sorry, it's gone off the screen already. And it is about using this moment of shared crisis to be honest with each other, ourselves. The past we are pining for wasn't always that great in the first place, so there are reasons to be sceptical of the voices expressing a desire to revert back to the way things were as quickly as possible. Back soon in lights? Sure. But also back better. Let's not squander this once in a generation opportunity and think big.

I think sometimes because the situation does feel so strange and unfamiliar, we find that we are looking for new or novel solutions, but in terms of mental health, the things that are most helpful are indeed the things that we already know, and resilience has definitely been tested, individually and collectively, and we need to think about and understand how we can rebuild some of that in order to approach recovery with the most amount of positive energy that we can.

And the ways we can do that are about going back to our basics. The reason that we hear about these basics so often is because they actually work, and one of those basics is really having a deep understanding of what we mean by mental health.

So our go to around our definition for mental health is the World Health Organisation, who describe mental health, or define it, as a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises their own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to their community.

Some of those normal stresses of life have definitely been increased during this time, and so the need for us to really focus consciously and put effort into those basics has never been more important.

RICHARD: Kirsty, could I just pause you there. We can't see the slides you're presenting.

KIRSTY: Oh, OK. Sorry. You've just been watching my beautiful face instead of seeing my slides. Hang on. Let me do share for you. Lucky I read out the quote, Richard. There we go. How's that?

RICHARD: We can see that screen now. Thank you.

KIRSTY: So going back to just understanding more about what we mean by mental health: like physical health, mental health is not static. We think of it as a continuum. We can be feeling really great one day and lousy the next. And from a mental health perspective, it's about knowing what is working when we're at our best. So when we're feeling good and when we might say that we're in the green from a good mental health perspective, it's understanding what are the things that we do and are good for us to help keep us in that space, but understanding the normal stresses of life are going to impact where we sit on this continuum. So we might go up and down the continuum in the space of a day. We might go up and down the continuum in the space of a week or a month. Or in the case of pandemic, we probably went up and down this continuum many, many times.

And for us in the performing arts industry and for us in Victoria, that challenge of staying out of the red has been a little bit more difficult and the strategies that we need to think about for ourselves personally and for our organisation that help keep us in the green are the things that we really, really need to focus on. And it's knowing what is good for us that keeps us at our best.

Sometimes looking after yourself, they feel a little bit unglamorous because they do seem really basic but they actually do work. So things like self-care, thinking about knowing what gives you energy, moving your values and paying attention to your mind the way you would pay attention to your body. So understanding when you're feeling down, what are some of those things  when you're feeling a little more in the red end than the green end, understand that and pay attention to that, the way you would if you had a headache. You would do something about it. If you're feeling like you're not as green as you could be or don't have as much positive energy that you could, think about the things you do when you know you're at your best and think about doing those things much more consciously.

Another thing that we talk about in terms of mental health and looking after yourself: self-care. We talk about self-care a lot, and that simply means looking after yourself. When there's so much going on around us, keeping hold of these simple strategies is do-able. It's something that you can do. It's not a magic bullet because there is no magic bullet. It is actually about putting time, putting energy, putting discipline into looking after yourself.

'We talk about self-care a lot, and that simply means looking after yourself.' 

At these times, your own self care is more important than any other time. It's not something you do later, next year, next month. It's something you do now. Basics like rest, keeping regular times for getting up and going to bed, relaxing and unwinding before you go to bed, getting some sunshine during the day – and thankfully we're heading into that time of year where it's much easier for us to get up in the morning and enjoy that morning sun and get some daylight, get some change from sitting in front of our screens all the time.

Look after your nutrition. Look after your body. Stay hydrated. Notice what it is that you're reaching for as you kind of sit in your bubbles of your home offices. What are the things that are keeping you nourished? Is it something that will nourish your soul and your body?

Rediscover the world around you, in terms of where you get your nutrition from. You might find a really good local trader that is providing you really good fresh, local produce, things that can really nourish your body. And have some stock of the things that you enjoy.

It's important that we have around us and we are still able to enjoy the things that make us feel good, just if that thing happens to be chocolate or coffee, that it's still done in moderation, but it doesn't mean you can't have it or have to cut it out.

Self-care is about connection. Caring for others is caring for yourself, so taking some time to check in on the people that you love, the people around you, the people that you care for is actually also caring for yourself and helping you to nurture yourself.

Practice compassion and generosity. At these times, when our resilience levels are low because we are dealing with a lot of change and a lot of challenge, we need to be compassionate with each other. We need to understand that our reserves and our ability to work at the pace and at the intensity that we might have in other times is just not the same at the moment, so have different expectations of yourself, have different expectations of those around you in terms of what they've got and you've got the capacity to actually do.

Be gentle. Be kind with yourself and with others. Make meaningful connections. Work out how you can stay connected, even though you might not be able to be physically close. It doesn't mean you are socially disconnected.

'Be gentle. Be kind with yourself and with others. Make meaningful connections.' 

And, of course, exercise. Actions for your body. Do the things you enjoy and do them for at least 15 minutes every day, and again it's a discipline thing. You can find 15 minutes every day to do something physical that you really enjoy – walking, skipping. There is so much that you can find online. There's a plethora of yoga. There's a plethora of workouts and Pilates. You will find things online that you like.

And there's actions for your mind as well. Making sure you're having time to do things for your mind that are not work related, so engaging your brain, making these new connections in your brain and keeping it alive and vibrant in ways that are completely disconnected from work and are not about your work content.

And the other thing to be thinking about at this time is access to what we call protective factors, so being in a highly impacted industry in a pandemic is likely to challenge even the most resilient amongst us. And it is throwing up probably more than the normal stresses of life. However, the things that protect us at any other time are still as valid. We might – what we might need to do at these times is think more deeply about how to access these protective factors, as many of them may not be as easily accessed as they were before.

As individuals, how can you think differently about bringing these protective factors into action, especially if you find yourself in a situation where access to some of these has fundamentally changed?

If your access to support was in your workplace, how can you think about that differently and still have that access but in a very different way?

Social connectedness has definitely changed for us. Think creatively about how you can stay socially connected in a way that is different now, because we actually may not bump into people at work or down the street or in a way that we used to, but social connection is a protective factor and we can still be socially connected.

Find a sense of purpose and meaning, and purpose and meaning are things that you can access in more than your work. Purpose and meaning in the relationships that you have, purpose and meaning in the other things that you might want to do, that you do in your life. What has this time given you that you didn't have before, and how can you use it so that next time it happens, we are better placed?

How can you keep around you the things that help you maintain – or who can you keep around you? The people that help you maintain a really positive perspective.

Focus on what you can do instead of what you can't. Whilst we can't control the pandemic or open up our theatres, we do have control over good habits.

'Focus on what you can do instead of what you can't.'

Purpose and meaning isn't just about staging shows. How else can you draw meaning? How are you showing up? How are your values showing up? When you look back on this time, how would you like to remember it? What would you like to be able to say that you achieved during this time?

As organisations, these protective factors provide a really great frame for the things that you can be doing to support your team. Just as with individuals, organisations need to rethink how they're working and the practices and processes that are needed.

We are in different times, so traditional methods might not work, but that doesn't mean the strategies have changed. Just how we execute them has changed. And in thinking about our recovery – and another great ambition to work towards is to think about what we want our workplaces to look like, as we support our teams through closure and how we emerge on the other side.

What do we want that workplace to actually look like? What changes and improvements do we want to make in our workplace?

And just as there is a definition around mental health, Guarding Minds At Work, a Canadian organisation, has a lovely definition for a mentally healthy workplace.

“A mentally healthy workplace is a place where people can work smart, contribute their best effort, be recognised for their work and go home at the end of the day with energy left over.”

That's a pretty cool place to work. And fostering a culture that focuses on people's mental health and wellbeing benefits everyone. It benefits team members. It benefits teams. It benefits organisations.

To achieve a vision for an organisation, they can aspire to create an environment where everyone can do their best work, and a mentally healthy workplace has that desire at its heart, bringing values to life to ensure people can bring positive energy to their work and work productively and collectively to create an environment that brings out the best in everyone. So I might stop there.

Read: 5 tips for wellbeing in lockdown

RICHARD: In terms of some – if I can get you to stop sharing your screen.

KIRSTY: Sure thing.

RICHARD: And some questions that have come in in advance: what are some of the alternative ways of staying connected and promoting connectivity outside of Zoom?

KIRSTY: That's a great question, especially when we are still very much physically distanced from each other, and the thing that comes to mind for me is thinking about what you're really good at. So you still might only be able to kind of connect virtually, but what can you do differently? What are some other non-virtual ways to communicate that you can stay connected?

It's a long time since a lot of us probably wrote a letter, but imagine receiving a letter from a good friend, a letter of support, or taking photos the old-fashioned way and sending photos or pictures?

We are creative people and thinking outside the virtual space and how you can stay really connected in ways that we have forgotten about. Pick up the phone. It's a very different experience having a call where you can get outside and walk around in the fresh air and combine that 15 minutes of exercise with being socially connected with a friend and one of your positive connections.

RICHARD: Earlier in your presentation, you used the metaphor of, in the same way that you would take a pain killer perhaps if you had a headache, you should also pay attention to doing something for your mental health in the same way. Can you give us a quick practical example of that?

KIRSTY: Yes, look, I think – and I'll say it over and over because we all need to know it by rote – it's self-care. Self-care is, I don't want to say medicine because it's the wrong word, but self-care is looking after yourself and looking after your mental health, paying attention to those basics and making sure that you are surrounding yourself – you're staying positive, thinking about the things that give you energy and doing a lot more of those, looking after rest, nutrition, connection, care, sleep, exercise  and they are the things that actually nourish you and give your body and your mind the resilience that it needs.

For those people who haven't actually experienced things like meditation, that's also an awesome strategy for looking after your mental health as well.

RICHARD: The question that's just come in live from the audience: how does creatively contribute to protective factors?

KIRSTY: I think creatively in terms of protective – so the context in which I'm using it is about thinking differently about how you might access those protective factors. So knowing what they are is one thing, and in our normal pattern of work, we would be accessing those protective factors in our normal patterns, but our patterns have changed, so we have to actually think differently, and in terms of creativity, it's about opening your mind up to different possibilities about how you can find those social connections, how you can find purpose and meaning in what you do if the things that you were doing, you don't have access to anymore.

But we are not, we have infinite possibility in terms of our identity. We're not completely confined to the work that we do. We are a whole people. We are all sorts of different things and beings in our life, and all of those things and beings have purpose and meaning. Sometimes we just forget to connect the two things together.

RICHARD: Another question that came in in advance: how can somebody best support their staff through the ongoing uncertainties, as things reopen but are irrevocably changed?

KIRSTY: Great question. There's a couple of things. One of the things from a leadership perspective is to be really role modelling good practice yourself, and that can come from role modelling self-care, role modelling connection with your team, role modelling support. So if your organisation has access to things like employee assistance programs and support programs like that, make sure you know about them, make sure you know how you and your employees can access that help if it's needed, when it's needed, and for leaders, I would really encourage them to be very, very familiar with the services that are available from an employee assistance perspective so that you can speak with confidence and credibility about those services and the benefits that they bring.

'One of the things from a leadership perspective is to be really role modelling good practice yourself, and that can come from role modelling self-care, role modelling connection with your team, role modelling support.' 

But there's a kind of a little acronym that I like to use in my mind, and we talk about certainty in terms of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, and the kind of antidote to that, which is really important from a leadership perspective, and that is where there is volatility, you can provide vision. You can provide clarity and direction to your team.

Where there is uncertainty, you can provide understanding. You can connect with your people more than you would normally, be very understanding, show that compassion.

Where there's complexity, communication – I think in these times there is no such thing as over-communicating, so communicating often, communicating clearly, communicating without ambiguity and honestly.

And where there's ambiguity, encourage adaptability, adaptability in terms of helping your teams to think differently about situations that they might find themselves in in the time of ambiguity.

RICHARD: We're almost out of time but I'm going to try to squeeze in one or two questions. This is a slightly long one. Can we talk about empowerment as self-care? So much self-care is centred on self, but I think it's important to acknowledge outside influences can affect us. By feeling empowered to talk about boundaries, what you need in the workplace, can that be a powerful tool?

KIRSTY: Yes, absolutely. I think I'm understanding the question correctly, in that a workplace empowering its people to actually look after themselves, is that what the question is asking?

RICHARD: Well, I guess the initial question is: can we talk about empowerment as self-care? Let’s just speak to that.

KIRSTY: Yeah. I think so. I mean, empowered – we are all empowered to look after ourselves. I absolutely take the point about outside influences having impact, and that's why our mental health can go up and down. It's not a static thing. There are things around us, the environment that we're in, has an impact on us, and that empowerment around going  understanding what you have control over and you do have control over your own habits and your own ability to think about what works for you, what gives you energy, how do you hold on to those things and grasp on to those things to keep you in that positive mental health space.

RICHARD: This one has also come in. As an industry, how can we prevent exploitation when job security is at an all-time low?

KIRSTY: Hmm. I think one of the things we think about in the Arts Wellbeing Collective is some of those big systemic cultural challenges that we have had as an industry, and a big question like that is a big question with lots of complexity to it, and I'd love to be able to say: here's the answer.

I mentioned at the beginning, one of the positives out of this is we have all experienced this as an industry all at the same time, altogether, and we can't ignore it anymore, but it's not up to one part of the industry or one person or one act. It's a complex solution that requires collaboration, connection across the industry and a shared sense of wanting to actually address some of these systemic issues as we move forward together.

RICHARD: Now, if people go to the www.supportact.org.au/wellbeinghelpline that is one way of supporting individuals who need to reach out to somebody.

As I said, we're just about out of time. One quick last question. Are there any other key resources that you think organisations in any sector could share with staff and clients around burnout management?

KIRSTY: Yes, it's a really good one. All the resources that are available through Support Act, through the Arts Wellbeing Collective – and Support Act now also have a manager support line, specifically dedicated for managers, which is an awesome new addition to that service, and in terms of burnout, any of the resources are going to help if you are feeling that, but I think burnout is one of those things that's a little bit similar to what we were talking about kind of in terms of exploitation.

Burnout is – you look at why the burnout is occurring, not try to treat the symptoms of it. Try to think about how to prevent burnout in the first place. Are we burning people out because our expectations of them are too high at this time? That care and compassion is about understanding where your team members are at, where your people are at and making sure that they have the capacity to do what you're asking before they burn out.

RICHARD: Yes. Thank you, Kirsty. We're going to have to leave it there. We're out of time. But thank you for joining us today and thank you to everybody else for joining us today. Kirsty, are you OK if we share your slides out?

KIRSTY: Absolutely. Yes. I will send them through to Creative Victoria.

RICHARD: Thank you, and if you could send them to me as well, that would be great.

This is the last of our four-part webinar series, presented in partnership with Creative Victoria. Thanks to the team at ArtsHub who have worked behind the scenes to make this happen. Thanks to the team at Creative Victoria and thanks to you for joining us.

Just before I go, please keep Wednesday, 25 November free in your diary for ArtsHub's arts industry conference. Details of guests and ticketing will be announced soon. Enjoy the rest of your day.

ArtsHub's 2020 industry conference is now taking place on Wednesday 9 December.

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, a program he has hosted since 2004.

Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management, and is also a former Chair of Melbourne Fringe. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, he has also served as President of the Green Room Awards Association and as a member of the Green Room's Independent Theatre panel. 

Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. Most recently he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize for 2019.

Twitter: @richardthewatts