Now Is the Time for a Proactive Approach to Mental Health in the Dance Workplace

The pandemic revealed how dance businesses need to better support their employees’ mental health. But for lean organizations in a still-challenging time, what does that look like?

A woman, seen from the back, leans over with her head in her hands at her desk. She wears a brown t-shirt, and a laptop computer sits in front of her.
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When it arrived, the coronavirus was so disruptive to the performing arts that nearly all dance-related businesses fundamentally retooled their ways of working. Out of necessity, many employers allowed more flexible schedules, better accommodated the needs of parents, and relaxed expectations that employees routinely “go above and beyond.”

Those with subscriptions to employee assistance programs (EAPs) reminded workers they could access free counseling services, even from home, and supervisors more frequently—and perhaps more honestly—asked how their team members were doing.

In search of silver linings, industry observers noted how the pandemic prompted overdue discussions about working conditions. “Pre-pandemic, most of us were operating with hazy concerns about mental health,” says Katrena Cohea, CEO of the studio and online education platform Different Drummer Dance. “During the pandemic, those concerns were crystallized and clarified, and now there’s greater awareness of mental health issues like anxiety, depression or burnout. There’s also an unwillingness to leave those issues untreated.”

A Growing Challenge for Dance Businesses

As it’s grown clearer during the pandemic that dance businesses need to support their employees’ mental health (a recent Dance/USA study even found that access to mental health resources was the most urgent need expressed by dance workers), it has also, in many cases, become more difficult for them to do so. In the long tail of pandemic recovery, many businesses feel pressure to restore their prior levels of activity, albeit with fewer resources and more unknowns than before. A study published by Brookings estimated that 50 percent of jobs in the fine and performing arts—1.4 million total in the U.S.—disappeared from April through July of 2020, along with more than $42 billion in sales.

Dr. Paula Thomson, a white woman with dark hair, smiles at the camera, wearing a grey shirt, a black vest and some small earrings.
Dr. Paula Thomson. Photo by Shawn Blair, courtesy Thomson

“Employers are finding ways to generate income again, which, if they can’t do that, could lead to a whole host of financial problems,” says Dr. Paula Thomson, a clinical psychologist and professor in the Department of Kinesiology at California State University, Northridge. “So there’s implicit pressure to work longer hours, in conditions that may be less than adequate.” Even when facing situations that can generate new or exacerbate existing mental health issues, Thomson says dancers and arts workers “may not say anything because they don’t want to be the thorn in what could be a very thin organizational structure.”

Indeed, even the largest performing-arts organizations are small by corporate standards and may not have dedicated staff for human resources, policies in place for addressing complaints, or budget allocations for EAPs and guest speakers on mental health. “What starts to happen at these small nonprofits and dance businesses is, when there are conflicts or other issues, they try to be armchair therapists and it becomes this quagmire of interpersonal dynamics, when in fact they need to look at the structural problems,” Thomson says. “What are the implicit role expectancies that aren’t fair, because you didn’t communicate them, and now you resent your employee because they’re not working overtime?”

What Dance Leaders Can Do

Especially if they haven’t been updated since COVID hit, now is the time to refresh contract templates, employee handbooks, job descriptions, organizational charts and sick-leave policies, which should include mental health if they don’t already. A hiring spree is underway in some reawakening creative industries; onboarding materials for new and returning employees should reflect better practices and the current environment, not the “old normal.”

Cria Merchant, a Black woman with curtly hair, smiles softly at the camera, wearing a checked button-down shirt and large geometric earrings. A brick wall is behind her.
Cria Merchant. Photo by Shawna Jones, courtesy Merchant

In the absence of clearly stated protocols and proper channels for employee feedback, supervisors may simply ignore issues or try to solve them on the fly, making difficult situations worse. “If people are committed to the mental health of their employees, then they prioritize that from orientation throughout the relationship,” says Cria Merchant, a licensed marriage and family therapist who also leads programs for organizations such as dance company A.I.M by Kyle Abraham.

While it can be tempting for businesses to define their practices as they would play out in best-case scenarios, “that only caters to the select few people who are able to enjoy those ideal circumstances,” Merchant says. At any rate, best-case scenarios won’t likely return for years. Making check-ins on capacity and workload part of daily and weekly routines helps normalize those subjects and set baselines, making it easier to talk frankly about them when things aren’t going so well. “When someone’s just experienced a loss or other trauma, and there’s emotional or mental fragility, that is not a good time to figure out how you want to respond,” says Thomson.

Katrena Cohea, a white woman with brown hair, smiles at the camera. holding a pink tutu in one hand. She is outside, and wears a jean jacket and pink earrings.
Katrena Cohea. Photo by Justine Fernandez, courtesy Cohea

Intention is key to charting better mental health practices, says Cohea. “Before we adopt new practices that support mental wellness, we need to have an understanding of why these practices are important. If employers are implementing programs because they feel pressured to, or are required to, they’re missing the point. Yes, I would love to see more paid time off, paid parental leave, child and elder care, physical and emotional therapy, and the like. But I want us all to realize these aren’t ‘extras’ or ‘bonuses.’ These are foundational necessities every person needs and should have access to, so they can, yes, make excellent contributions in the workplace, but also make excellent contributions to culture, society and life.”

Formerly associate director of marketing and communication at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and communications and engagement director at Arts Alliance Illinois, Zachary Whittenburg now serves as an advisor at Chicago’s High Concept Labs.