How are you doing? Zoe Milton reflects on mental well-being when the industry we love is forced to shut down.

Zoe Milton | 09/04/2020

Words by Sound Engineer, Zoe Milton: Zoe gives her own personal experience and advice on how she as a freelancer has adapted to working from home under the recent lockdown measures.

These past few weeks have been unrecognisable from any that I have lived. March 7th was a fairly hectic, but totally normal day; I was working on a live-streamed Opera event. There were hundreds of people working on the show and even more watching it at the venue in the audience. It was a fully staffed, live broadcast show with a full theatre and TV filming crew.

Backstage we had opera singers, presenters, hair and make-up artists, technicians, catering, cleaners and security teams, we all worked closely together to put on the show.

In the quiet moments, we gathered around the kettle for a chat about what was happening in the rest of the world with the rampaging Coronavirus. We spoke about how students from Italy had recently been on a tour of the venue, and how they'd left the quarantine area just before lockdown. We also talked about how China was coping with the increase in cases, but it was all very other, distant and away from us.

Fast forward a week or so, and we suddenly became aware of what was needed to keep this virus at bay; theatres closed, gigs were cancelled, and tours were halted. In just a few hours, an entire industry was entirely dismantled. Days later, and our schools are shut, our freedom is severely restricted, and the NHS is overwhelmed with cases. 

On top of all of this, the people I started working with two weeks ago are out of work indefinitely. Those lucky enough to be employed are waiting for this to be over. They're making the most of their time, working from home where possible.

But what about those of us who are self-employed? Personally, all my work for the next six months is cancelled. Some of it, hopefully, postponed. With no mention of a new performance date, this doesn't bode well.

Me (Zoe Milton) Working From Home

I'm lucky; I make a portion of my income from being the administrator for the ASD (Association of Sound Designers). I can continue that work from home, but it's only two days a week. How should I fill the remaining time, and how do I balance my needs with those of my family?

These questions are echoed by my friends and colleagues all over the country. Not just the show staff put out of work, but our entire industry. Our whole world is in a daze. There isn't a corner of the business that has been left untouched. 

We know from the results of the recent survey into the mental health of the industry that many of our technicians and creative professionals enter the industry with existing mental health issues. There are not many of us that can hold up our hands and say, I've never felt stressed, or anxious. We live in a stressful world; many of us thrive in high tension environments, loving the thrill of live performance.

Over the weekend of March 20th, we conducted another survey. In just 96 hours, 249 members responded, and the results were stark. 

Cancelled or postponed engagements and royalty losses totalled £1,943,452 across the surveyed membership.

91% of respondents had immediately lost income as a result of isolation measures, which worked out at approximately £1,000,000 in lost income.

76% have had further work postponed, working out at around £750,000 of further income uncertainty. That means that the average lost income to self-employed members worked out at £7215 each.

Even with all these massive personal financial losses, the number one concern for members was the health of themselves and their families. 41% agreed this was their top priority, with the future of the industry being the secondary concern, and paying the mortgage and household bills as the tertiary worry.

How do we process the situation internally and learn to cope, when, through no fault of our own, our income and stability are affected so completely? What do we do with the feelings of stress and anxiety? 

I spoke to Dr Paul Hanna who is a Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at Surrey University and compiled the industry survey into mental health. I asked him if he had any thoughts on how we could cope under the circumstances. Paul said:

"Since the turn of the year, we have moved from relative stability (albeit muddied by the constant nationalistic discourses surrounding Brexit) to one of the most unprecedented situations in modern history. 

Whilst the media is filled with ways to reinvent the self during the 'lockdown', I would urge some caution towards this narrative as it oversimplifies the current situation, ignoring the complex struggles and acute distress many individuals are facing daily, and instead acts more as an unhealthy form of socially organised denial.

"We are all (consciously or unconsciously) anxious and concerned as our entire world has changed and concern for family, friends, neighbours, ourselves (health/unhealthy, young/old etc) has been heightened. So we are unlikely to be as 'productive' in performing work or other tasks. To me, this appears a very normal response to the constant buzz of health concern, food security, and loss of the basic liberty of freedom going around our heads. Thus, an appreciation for the acute distress individuals are experience and a more communal response to reconnect to the things inherently important in our lives, that of friends, family, neighbours, and other fellow beings, is required."

Dr Paul Hanna (Centre)

This professional opinion mirrors what I've found at home, that keeping in contact with friends and family and giving yourself a few weeks to figure out what all of this means for you is a good way to work through the situation.

By keeping our lines of communication active and trying some new skills, we can keep our endorphins up and keep our brains active, but still allow ourselves time to figure out our 'new normal'.

I found that I didn't really have the vocabulary to talk about how I'm feeling. It's been useful for me to take a look at documentation designed to help you speak to children about the Covid-19 pandemic. Reading through these resources has helped me understand the feelings I've been having and made me more able to communicate with my family. Waves of emotion roll over me at the strangest times, and it's at these moments that I find myself reaching for my phone to make contact with a friend. Giving myself time to adjust has been really important—not rushing into DIY jobs around the house, but allowing myself a moment to absorb the situation has helped me not to feel entirely overwhelmed. It's difficult when we have so much immediately to deal with; sometimes, the bigger picture is impossible to see. When I feel like this, I find it's beneficial to take a moment and look out the window, or pause and allow myself a few deep breaths. 

Our industry is full of passionate people, and we have already seen online groups springing up full of positivity. People are temporarily shifting their expertise to help keep themselves and the country going. Haulage firms more used to pulling artics full of speakers are now pulling trailers full of food for supermarkets. Neighbours are keeping an eye on each other, millions of people are pulling together (from a socially acceptable distance) to help each other and make sure no one falls through the cracks.

Pets Make Great Companions While Working from Home

There are so many ways to help yourself feel more positive. Every day, another tip or hint is shared, from giving yourself a proper work area and being realistic about the amount of work you can do each day, to keeping in touch with family when you're stuck on your own.

I've found it really useful to tackle one day at a time. Mentally, I make a list of things I need to achieve, and then I break that down into categories. Depending on the number of tasks completed, I give myself a 'fail', 'doing ok', or a 'winning' level through the day. So if I get nothing done, I've failed, if I complete 1-3 tasks I'm doing ok, and if I get it all done, I've won! It helps me to be realistic about how much I'm going to get done and stops me being too down on myself if I don't achieve everything I'd hoped. Most days I can get at least one job knocked off the list, so I'm rarely failing at life. Even if life changes and you end up with unexpected tasks, it's not cheating to add those to the list and tick them off!

Our industry friends and colleagues are sharing so many resources online. Seminars, free licences for software and much more are available to use while you're in isolation. I like to set aside time to chill out. Having something new and exciting to look into stops me reaching for the rolling news and keeps me positive.

None of us know how long this new way of life is going to last, or what we will find on the other side. We do know that the health of ourselves, our friends and our family is our number one priority. Everything else we can fix with hard work. We're used to that!

ASD (Association of Sound Designers)

 

Further Reading:

PHE Mental Health information:

https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters/

The Stage article explaining ‘ASD Coronavirus Work Impact Survey’ results:

https://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2020/coronavirus-sound-professionals-report-2m-income-losses/

Zoe Milton