Hear from educator and leader in the cultural sector, Kate Oliver on the importance of radical rest
13 June 2023
“I feel I am always on a treadmill, keeping things going”
“It shows up physical for me – fatigue but also lack of focus, lack of creative thinking. Repeated cycles of burnout and overwhelm”
“Trouble sleeping every night, not motivated the next day, feeling like there is no separation between myself and my job.”
Every network meeting with creative learning professionals recently had the same underlying theme: we’re exhausted. Colleagues felt overstretched, on a constant cycle of funding bids and projects, often with fewer staff and higher goals. As a member of Space for Change (A New Direction’s peer-learning programme), we had the opportunity to reflect and take action on an issue we cared about in the sector. For myself, Michelle McGrath (Bow Arts), Ashley Almeida (British Museum) and Tim Fletcher (Arts Emergency), the need was clear: radical change for rest.
A sector needing rest
“You never get the opportunity to fully finish a project before the next one starts”
We sent out a survey on rest to cultural sector professionals, and quickly received 67 submissions. The responses, including quotes here, were often heartbreaking. Over three quarters reported they did not have enough rest, listing impacts including burnout, stress, and effects on their health and home life. Respondents said they lacked space for strategic and creative thinking, making work less effective and reducing motivation.
Some of the barriers to rest were common: lack of staff after pandemic redundancies, increased workloads, and competition for funding. Respondents also noted having unrealistic expectations of themselves: in jobs we feel passionate about, rest had become a guilty luxury. Freelancers were affected with additional pressures from unpredictable work and short-notice deadlines
Though respondents’ organisations had taken action, results were mixed. “Wellness” activities, from yoga to seminars, were found frustrating if core concerns like workload hadn’t been addressed. Some people loved hybrid working, with more flexibility and less commute, but for others it exacerbated the sense of being “always on”.
What works for rest?
“There was real focus on communal lunches, leaving on time – you felt silly to stay answering emails whilst everyone relaxed together.”
We asked respondents to tell us what did work to give them rest. Many had reduced or flexed their hours, used mindfulness and exercise for mental space, and set boundaries like finishing work on time. Above these individual actions, however, the highest impacts came from organisational culture: a norm of taking breaks, encouraging time off, and addressing underlying issues.
When we asked for ideas of radical change for rest, survey respondents dreamed big: from paid time off for freelancers, to sabbaticals, nap rooms, and subsidised mattresses! The overarching theme, however, was that rest should be mandatory and collective: the most popular ideas by far were the four-day week, annual sector shutdowns, and leaders enforcing breaks and boundaries. Workers needed to switch off without the pressure of work building up.
This led our group to the idea of permission to rest: whether from employers or ourselves, creative learning professionals struggle to feel they’re allowed to take a break, without guilt or stressful consequences. We held a Radical Rest intervention at the Space for Change event in March to demonstrate this. More than thirty sector professionals, instead of hearing a presentation about our research, were asked to rest for 20 minutes, with blankets, mats, and eye masks to give them physical tangible permission. There was a gasp when we announced this – the impossibility of taking time just to rest! This resonated personally: when I’d excitedly told a friend our plans a couple of months before, she responded: “… just to be clear, are you excited that in two months’ time, you’re allowed 20 minutes of rest?”
Radical change for rest
Our sector, and wider capitalist society, doesn’t necessarily value rest. Stress can be seen as a badge of honour, and working late into the night is a demonstration of our passion. This context impacts us all, but disproportionately those with the least privilege in society: the Nap Ministry brilliantly investigates “rest as resistance” for those who have traditionally been denied its benefits. Radical change for rest is uncomfortable: organisations may need to acknowledge how they are unconsciously taking advantage of workers’ passion and prioritise rest despite limited resources.
Kate Oliver is an educator and leader in the cultural sector, having led teams at the Horniman, London Zoo, and Quentin Blake Centre for Illustration. She loves access, measuring impact, and empowering staff. Rest for Kate is walking in nature, and a mid-morning coffee with Schnitzel the cat.