Balance is key when writing up a research study, deciding on what to include and what to leave out: how to communicate survey data, information from interviews and insights from existing literature and knowledge. It’s a complex and demanding job to write a research report that is useful, accessible and rigorous. The full research report Artists Practising Well is long, I’m not sure how long, but longer than I intended it to be. Writing a long form report turned out to be very useful – everything I wanted to cover is contained within it and I can then extract key information to inform other iterations. There are people who like nothing better than to read the long form report – they enjoy accessing information in that format. For others the much shorter synopsis will be the most accessible format and useful in their busy lives. The Slides version distills key information and presents text within various shapes to aid digestion. These text based works were significant pieces of work for me, but they are still only the start. It is essential for work like this to move into event spaces and training rooms where research meets the people who will explore, expand, discuss, contextualise and build upon what I have written.
As part of Creativity and Wellbeing Week (10th-16th June 2019), I was delighted to have the opportunity to share the Artists Practising Well findings through two public events in Norwich and London.
At the Norwich event I presented key aspects of the research and facilitated breakout group discussions, as part of two free days professional development organised and funded by Norfolk County Council. Following my session Alex Casey, Culture Health and Wellbeing Alliance regional champion, talked about the work of the Alliance; before Natalie Jode, Director of Creative Arts East talked about their project Our Day Out. Over the day’s programming we were collectively able to offer attendees a range of perspectives on working in, supporting and delivering arts for health and wellbeing.
In London I was joined by Theatre Practitioner, Producer and Lecturer Gail Babb, who offered an honest and heartfelt account of working as a creative practitioner in participatory arts. She skilfully explored the tension between knowing how to look after oneself and actually doing it. Jess Plant, Director of the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance, shared information about mentoring and peer to peer reflection opportunities they provide as part of their commitment to developing good practice. Her role in influencing and informing policy was a reminder of the different levels of work required to effect change.
Presenting research to a room full of people is always a privilege. The opportunity to elucidate the written report with further thoughts, responses and examples is testament to the ongoing and developmental nature of this research area. The topics of self-care and resilience are currently very prevalent and so they should be. I use the word should advisedly – for surely it is time for collective efforts to facilitate a significant culture shift in valuing and supporting frontline creative practitioners. Discussions concerning self-care and resilience are welcomed, but there needs to be a clarity of understanding that these things are not the sole responsibility of practitioners. They can not and should not bear the brunt of needing to be resilient and taking responsibility for self care to counter poor management practices, working in under-resourced conditions or within inadequate contracts which are time and support poor. Self-care and resilience are collective endeavours.
The two event sessions brought a range of discussions in response to presented material and questions posed to breakout groups. Some of following thoughts are taken directly from the people who attended the events, some are my own reflections and mirror findings and recommendations from the Artists Practising Well report. Although they are grouped under a series of headings many of the ideas are interlinked. As time goes on and the research evolves it becomes more difficult to credit each source individually, so they are offered here as evidence of a growing collective exploration. They are also offered as a point from which to expand the conversation further, and your thoughts and feedback are welcome – please get in touch to share them: [email protected]
Thoughts on establishing good practice foundations
- Re-frame the exchange between practitioner and commissioner to a ‘with’ relationship: avoid practitioner as ‘deliverer’ and offer working methods which are collaborative, working with shared input and responsibility from the outset.
- Work collaboratively earlier in project development processes, making sure support conversations are on the agenda for all parties.
- Establish longer term working relationships between creative practitioners and commissioning organisations.
- Make use of working in pairs to facilitate practical and affective support during sessions and debrief afterwards.
- Know that good support for practitioners facilitates good work for / with participants.
- Understand that good support can help to protect the practitioner workforce from occupational ill health and support best quality practice for participants.
- Work with education providers to integrate good practitioner support, self-care and reflective theories and practices into qualifications and courses.
Thoughts for sector support organisations
- Advocate for creative practitioner health and wellbeing.
- Seek discussion with Unions representing creative practitioners to establish what work they are doing and if partnership working is possible.
- Create a checklist or quality framework document to enable both practitioners and commissioners to be on the same page during project set up / contracting discussions.
- Collate and disseminate existing research and advocate for further research about practitioner wellbeing which is longitudinal.
- Author or collate briefing sheets focused on working with participant groups with specific medical conditions and/or needs.
- Facilitate networking events which include significant time for open discussion.
- Explore the provision of a good practice / support hub to which practitioners could subscribe.
- Promote support as a strategic ambition across whole organisations, from practitioner to project manager to senior leader.
Thoughts for commissioners and funders
- Build relationships with creative practitioners directly to ensure good understanding of creative practice and what’s needed for quality practice going forward.
- Expect to see support costs in funding applications and be prepared to challenge when they are not included.
- Match budgets to ambitions: do fewer projects but do them well.
- Offer commitments to creative practitioners for creative work development that happens in-between working with participants.
- Offer specific funds which focus on practitioner support, for example small grants to aid practitioners in their ambitions to explore and develop reflective ways of working; and then provide funds to pay for its provision.
Thoughts on advocacy
- Demonstrate awareness that we each have an advocacy role in conversations promoting support for practitioners.
- Identify who to influence, for example Arts Councils, Trusts and Foundations, Local Authorities, Arts Organisations / Charities and their Trustees, Social Prescribing Commissioners, Clinical Commissioning Groups, GP Practices, Leadership Development Programmes, Sector Support Organisations and CHWA Champions.
- Advocate for effective research, case studies and testimonies from existing support programmes in order to establish a link between professional and talent development investment with practitioner wellbeing.
Thoughts on honesty
- Form an accurate picture of the reality of working in this sector: being honest about arts for health and wellbeing work – for example the economic and health cost to the practitioner – is key.
- View asking for help and/or support as a sign of strength and professionalism.
- Use wellbeing scales with practitioners (for example Warwick Edinburgh) to measure wellbeing at work.
- Use a dedicated conversation to acknowledge what support is and isn’t available.
- Discuss the work in balanced ways, both when the work is good, joyful and creative; and when it is hard, challenging and difficult.
- Understand that it’s OK not to immediately know how to engage in reflective practice and self care.
Thoughts on self support
- Motivation to come together to share best practice and support one another is strong.
- Know that saying no to offers of work is possible and acceptable.
- Consider restorative activities and unstructured free time as equally supportive.
- Take time to understand your own limitations and boundaries to enable safe testing of ideas: helping with effectiveness, empathy and confidence.
- Invest time in foundation activities such as food, sleep and physical exercise.
- Access a non judgemental space in which to be heard.
- View self-care as a project in the calendar and timetable STOP days.
My thanks to those who organised events in Norwich and London, and to all the attendees who brought insight and experience to the room. Thanks also to Daniel Regan who facilitated a breakout group during the London event. The Norwich event was supported by Norfolk County Council. The London event was supported by Culture Health and Wellbeing Alliance and London Arts In Health Forum, and was part of the E17 Art Trail in Waltham Forest, London Borough of Culture 2019.
Access & community programme artist presentations: InPractice 20 Sept 2019 – free – booking required.
Arts and Health Hub in London run by Daniel Regan
Checklist of Care by Sheila Ghelani
This blog was first published on my website www.nicolanaismith.co.uk on 20 June 2019.