Giving our all – at what cost?

This week, I was looking forward to picking from a host of possible topics for discussion. I had lovely suggestions from the folk at Opera Talk, pressing issues from papers and discussion boards, and a range of subjects in my ever-expanding ‘list of things to blog about’. But instead, I find myself moved to write on a subject that has raised its head repeatedly over the last seven days – and the more said about it, the better.

It goes like this. One morning, I bumped into a colleague at work as she hurried along the corridor. ‘How are you?’ I asked. ‘Oh, you know,’ she said, ‘I’m well. Surviving. It really is a very busy time, as you know.’ Yes indeed – it’s the summer term which means exams, endless meetings, boards to discuss final marks, extenuating circumstances… and on it goes. ‘But tonight,’ she said a little later, ‘I’m going to watch a film. I’m sick of working until midnight every day, you know?’

I carried on along the corridor, marvelling at the idea of having to work every day until midnight. I spoke to further colleagues. They all looked either frantic or exhausted (or both), and spoke of hours and hours in exam recitals, major planning for forthcoming events, and concerts and conferences for which they were preparing. Such is the nature of the job, and exams are, of course, seasonal rather than relentlessly year-long. More than any of this, not one single person spent more than a millisecond or two moaning about their workload before simply acknowledging that there it was, to be dealt with, and all would be fine. And now they really must get on.

A little later, I met by chance with a friend who works in ensemble management. She looked pale and tired. Work had been unbearable for weeks, she said. She’d barely had a day off, with texts and phone calls from 6am til late at night. She’d been having trouble sleeping, she was so overwhelmed by the workload. As a consummate list-maker and organiser, she couldn’t even find a way to begin to deal with the tasks ahead of her.

Last but not least, I heard a young professional musician giving a presentation on her developing career as a freelancer. She has a successful teaching practice and a really unenviable diary in terms of co-ordinating rehearsals and concerts with her ensemble. She does it anyway, and with pleasure, for the love of music and her colleagues. They hardly make any money from their enterprises, but they have an increasingly strong artistic reputation. It is all worth it, she concluded, for such rewards.

Now, let’s get a few things straight. The world owes no one a living; it would be easy to say of the young musician that the lack of financial reward is a demonstration of the saturation of the market. The industry is not forcing people to work overtime in all directions – these ultra-busy professionals have made the choice to take on such workloads and to keep at it, however onerous. My concern is far more specific than ‘these poor people, they work so hard and it’s not fair.’ It is this. We live in an age when the financial pressure on organisations is enormous, and most businesses (and here, with some reluctance, I include educational institutions as businesses) do not have adequate resources to employ the number of staff that it would take to get all the work done comfortably. In some cases, dividing workloads is simply not feasible or practicable due to concerns of parity, consistency, and so on.

But in the arts and education, there is an additional force at work. It is the power of passion and commitment to a specific cultural mission, whether that be bringing Beethoven to audiences who would never otherwise encounter it; teaching supposedly ‘unteachable’ children; using theatre as therapy… people work in these areas because they believe wholeheartedly in the importance, validity and humanity of what they are doing. With this comes a tremendous sense of dedication. These are not folk who are likely to be put off by long hours and less sleep. And the danger is that this makes them exploitable at the highest level – in an overarching view of the place of the arts and education in our society.

What do I mean by this? Take, for example, the government’s current proposals regarding the Education Services Grant. The provision of music education in the UK has already been altered from individual local authority management to ‘Music Hubs’, organisations working with extremely varied levels of success, struggling with funding and resources. The new proposals, if taken forward, would leave these hubs financially stranded – sorry, self-sustaining. Of course, this is sheer fantasy. The only way that such organisations will be able to run at all – in fact, the only way that some of them are running at current operational levels – is because of the generosity of parents, and the extraordinary hard work of staff. These people will give whatever they can to sustain something they consider to be crucial to every child, and to the future of Britain’s cultural life.

Situations like these play out all the time on both smaller and larger scales. A musician takes on a project because they believe fully in its inherent worth and benefit (including educational, community and health benefits, as well as of course artistic integrity). The financial rewards may be miniscule or non-existent. School teachers regularly work crazy hours to give as much as they can to the children they have committed to support – and the number of burnt-out, disheartened teacher stories seems to be increasing all the time. Mental illness is on the rise in academia, where staff struggle with anxiety and isolation. And needless to say, the work-life balance in the majority of these jobs is often dangerously skewed towards the former.

There is no magic wand for this, and the global financial situation may well play a major part in the current state of affairs (the volunteer culture in Britain is also under serious threat – who has the salary-free time to give to unpaid projects?). But being aware of the problem is half the battle. I have enormous respect for my work colleagues and friends who give so much of themselves to do something in which they believe passionately, and which adds such richness and enlightenment to the lives of others (and I include in this everyone from the humblest junior staff member to those responsible for running the large-scale organisations that promote these agendas). I have done my fair share of early mornings, late nights, and no holidays. Still, I can’t help feeling that in an economy that truly values the arts and a fully-rounded education for every child, we might start by thanking these dedicated individuals in simple, straightforward ways that would improve their lives as well. How about we skip the midnight shift this evening, and head to the pub instead?

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