Back after interval: for all performing arts workers


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Looking after our mental health as we return to creative work and workplaces (COVID-19)

What is 'Back after Interval?'

This resource consists of practical, evidence-based tips for looking after your mental health and wellbeing when returning to live performance after time away.

While this resource was developed in the context of public health responses and venue re-openings throughout COVID-19, the principles shared can be used after any time away from live performance.

Live performance is at the heart of what we do. Sometimes we experience long periods away, and jumping straight back into it can feel daunting. This resource has been designed to help you and your company thrive when returning to live performance.


As COVID-19 restrictions ease and change across Australia, many of us begin – or begin again – a gradual return to work in the performing arts industry. We also recognise that much of our creative community remain without their usual prospects, and others are working overtime to try and reopen those opportunities.

Whether we’re working, training, creating, rehearsing, presenting or touring, we’re likely doing so after prolonged disruption . As we navigate this return to our creative practice and work roles within a new context, it’s normal to feel a range of emotions. This will be a process of change that will be experienced differently by each of us.

Whilst there may be a sense of excitement to return to these spaces, there may also be new challenges that bring on hesitation, stress and anxiety. The good newsis that there’s lots we can do to look after our mental health and wellbeing, to support the people around us, and to help get ourselves, and our creative community back on stage.

Reflecting and moving forward

Time away from live performance can be – in at least some part – challenging for most of us. Particularly through different public health responses to COVID-19, closures, cancellations and postponements can feel seemingly endless. But, we do need to remember that this too shall pass.

Before looking to the future, it can be helpful to take a moment to reflect on a few key questions:

The impacts of COVID-19

Mental health challenges may not be caused directly by a personal experience of COVID-19, but by the impact COVID-19 and the associated public health response may have on our lives.

Our mental health and wellbeing can be impacted by many things – reduced freedoms of movement and association, changes to our financial and living situations, care-giving and concerns for loved ones and many other factors that have been amplified through this time. We may not even be consciously aware of the ways in which we have changed in response.

In this context, it makes sense that our responses to re-entering workplaces will vary from person to person, and even from week to week!

A gold compass aligned north sits on a wooden bench.
Navigating change together

This is a good time to reflect on what brings us together, and what we share even as our situations differ. Our sense of community in the performing arts is a strength that will help protect us from feeling isolated and alone in our emotional responses. This is a great time to embrace this community. Reach out to your colleagues, friends and peers and support each other in any way you can.

This is also our opportunity to look after ourselves and each other as we adapt together to our changed environment. Just as we became used to the restrictions and behaviours needed to keep us COVIDSafe such as keeping our distance, wearing masks and washing our hands, we are well equipped to develop and implement new ways of working to better support each other as we return to work and to worksites.

The experience of COVID-19 has highlighted a need for change that has been long established in the arts community, such as flexible work practice, managing illness and injury while continuing to work well, and feeling safe and supported to disclose mental health concerns.

If this experience has taught us anything, it has taught us that physical and mental health are paramount for a safe and sustainable industry, so let’s not let that lesson go to waste.

A collection of colourful dials and sliders on an audio desk.
Continuing to adapt

Restrictions to work and performance in the arts industry vary considerably across Australia currently and may continue to change in unpredictable ways. For some of us, the time away from our creative work and workplaces may be relatively short, for others it may be many months, whilst others may still not be able to return.

Even as we welcome back audiences, it’s important to be aware that we are still navigating change. Nothing about our current situation is yet behind us; we have not returned to normal. We are still learning, adapting and finding our way forward.

Navigating change is not just for a global pandemic – the skills we practise now will help us find our way through other changes in the future. To be well placed to adapt as needed, it is so important to take care of yourself and to recognise the need for support early.

There is no 'normal' response

Just as these challenges are varied and unpredictable, so too are the emotional responses of those around you. For some people, anxiety may be heightened as spaces that were previously enjoyable now feel odd, uncomfortable or confronting. The experience of lockdowns and restrictions may also encourage a constant, low level of worry about possible closures and cancellations.

For some people, this may show up as anger, stress, and for others as lack of motivation or apathy. Other people may be coping with low mood and a sense of loss related to cancelled work, or the loss of creating work the way it was originally imagined. With so many varied responses, it is important to show compassion, empathy and understanding to those around you, and also toward yourself and your own emotional responses. 

Whatever you feel or experience during re-entry to work or the pursuit of work, your reactions and emotions are valid. They are a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, and you are not alone. Try to allow time and space for these emotions to just exist, and practise kindness to those around you but also to yourself.

Possible guilt about working

Some people might be returning to work while others remain unemployed, some theatres may be open; and others closed. This may result in possible guilt about still having a job when others do not. Acknowledge that the situation is unfair, but also recognise the bigger picture; remember that we are in a health crisis and that health must come first. No one chose this situation and it is no one’s fault.

If you’re feeling guilty about returning to work while others are not able to, accept that this is a normal way to feel, and allow yourself to experience your emotions. Try to remember that some people must work to ensure the future of the work. Our industry is hallmarked by feast versus famine and work instability at the best of times, so take time to work out what you need to do to support your life and work.

Remembering the basics

It’s more important than ever to be taking care of your body, head, and heart, and be asking for help. Give yourself the best chance at feeling good by focusing on the basics – eating and sleeping well, exercising, doing things that you enjoy, staying connected, and asking for (and accepting!) help and support. We have complex problems to solve, so remember to keep it simple. Lots of small, simple strategies done consistently is the key to sustainable self-care.

You’re probably already aware of what gives you energy, but knowing what you’re supposed to do is different to actually doing it! Prioritising self-care takes more than simply understanding its importance. Identifying the motivation or learning why these strategies are so important helps keep you on track. 

Ensure that you have routines and boundaries in place to make self-care a habit, not a chore or a bonus that you get to if you have time. If you are pressed, do 15 minutes on a self-care strategy rather than an hour – it is better to be consistent than perfect.

A silhouette of a hand releasing a paper plane into the sunset.
Giving yourself a runway

Before a plane takes off, it gradually gathers speed. If you can, ease your way back into professional life by thinking about and setting some achievable goals – don’t try to ‘take off’ before you are ready. Your first days and weeks back might feel overwhelming. If possible, move at a pace that is comfortable for you, but also challenges you to try something different regularly – each day or every couple of days. This helps build your tolerance to things that might feel overwhelming if you do them all at once.

Take note of what you’re achieving and celebrate ‘wins’, no matter how big or small. Keep a growth mindset during this time by trying to view this as a period of learning and development, rather than of 100% competency and perfection. 

If you do start to feel overwhelmed, try to focus on rest and connection. Pay attention to your energy levels and aim for a balance between time spent alone and time spent with others. Managing your commitments effectively will give you more time and space to do the things that give you energy.

Remembering what's in your control

The actions we have taken as a community have contributed to where we are today, and generally, people have been willing and responsible in complying with public health directions. As we return to work, we might experience different behaviours from those around us. While you can’t control how other people behave, you can control your own behaviours.

Ensure you’re familiar with your workplace COVID Safety guidelines, and role model the behaviour you wish to see. Find ways to express concerns in a constructive way (for example, journaling or speaking with someone), and tell someone if you see behaviours that negatively impact or endanger others.

Setting boundaries

Now could be a good time to consider the boundaries you keep at work:

It could be useful to see your re-entry to work, and to working on-site, as an opportunity to set new boundaries, especially those that prioritise you and your self-care. It is best to set a boundary at the beginning of something if you can, as they can be easier to remember and stick to this way.

Setting reasonable boundaries within the requirements of our work roles is a self-valuing move. Maintaining healthy boundaries sends a message to your unconscious that you matter and that your personal time, relationships, and other priorities are as significant as work. 

Even though your mind might tell you otherwise, you are not being unreasonable when you stick to a work-life boundary. Remember: ‘No’ is a complete sentence. You also tend to be more focused, creative and productive when you are feeling your best, so setting boundaries is win/win for yourself as well as your team or collaborators.

Close up of telephone props backstage
Asking for help

It is ok to ask for help. If you, or someone you know is having a rough time, don’t carry on alone. Ask for help and accept it.

Don’t ever worry that you’re ‘not distressed or upset enough’. Navigating the performing arts industry can be tough, and we’re all only human.

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Dr Anastasia Hronis is a clinical psychologist and founder of the Australian Institute for Human Wellness. Anastasia is a practicing clinician, as well as a researcher and lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney.

Anastasia is also a trained classical concert pianist and provides performance coaching and consultations, as well as running workshops and masterclasses for those in the performing arts industry. She has performed on stages around the world including the Sydney Opera House seven times, and the internationally renowned Carnegie Hall in New York.

Chris Cheers is a psychologist, facilitator and lecturer based in Melbourne. Before training as a psychologist, Chris worked for arts organisations across Australia, developing a rich understanding of the industry. Chris Cheers Psychology specialises in providing mental health support and workshops to clients in the arts, performance and creative industries.

Chris is an endorsed Educational and Developmental Psychologist and also has expertise in supporting LGBTIQ+ clients across all ages. Chris has been a university Lecturer in Psychology since 2011 and is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Alcohol and Policy Research at La Trobe University.

Dr Jane Miskovic-Wheatley is a NIDA graduate in Directing, and currently works as a clinical psychologist who consults to companies such as Bell Shakespeare, Arts on Tour and CDP Theatre Producers. Jane is also the research stream lead for the InsideOut Institute for Eating Disorders, University of Sydney. 

Jane has experience as a large event specialist choreographer with extensive touring experience, and has worked on Pan American, Commonwealth and Olympic Games Ceremonies.

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