17th May 2021
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Burnout in the Arts: A Millennial Perspective

Burnout in the arts
By Melissa Bondar

Burnout is a funny thing. I think it’s very cool that we talk about it these days. I think it’s weirdly alarming how common it is.

Like – my grandparents have been dead a while now, but I can’t imagine any of them having much to say about burnout. You just do what you have to do, right? I mean, both of my grandfathers fought in World War II. On one side, my grandparents then towed 8 children throughout Eastern Europe displaced persons’ camps before making it to Ellis Island.

Both of my grandmothers were really tough broads.

These things sound actually really hard to me and then I think about the things I find hard and overwhelming and they’re not nearly as life or death.

But they’re still real. And they still do overwhelm.

I’m a product of the 24/7 culture. My very first big job on cruise ships required me to carry a ship cell phone with me for two to eleven months straight without a day off, depending on the length of my contract, and answer it anytime it rang, 24/7.

If I got off the ship for a few hours, I had to find someone to hand the phone off to and I had to deal with any problems when I got back on the ship.

Literally nothing could go wrong for days, and I’m telling you if I had to make a Walmart run for some stupid essential, like tampons I didn’t want to ask my entirely male crew to pick up for me, I’d get back on the ship to zombie apocalypse scale entertainment department meltdowns. Batteries missing from microphones in multiple venues, a surprise training we all missed, a broken BINGO board, who the heck even knows.

After a while, it’s just easier to standby 24/7 than to try to go have a life.

This is an unwise choice though, because you start to go crazy.

When you’re on tour, things aren’t much better, especially for a stage manager (though I’d guess company and tour managers could tell the same story). People still call your phone at all hours of the day needing all sorts of things.

So, hitting 34 and feeling very, “WTF” and overwhelmed and WHAT AM I EVEN DOING?!!??? and also, notably, most of the time, nothing – has become weirdly normal for Millennials.

I suspect it’s because when your job becomes all you are, it will never be enough.

I’ve felt this on a smaller scale several times through my career in stage management. Each time I just pivoted into a different company, a different gig, and the change was enough to keep me going.

I might take several smaller regional theater gigs because the fact is that some of them do offer an OK life balance – at like $400 a week before taxes, which isn’t very sustainable. There’s also the fact that those contracts are never near the people I love, so I still don’t have much of a life balance there.

Here are some crazy things I thought were ok/normalish for a long time:

  • Work schedules that give you less than 6 hours off between the end of work and the start of the next day.
  • Struggling to find time to call my Mom every Sunday I was away and usually only being able to block out about 20 minutes.
  • Chronic sleep deprivation.
  • Perpetual upset stomachs.
  • Hating getting out of bed.
  • Feeling totally numb almost all the time.
  • Not having a day off for months at a time.
  • People calling to ask stupid work questions they could answer themselves or could wait before 8 AM.
  • People calling to ask stupid work questions they could answer themselves or could wait after 8 PM.
  • Just being depressed all the time.
  • Feeling completely ineffective.
  • Letting emails push to my lock screen so I would never miss one.

And here’s a funny thing that happened:

About three months into work in my last big job, my Outlook email unsynced from my Mail app and I could never get it to sync again, despite the fact I had set it up fine the first time.

Because of that, I had to log in through Safari to Outlook to check my work emails on my phone.

They could no longer push to my lock screen. I missed some time sensitive emails. I did not miss the bajillion non-time sensitive emails. I explained to some key people what was up with my phone.

If something was super urgent, for the entire next year and a half, they called. I no longer worried about my stupid work emails every second of the day.

Here’s another problem with Millennial burnout: money.

Things are starting to maybe, just maybe, get a smidge better for the older of us Millennials, but the fact is that most are still underwater or treading water wildly to survive.

This MarketWatch article points out that we’re a little ahead of where Gen X was at this point in their lives (because, if the math is serving me well, this would be right around when the Great Recession kicked all their behinds), but student loan debt is still pretty much killing our generation. I liked how the article pointed out we don’t have nearly as much mortgage or credit card debt as Gen X did now, but that’s possibly because we literally can’t.

And disclaimer, any frequent readers of my blog know this doesn’t actually include me. Those years of 24/7 on call leading-to-burnout jobs helped me get out of debt before 30.

While being in tons of debt doesn’t affect me, that fiscal conservativeness that the MarketWatch article mentioned sure does. It honestly affects almost every Millennial I know. So whether you’re just keeping your head above water or you’re swimming fine, we all know one day 2008 could roll around again and getting a job may be impossible and all our investments will tank and who will know what the future holds?

So make money now.

Ignore the burnout and keep going.

The idea of feeling safe about money is so wildly foreign.

What I can tell you, is that when I walked off the Big Apple lot as an employee for the last time in December, I literally felt my body exhale some horrible breath I’d been holding in for months.

And despite the grief I’m working through with my mom then dying that week too, I can tell you that I also know and feel the difference between the grief and the feelings of burnout and getting through the burnout have been nuts – and sometimes the two do collide with the same symptoms.

I slept most of January. When I wasn’t sleeping, I snuggled with the dog and stared at the TV. I’m not sure what I watched.

Midway through January, I thought, “this is kind of scary. I don’t like it.” So I got my cousin to plan a trip to Europe with me for March and I found an easy job in Milwaukee for February.

In February, I dipped my toe back into work on a show that was so easy a recent college grad could’ve handled it smoothly. It was a super easy month. I thought, “maybe stage management wasn’t the worst idea I ever had.”

In March, I just traveled. I finished out the last week of super easy work and then I took the exceptionally long drive home from Milwaukee to New Jersey, via Colorado.

In April, I wandered domestically and if a friend was driving distance away, I pretty much went to see them.

In May, I’m starting to get bored. Which is actually nice. I feel like somewhere in all that running, I managed to recuperate a lot from the burnout.

I also definitely see clearly some of the issues that burnt me out aren’t going to change if I stay a stage manager.

Some of my happiest weeks over the last few months were when I worked for a few days as an overhire stage hand, but I could still catch up with friends and make plans like watching Game of Thrones at a friend’s house each Sunday night.

I’ve made a few other “life” promises to people – weddings to attend, small fill in work gigs, one more big vacation with best friends – before I settle into whatever is next.

And that’s assuming something is even next, because I am technically unemployed again. I definitely have that “maybe no one will ever hire me” feeling starting to nag a little – especially as my unemployment savings fund depletes.

But I also feel like I’m at more of a crossroads than I have generally been in the past and maybe it is time to move in a different direction.

At any rate, that list of things I thought were normal when I was totally burnt out, are not normal anymore. Some of them seem like behaviors I can control a little, in retrospect, and others now seem like giant red flags I should pay more attention to when they start rather than when I’m buried under them.

And they are definitely all real.

Burnout is real. It doesn’t mean you’re lazy or a “snowflake” or any other idiotic term implying weakness. It does mean the system is broken.

And maybe if we keep hacking away at it, we can come up with a system that does work.

Published in Collaboration with brokeGIRLrich

brokegirlrich TheatreArtLife

Also on by Melissa Bondar:

10 Things To Know Before Starting A Stage Management Career

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