U.K. Film & TV Industry Faces Mental Health Crisis: “Seismic Shifts Need to Happen”

A new survey has revealed a major mental health crisis is permeating the U.K. film and TV industry, with close to 90% of off-screen professionals experiencing mental health issues on the job – significantly worse than the general population, in which 65% struggle with mental health at work.

Commissioned by The Film and TV Charity, the mixed-method survey entitled “The Looking Glass” spanned more than 9,000 industry professionals – of around 245,000 jobs overall in the U.K.’s audiovisual sector – and drew upon an evidence review, workforce survey, 30 qualitative interviews and consultations via an industry forum.

Findings have revealed that 55% of film and TV workers surveyed have contemplated suicide, compared with a national average of 20%, while one in 10 have attempted suicide, compared to a 7% national average. Meanwhile, film and TV professionals are three times as likely to self-harm than the national average.

“There isn’t sufficient support for people in the right place at the right time and in the right way,” Alex Pumfrey, CEO of The Film and TV Charity, tells Variety. “There are big, seismic shifts that need to happen and they are certainly not going to happen overnight.”

Results of the study have prompted senior execs from Banijay, Channel 4, Disney, Endemol Shine, ITV and Sky to contribute £2.5 million ($3.2 million) to a two-year action plan entitled The Whole Picture Program.

Top leaders from these organizations, among others, gathered mid-January, and will meet every six months to discuss the plan, while a program steering group and break-out working groups will convene more regularly to do the “operational shaping” of the initiative. Firms that have so far come to the table also include Universal Pictures, ViacomCBS and Paramount Pictures and Vue Entertainment.

The program will launch officially in April, with plans for an enhanced 24/7 Film and TV Support Line, peer-to-peer support and a behaviour change campaign in the first year alone. Year two goals include building an industry-wide peer support and self-help network, advanced training courses and production protocols with best-practice guidelines.

“There aren’t any easy answers as to how you change culture and behaviors – particularly not at a large scale – but we do know from the research we’ve done that it will only work if it’s done on an industry-wide, collective basis with shared commitments that run right across the industry,” says Pumfrey.

Bullying, long hours and poor work-life balance

Among the factors contributing to the staggering results are long working hours – with one in eight working in excess of 60 hours per week, compared with one in 50 in other industries – as well as 78% of respondents struggling to achieve a healthy work-life balance, compared to 27% in other industries.

Cultural factors include workplace bullying, with 84% of film and TV professionals having experienced or witnessed bullying or harassment at work.

“Our sense is that the dial has moved on sexual harassment since the revelations of widespread sexual harassment in our industry here and abroad in 2017, but bullying is still endemic within (film and TV),” says Pumfrey.

“The levels still feel far too high, and we can see clearly for the first time how that is a key determinant of mental health outcomes.”

Drilling down, respondents in production and development highlighted issues with bullying and lack of control over long working hours, while the post-production, animation and VFX sector discussed social isolation, alcohol and drug dependency.

In broadcasting, bullying, poor mental health and a desire to leave the industry were contributing factors, while in distribution, anxiety, an alcohol-focused culture and feeling undervalued were common complaints. Within cinema and exhibition, respondents admitted to self-harm, suicidal thoughts and attempts.

One anonymous respondent who highlighted the pressure to work long hours said: “I know many senior HoDs (heads of department), myself included, and other people who at some point during a film reach (the) point that they would like a small accident so they can be off for a week. Just to make the pressure stop. The pressure on all HoDs to pull a rabbit out of the hat to solve other bigger production problems is ridiculous.”

The survey’s qualitative findings suggest that working conditions are worsening, particularly as budgets tighten and pressures rise against the backdrop of a fast-moving industry.

However, only 7% of survey respondents – and just 2% of freelancers – said they would broach the topic of their mental health with their manager. Of those who had discussed a mental health problem at work, only 28% said it had improved the situation, compared with 41% in a survey of over 100 organizations by U.K. mental health body Mind.

The survey results come at a time when business appears to be booming for U.K. film and TV, making tangible actions around sound mental health initiatives particularly time-sensitive for the industry.

Spend on film and high-end television production in the U.K. was the highest ever recorded in 2019, hitting £3.62 billion ($4.7 billion), an increase of 16%, according to British Film Institute figures.

The growth was driven by high levels of international production investment in the U.K., which topped the £3 billion ($3.9 billion) mark for the first time.

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