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Workforce wellbeing shouldn’t be a luxury – for grassroots music organisations, it’s vital

A room of people smiling and dancing - someone in the middle has a ukulele, and there's a poster saying Mental Health First Aid in the background

Youth Music exists to support children and young people to make, learn and earn in music, helping to break down barriers they face because of who they are, where they’re from, or what they’re going through. The grassroots music projects funded by Youth Music support the mental health and wellbeing of participants every day. We know the workforce go above and beyond to support the children, young people and families they work with through challenges and crises. As a funder, one question has become increasingly urgent over the past few years: how can we help the workforce to take care of themselves?

Last week was the annual Mental Health Awareness Week, run by the Mental Health Foundation. For some, the week offers a useful dedicated space to reflect on mental health and wellbeing – at Youth Music we took the opportunity to explore the cathartic benefits of heavy music. For others, the conversation about ‘awareness’ highlights issues self-reflection alone can’t solve – the stigma still faced by those experiencing certain mental illnesses, the extremely long wait times for NHS mental health services, and the structural, social, and political causes of mental ill-health, exacerbated by intersectional inequalities including race, gender and poverty.

The grassroots music workforce is committed, creative, and compassionate. Many are from similar backgrounds and face similar challenges to the young people they work with. The compounding crises of the past few years have piled on unprecedented pressure. That’s why Youth Music is taking a proactive approach to supporting mental health and wellbeing – both of our funded partner workforce, and of our own team. Self-care isn’t just a nice-to-have – it’s vital.

Through a combination of organisational change and action, partnerships with mental health organisations, and dedicated financial support, Youth Music is transforming the way we think about the wellbeing of our workforce. And we hope to support and encourage our funded partners to do the same.

“We are proud to partner with Youth Music in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of the music education workforce. The pressures faced within the sector are unique; our responsibility to lead by example is great; and the tools required to nurture and support the mental health and wellbeing of our young people in music are essential. Thanks to our music industry partners for making this collaboration possible.” - Eric Mtungwazi, Chief Executive, Music Support

Money and mental health

Money doesn’t equal happiness, but financial problems are a key stressor and trigger for mental health issues. Taking care of yourself, making space to relax, socialise and be creative, are all important, but without a strong financial foundation it often is – or feels – impossible. Many of the team members of Youth Music funded partner projects are freelance, which can lead to worry or guilt about taking time out from day-to-day work. And even salaried positions are often reliant on grant funding, leading to increased fundraising pressures on top of the general rise in cost of living. That’s why Youth Music has taken a proactive response to the cost-of-living crisis.

Youth Music is a Living Wage Funder and Employer. Paying the real Living Wage is so important for those working in music – as a ‘dream job’ for many, there’s a culture of expecting workers to do it because they love it: unpaid internships, low pay and extended hours. This year, we’re lending our voice to the campaign to Make London a Living Wage City – with so much of the music industry still based in London, collective efforts among the creative and cultural sectors could make a life-changing difference to so many of the current and future workforce, and we hope to see similar change made across the UK. We’re proud to have been shortlisted as a Funders Champion at this year’s Living Wage Champion Awards.

Respond and recharge

Like many organisations, it was the pandemic which galvanised Youth Music into embedding the mental health of our workforce into our organisational and funding strategy. Youth Music was in a fortunate position during the pandemic; we were able to switch swiftly to working from home, retain our entire staff team, and offer support and flexibility to funded partners facing very difficult challenges. In October 2020 we published a report bringing together a range of data sources to analyse and reflect on how COVID-19 had affected youth music work in England.

We found that the freelance workforce – so vital to the delivery of music programmes – was hit significantly. Many organisations reduced freelance contracts. At the same time many clearly saw it as part of their duty of care to support freelancers and responded accordingly. 43% of all the money invested through Youth Music’s Emergency Fund (funded by the National Lottery via Arts Council England) was used to ensure that freelancer’s contracts were honoured, and everyone received their fees.

We learned that organisations were concerned about burnout and the deteriorating mental health of their workforce. Yet there was little information provided about what actions had been or should be taken in response. This suggested that more proactive action was needed in this area. This is a relatively new area of funding - we took inspiration from the work of the Tudor Trust in developing our response, but as far as we know, not many other funders have had this specific focus on building workforce wellbeing into their programmes.

In 2022, thanks to support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery, we were able to launch the Youth Music Recharge Fund, which offered core funding to help 40 organisations rebuild and recover. As well as offering income security, the fund specifically looked to support the mental health and wellbeing of staff and volunteers, as well as young people.

Applications for the fund were unprecedented, with a success rate of just 1 in 6. With tough decisions to make, we invested in those going above and beyond to support the mental health of their workforce.  Many unsuccessful applicants didn’t mention the wellbeing aspect in their proposals. The fact that wellbeing is often seen as a luxury rather than an essential may have made some applicants cautious about proposing anything that seemed fun or frivolous. Others suggested that financial security alone would improve wellbeing of their staff teams – an understandable point.  

Surviving and thriving

Soundcastle run grassroots music programmes designed to reach families in London and Sussex who may have less access than others to creative activities, as well as offering training and consultancy to arts organisations nationwide. The Recharge Fund enabled them to design and implement the Soundcastle Wellbeing Agenda (a policy embedded in every part of their organisation), and to develop Mental Health First Aid training within and beyond their organisation.

“When we started off, we all had this really firm belief that music-making, if done in an appropriate way, can have hugely beneficial impacts on people's wellbeing. And so we created all of our music programmes with that in mind,” says Hannah Dunster, Founding Co-Director of Soundcastle. “We became very aware that often music facilitators who work with hugely vulnerable people are extremely empathetic human beings. They're in that line of work because they care about humanity, and they want people to live happier, stronger lives, and often through doing that they give and give and give. And it's very easy to accidentally lead to an emotional burnout.

“It felt like Youth Music recognised and validated that belief in the importance of wellbeing and it wasn't just an extra luxury,” she says. “No, it's like, actually, this is important and we want a stable workforce who want to stay in this sector because they feel looked after and recognised.”

Hannah talked about the freelancer culture in music education, acknowledging the benefits but addressing the pressures.

“Part of what we're doing is creating more part-time salaried facilitator roles. So that there is time built in to have that exhale moment, that extra training, that collectiveness. My goal for young people coming up through the sector would be for there to be more stable work. Where they can feel part of a working family and not sort of like lone islands floating around, going into really intense circumstances and then drifting off to the next one and not ever properly being able to process those things. My hope is to work towards a more stable sector where people can feel supported.”

Groundswell Arts is a London-based charity working with 0-11 year olds and their families. The Recharge Fund enabled them to offer their team Mental Health First Aid training (run by Soundcastle, in fact), as well as offering practitioners access to a clinical supervisor, and running a series of Recharge Days for practitioners, directors and board members. The Recharge Days offer fun, creative activities for the team, including origami and even meeting rabbits for some pet therapy!

“I think if you don't look after your team, how can you support vulnerable children and vulnerable families?” says Groundswell Arts’ Artistic Director, Angeline Conaghan. “We really want to have a high-quality offer. And I think in order to have a high-quality offer, you've got to be looking after the people that you work with, and you've got to be a sort of sounding board to them whenever you can be. But as we grow as an organisation, we're not necessarily able to offer to be a sounding board in quite the same way we were when we were beginning. So we have to put other structures in place - whether that's that they can peer mentor and depend on each other or they can have someone official that they go to.

“Our Recharge Days are cross-organisation… we've brought not just our music practitioners, but our dance practitioners and our visual arts practitioners and our actors, and just invited them to come together,” Angeline continues. “Beyond the Recharge funding, we see the value of trying to put that type of event in place now because otherwise, it feels like you can just spend your life having Zoom meetings and I think it's really important to get people in rooms together and for people to feel part of a bigger ecosystem.”

“Strengthening that sense of belonging and trust is key to a sense of wellbeing, isn't it?” says Jess Shaw, a freelance creative practitioner working with Groundswell Arts. “All of those things contribute to stability and wellbeing in the wider community… It's been really nice to work with Groundswell not only because their ethos and their projects tie in so closely with my own interests and core beliefs, but also because it's a really nurturing environment to be with.

“On a very practical level, the more you look after people, the happier they are, the harder they'll work for you, the longer they'll stay. It's kind of not rocket science.”

Soundplay Projects use technology, sound and art to make accessible interactive installations, objects and events. Like Groundswell Arts, the Recharge funding enabled them to run wellbeing sessions where the team got to try new things and play creatively: workshops in Glasgow and Dundee gave practitioners the chance to explore activities including a gong bath, guided meditation, a Balafon workshop, therapeutic clowning, audio coding, modular synthesis, and a ‘seal-calling’ vocal workshop – as well as providing a healthy lunch from local food co-op Soul Food Sisters.

“I think culturally, you know, particularly in Scotland - I'm sure in England as well - we're not very good at looking after ourselves on the whole,” says Ewan Sinclair, one of Soundplay Projects’ Creative Directors. “The idea of your mental health, and having to pay attention to that, and that being something that you can kind of nurture and that other people can support you in… that is maybe like a new thing.”

“A lot of time you’re freelance, it's survival and just like ‘right I have to do this, I have to do a certain amount of hours because otherwise I can't pay my rent, I can't eat’,” adds Bal Cooke, the other Creative Director. “So [it was great] just to be able to do something that was not focused on like, a task that we had to achieve or something that we had to do - that we were just doing something all together that was fun and quite low focus, but also involving each other and getting to know each other.”

“The wellbeing sessions are amazing and they came at a point where personally I didn't even notice that it was needed,” says Boris Allenou, a freelance creative assistant working with Soundplay. “Life can be so busy, especially as a freelance artist, and you don't even realize that you need that kind of moment where you just meet with a bunch of people that are going through a similar situation. Just a moment where we all focus on something… and it feels really, really good.”

"The wellbeing days have been both educational and invigorating, giving space and time to nurturing the relationships of everyone involved through fun and play as well as through skill sharing,” says Lene de Montaigu, a sound artist supported by Youth Music’s NextGen Fund who also works with Soundplay.  “I’ve personally learned a lot through these sessions, and have bonded with the other artists and creators around me, motivating our mutual ideas and projects.”

Embedding organisational wellbeing

The Recharge-funded projects have been inspirational, and at Youth Music we have been embedding wellbeing practices. Since the pandemic, like many organisations, we have adopted a hybrid working schedule. We’ve had an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) for several years which provides the team with free access to support including mental health counselling and legal and financial advice, and our staff-led Values Committee has assisted us to implement several positive changes to our office environment, including quiet comfortable spaces, and the provision of complimentary refreshments and fruit.

Following a Values Committee recommendation, we have participated in Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index to look at Youth Music’s wellbeing policies and understand where we can do more.

This year Youth Music has partnered with Music Support, a charity providing help and support to peers who work in music and live events affected by mental ill-health and/or addiction, and promoting early intervention through support services, education and workshops. All Youth Music staff have received Music Support’s Self Awareness and Self Care training, and additionally they trained two of our team to become qualified Mental Health First Aiders. We’re very pleased to be able to offer the Self Awareness and Self Care training to Youth Music funded partners, with the next free online session taking place on Friday 9 June.

For more information on supporting workforce wellbeing, take a look at Youth Music’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Resource Hub.

Image: Soundcastle