The dangerous levels of fatigue in the TV and film industry have broader lessons for OSH professionals.
The term ‘burnout’ was given official status as an occupational syndrome by the World Health Organization in 2019, and stems from chronic workplace stress that has not been managed successfully (WHO, 2019). ‘Typically, it features feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, negativism or cynicism related to one’s job and reduced professional efficacy,’ the WHO said.
The TV and film industry is currently facing a very public burnout crisis. In October 2021, cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed on the set of the film Rust after a gun discharged with a live round. The Los Angeles Times reported that members of the crew had earlier walked out in protest against working conditions, including long hours and safety protocols (James and Kaufman, 2019). The tragedy exemplifies the dangers of working in an industry where fatigue and high pressure are endemic.
Of course, the film industry isn’t unique in facing these challenges. Similarly poor conditions can be found in hospitality, the music industry, catering, truck driving and construction subcontracting, to name just a few. But within TV and film, there is a feeling that things have reached the point where something has to change.
Perhaps the most shocking statistic comes from the Film+TV Charity, which conducted a survey of the profession. It received 9000 responses and discovered that a widespread culture of bullying and a lack of control over working hours meant nine out of 10 respondents had experienced mental health problems as a result. Half said they had considered taking their own lives (Film+TV Charity, 2019).
These extraordinary findings have led to many initiatives to redress the problems. But why are things so bad?
A vicious cycle
Freelance location manager Simon Nixon has worked on shows such as Black Mirror and The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. He says that it has always been a challenging, demanding industry. ‘You know it’s going to be long hours, but what I found increasingly difficult were the off-set hours,’ he says. You work all your evenings, days off and even the mornings when you’re on split shifts. The industry is an exciting place to work, but over the past 10 years it has got much bigger, with far greater expectations.’
Simon says there is very little time for anything else in your life. ‘I’m in the car constantly, so you end up compressing all of your workload into a very short period just before you start filming. I found it too much on my last job and I had a breakdown.’ However, he admits that he has helped fuel the problem. ‘I had a lad working for me who was doing 17-hour days. He called me from his next job to say he’d crashed his car after falling asleep on the way home. This isn’t uncommon.’
'You work all your evenings, days off and even the mornings when on split shifts'
‘It feels like there are only extreme examples at this point, the hours are so bad,’ says Matthew Clark, a film and TV graphic designer whose credits include Dr Who and Bodyguard. ‘Graphics is probably one of the worst in terms of hours. As production timelines have become compressed, the window to do our work has become tighter. Twelve-hour days are the industry standard, so working ‘overtime’ means you’re often pushing into 13- to 15-hour days as it’s the only way to get the work done.’
Matthew says the industry is ‘entirely unregulated’ in terms of working hours and the way the work is done. ‘Making a movie or TV show is all about getting through each day, which is a series of deadlines and problems. The consequences for being the reason a day wasn’t completed are huge – certainly job-ending and often career-limiting. People nearly always manage to pull it off, but it’s at great personal expense, so the cycle perpetuates.’
OSH and long hours: the hidden cost
Long hours are responsible for a third of all estimated work-related diseases, making this the risk factor with the single largest impact. It led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischaemic heart disease in 2016, according to the latest estimates by WHO and the International Labour Organization (ILO).
In the first global analysis of the loss of life and health associated with working long hours, WHO and ILO estimate 398,000 people died from strokes and 347,000 from heart disease in 2016 as a result of having worked at least 55 hours a week (WHO and ILO, 2021). This represents a 29% increase since 2000.
UKTV’s director of commissioning Richard Watsham co-launched the industry’s Freelance Charter earlier this year, which aims to improve working practices. The charter states: ‘We believe the statistics around mental health in the industry are shocking and unacceptable.’
Richard explains that the charter is about sharing information across the industry to try to make things better. ‘It’s not only working hours. There are many interlinked factors – wellbeing, working practices, pay, skill shortages, all combined with a flood of work. More than 25 organisations are involved in the charter, and it addresses a lot of different aspects. It’s a living document and we’re constantly adding different perspectives from people within the industry.’
Richard believes the industry needs to look at the production system holistically and work to improve communication between broadcasters and producers around schedules, budgets and the ability of freelancers to call out bad practice.
‘It’s when pressure starts to build within the system that working hours go up, and that’s when health and safety and particularly people’s wellbeing can be most affected. All these things need to be addressed to break the negative spiral we’re in and turn it into a virtuous circle. Organisations working together across the industry can be powerful.’
Tech solutions: Can AI mitigate the risks of long-hours cultures?
Karl Simons OBE, executive director of tech start-up FYLD, is a Chartered Member of IOSH. He was formerly chief health, safety and security officer at Thames Water. Here, he explains how critical industry sectors are tackling lengthy working hours and the impact of fatigue.
Utilities, highways and rail companies are under constant pressure to deliver 24/7 services and operate in a heavily regulated market. This includes strict guidance from the GB Health and Safety Executive (HSE) regarding workers. I have witnessed first-hand how companies in these sectors have grappled with lengthy working hours.
If you are facing this challenge, I would urge you to look at the systems you use and decide where the problem is. Most time management systems are reactive regarding overtime – workers register extra hours after they have actually worked them, which is not a great way to control risk.
Some of the more successful firms try to control short-term fatigue. Research says that when an employee works more than 12 hours, the risk of an incident doubles; the risk trebles after 16 hours (HSE, 1999). Therefore, controls should be implemented to protect employees from harm. Some organisations require workers to call their manager at these points.
However, this can become a single point of failure, and employees may have competing priorities – they may be chasing the overtime, it might be coming up to Christmas, or they simply forget to call.
Recently, major organisations have introduced innovative solutions that have started introducing new levels of control. Artificial intelligence (AI) risk management tools could revolutionise safety and productivity within a range of industries, including those that rely on people working long hours.
Anyone hitting risk-escalation trigger points, for example working for 12 hours, should talk to a responsible person before continuing; this could be their line manager or their out-of-hours contact centre. AI can ensure the right conversation happens and aid managers in making the right decisions.
Recently, the HSE issued improvement notices against a number of major companies in relation to fatigue management. One of them turned to FYLD to work with them and assist with developing and implementing a cutting-edge fatigue management solution that would radically improve the governance and control in this area. After seeing the evidenced outcome, the HSE lifted the notice. It’s clear that smart technology is already making the future a safer place to work.
Spencer MacDonald is a national secretary for broadcasting trade union Bectu. He describes long hours as the curse of the industry. ‘It’s a brilliant, creative sector but it has antiquated ways of working that have never been tackled with a coordinated approach. As the industry has grown with inward investment from online streaming services, it’s got worse,’ he says. Bectu believes there is no point in approaching the problem on your own. ‘You need buy-in from the rest of the crew. It’s also down to the heads of departments. They need to take a lead on this,’ Spencer adds.
Initiatives such as the charter and the Time Project – which tracks the hours freelancers work in film and TV – have helped raise awareness, Spencer believes, but a coordinated approach is needed, he adds. ‘As an example, the Advertising Producers Association, the employers’ body for commercials, introduced a 12-hour daily cap on working hours. It’s a massive step forward.’
In Wales, the screen sector has Welsh government funding to introduce a pilot scheme featuring wellbeing facilitators. ‘They’ll be able to look at bullying, harassment and long hours. All are interlinked – people are being bullied into doing what the production wants. If people have a point of contact, they will feel more confident about challenging things.’
The UNi Global Union also has plans for the entertainment industry worldwide. Spencer says: ‘A survey of 28 different countries made it pretty clear that everyone is experiencing the same issues. As international companies can easily shift production, we need all the unions across the globe to be joined up.’
Paul Greeves (pictured above), managing director of safety consultancy First Option and a former head of safety at the BBC, acknowledges the culture of long hours. ‘Much is driven by necessity,’ he says. ‘Studios and locations are expensive and often have limited availability. Workers and kit are hired in, and there’s an imperative to make best use of it. So it’s unsurprising that productions will want to maximise working time. Many companies we work with have well-defined policies in line with industry agreements and apply them,’ he says. ‘But some don’t, and no one would deny there are some bad practices.’
Paul says responsible companies apply agreed working arrangements negotiated up front and stick to them. ‘When extra work is needed, they make up for it with time off elsewhere,’ he says. ‘The best companies – and this is certainly our recommendation – insist that no one should be required to drive after 12 hours of working/being on site. If working days are going to run to 12 hours or more, they will accommodate people.’
Paul says the key aspect is that excessive working time, which is largely driven by cost, is a false economy. ‘Putting mental and physical OSH risks aside, it’s bad business. The inefficiency, stress, chaos, absenteeism and potential accidents that can result are potentially more costly than the extra time. And it’s no way for people to be at their creative best.’
Perhaps the industry is finally starting to wake up to the dangers and can hopefully act as an inspiration for other sectors to reassess their working practices.
Fatigue contributed to some of the biggest accidents in history
1986 Challenger space shuttle accident
1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster
1987 Capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry
1988 Clapham Junction rail collision
1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill
2005 BP Texas City oil refinery explosion
2009 Colgan Air crash in New York
2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill
James M, Kaufman A. (2021) ‘Rust’ crew describes on-set gun safety issues and misfires days before fatal shooting (accessed 4 January 2022).
World Health Organization. (2019) Burn-out an 'occupational phenomenon': International Classification of Diseases (accessed 15 February 2022).