Ballet company takes lead in caring for its people

Scottish Ballet presents the world premiere of The Scandal at Mayerling at Glasgow Theatre Royal, this week (13 April). Like the Netflix hit period drama Bridgerton, the company has used “intimacy coaches” for the first time to help protect dancers performing “erotically charged” and violent scenes. IOSH occupational health expert Dr Karen Michell applauds the company for its pioneering approach to managing workplace stress and mental health.

How often do we hear that people are at the heart of a business? We know that a company’s wage bill will be its major expense. But to what extent are people, their health, safety and wellbeing, truly prioritised within organisations?

Logic suggests that a healthy workforce is needed to make a healthy profit but it’s a logic that can be lost. This isn’t helped by a traditional tendency for health and safety to follow tangible safety issues over health, especially mental health.

Despite all the tragedy and difficulties brought by Covid-19, the pandemic has at least emphasised the importance of people to any business or organisation and their psychosocial wellbeing in particular. We are now in an age of sustainability, where social sustainability is becoming an ever more relevant aspect of business practice. Yet with an estimated 80% of workers around the world still without basic occupational health and safety services, there is much still to do.

Huge credit

So, huge credit to Scottish Ballet for the way it has taken to the stage of social sustainability, really focusing its attention on its artists’ health, safety and wellbeing. Acknowledging the impact artistic creation can have on the physical, emotional, and psychological wellbeing of their artists (who are so key to their business), Scottish Ballet has employed intimacy coaches as part of a proactive approach to protecting their personal dignity and health, safety and wellbeing in a more respectful working environment. The company has decided to protect its workers’ mental health through preventive strategies, rather than wait to deal with the fall-out of any mental health issues once they arise.

Employees across the performing arts are subject to occupational psychosocial stressors which are distinct and yet not dissimilar to the experiences of workers in other sectors. I’m thinking here of the long and unsociable working hours, demanding work schedules, conflicting role expectations, lack of control over work demands, harassment, bullying and violence, as well as the threat of any lack of civility and respect for them as individuals.

Employers challenged

Uncontrolled, these stressors can cause poor mental health in workers which could impact negatively on their creativity, performance and productivity, in the same way that such stressors may impact productivity and quality in other work settings. In recent months, we have seen a move towards adjusted models of work in many areas of employment, such as hybrid or flexible working, in recognition of the psychosocial impact of work on health and wellbeing. Yet, for many workplaces, including manufacturing and the performing arts for example, this is not a reality. The nature of work in these sectors does not lend itself to these adjusted work models, demanding that other ways be sought to address the psychosocial demands created by the workplace. Employers will be increasingly challenged to address issues that can cause ill-health and mental distress.

The preventative approach to the management of psychosocial stress and mental health adopted by Scottish Ballet, through its use of intimacy coaches, is a good example of what can be achieved given the right motivations.

The show must go on but not at the risk of employee health, safety and wellbeing and kudos goes to Scottish Ballet for the lead it has shown in this sensitive area. This initiative should serve as an example for others to follow in their efforts to address the growing mental health issues evident in workplaces and in our communities.

Dr Karen Michell
Research Programme Lead Occupational Health
Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH)


Image shows (left to right) artist Rishan Benjamin and principals Christopher Harrison, Constance Devernay and Sophie Martin behind the scenes of The Scandal at Mayerling campaign shoot. Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic.

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