From working with celebrities to waitressing: why I'm happier now

Fancy job titles and big name bosses inflate the ego but don't always pay the bills - and they come with a heavy amount of stress

Michelle Thomas@onepoundstories
Wednesday 30 July 2014 11:31

A friend of mine works in the costume department for a movie with a budget of over £100m. She's earning around £100 per 14-hour day before tax. The last movie she worked on had a budget of £60m. She worked in a café to get by in the six weeks between the two.

“You're just treated like crap, for crap pay because they've blown all the budget on the cast” she says. “There are hundreds of people in the crew, and hundreds more who'd kill for the job. There's no incentive for your employers to treat you well – we're utterly dispensable”.

Another friend of mine is currently a director on a BBC1 documentary series. Three years ago she was on £250 per 60+ hour week for a start-up company. “They said I was a valued part of a team” she says. “They said we were a family. Even though you know you're being exploited, it's hard to stand up for yourself when you start out”.

If you work in the arts you can expect to get paid in happy thoughts and fairy dust in the early stages of your career. Furthermore, in this economy, if you have a paying job, and if that's in even the farthest peripheries of the arts, you are expected to be grateful for it. Between the financial strain, job insecurity and long, demanding hours, it's no wonder that many give up on their ambition of earning a decent living in the creative industries.

Sherridan Hughes is an occupational psychologist who specialises in career counselling. More than half of her clients work in the arts. “Roles that offer temporary contracts and freelance work can be more stressful as there is less job security and individuals can't be sure when their next work (and pay) may come. Many of my clients will have worked silly hours for nothing for many years, leading to a sense of frustration and exploitation, or perhaps even burn out” she explains.

According to HSE, 40 per cent of all work-related illness is linked with stress, and one-in-five visits to a GP are down to psychological problems, including anxiety and depression. Most creative industry is project-based, which involves working to a deadline. These seemingly cushy, glamorous roles in arts admin, production, and marketing are most effectively run by those who are most highly productive under pressure. But when does this valued asset become unhealthy? “Working under pressure can be rewarding when work feels like play, but can have a negative impact on health when fuelled by perfectionism and fear of failure” says Ms. Hughes.

Like many, over the last ten years I have worked either menial jobs giving poor rewards or creative jobs giving even lower rewards. Depressingly, I earned more ten years ago in my first ever job in the supplies department of a hospital than I have in any job since leaving university. My first full-time job in the arts was funded by a DCMS bursary. I earned £15,000 a year - not too far from industry standard fee which is between £15,000-18,000 for most entry level roles, and £18,000-£23,000 with a few more years' experience. The word “graduate” in the job title takes the wage down to £14,000 (or below outside of London). Personal financial stability lies in industries, like financial services, which operate in a creative (and sometimes moral) vacuum. Why do we award socially, culturally and intellectually enriching jobs so badly?

I was also an agent for a live entertainment producer. I worked long hours in the office, trying to secure gigs for lesser-known clients, trying to get better money for my more well-known clients, fawning my way in with the bookers for scraps of paid (and unpaid) work in a struggling industry which is saturated with talent desperately trying to get their foot in the door. I'd be out most nights to scope out a venue or check out a new act. I wasn't paid for that of course, but I had to “demonstrate commitment”. I was on call at weekends and expected to cancel plans to accompany acts to important gigs. Some nights I'd get home around midnight, text encouraging feedback to my client, text honest feedback to my boss, fall into bed for eight hours then do it all again. And again. And again. Any tiny morsel of success – getting a client a part in a pilot, scoring a lucrative corporate gig, wheedling more money out of a contract – was short-lived; I was forever hustling for the next gig, the next contract, the next new act.

Working long hours made me ill. I ached all over. I ate rubbish. I never saw my boyfriend or my friends. After eight months I was utterly depleted. I had a major depressive episode, which resulted in me not being able to work full time for six months.

The epiphany came when I accompanied a client to a Christmas special of a BBC panel show. There was a fabulous buffet, booze flowing and a guest list would make my friends sick with envy. Yet all I longed to do was slip home and eat my dinner with my boyfriend. I remember checking my watch at 8.40pm. “He's cooked lasagne,” I thought. “Other people would like this kind of thing, wouldn't they? They'd think it was a perk. They'd rather be partying with producers and commissioners and famous actors than curled up on the sofa reeking of garlic and contentment”.

That was when I realised I wasn't right for the job, nor it for me. Three weeks later, sobbing on the phone to my boss, I handed in my notice. “I feel like we're breaking up” I wailed, to his bafflement. But it was true. So much of my self-worth was bound up in the fact that I had a “good” job, and the realisation that I'd backed the wrong horse was crushing. I liked having the phone numbers of people off the telly. I liked being the person those people came to when they wanted to get stuff done. I loved having my job, but doing my job was killing me and, to my proper shame, I couldn't do it any more.

People stay on in these jobs in hope that their careers will progress accordingly over the years. Some do, but for many a career in the arts is a shut shop – companies lose funding and go bust, have to compromise on the quality of their work, have to freeze wages and hire interns to cut costs. Those who have the top jobs won't be moving on any time soon. The competition is blood-curdling. Many face the prospect of working in “graduate” or “junior” positions for years, with nowhere to go within their company and precious few opportunities to move on in others. I'm now approaching my thirties, and it seems that opportunities to retrain and do something else are rapidly diminishing.

After spending a few months freelancing as a writer, runner, promo person and general bod, I'm now a barista on a zero-hour contract. When I first started I lived in fear of former colleagues coming in to see me making sandwiches, wiping tables and emptying bins, trailing a whiff of bacon fat and bad life choices. Even though I was happier and less stressed than I had been for a long time, and my undemanding job meant that I could focus on my own creative output, it felt like a failure. I hid Facebook notifications from my contemporaries. Their success turned my belly into a snake pit of seething, horrible envy.

I like my job now. I like talking to customers, explaining the difference between a latte and a flat white. I love meeting interesting creative people like my friend the costume designer. I love my three minute commute. I love that I don't wake up in a cold sweat if I forget to order napkins or cup lids. I love working 6am 'til noon, then having the energy and brainpower to collect and write stories for my book. I'm even earning roughly the same as I was before. Okay, I rarely go out and I haven't bought any new clothes for two years, but that's not forever. I think I have a nice life. For now, that's good enough. That, I'm grateful for.

Michelle Thomas has worked extensively in live comedy, opera and theatre as an actor, writer, and producer. She's also worked extensively in waitressing, promo stuff and office gruntery. Her book I Will Pay One Pound For Your Story is currently being crowdfunded by Unbound

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