Why Can’t the Creative Industry Get Enough Sleep?

Anxiety, insomnia and all-nighters. With financial insecurity and spiralling working hours, it might come as little surprise that the creative industry is finding it difficult to sleep. [author]Louise Benson[/author] asks, is the art world running on empty?

Illustration by Antonia Stringer

What keeps you up at night? With the high-on-caffeine, short-on-time lifestyle that so many operate on, getting up in the morning can be a struggle for the best of us. Freelance and flexible working have made it all too easy to push into late nights, while around-the-clock connectivity means that it is harder than ever to switch off. In the art world and creative sector, intense competition, unreasonable expectations by employers and frequent evening events have made irregular sleeping patterns a common theme. Many have experienced exhaustion and anxiety; some have even had mental breakdowns. In an industry that rarely keeps regular working hours, sleeplessness is a real issue that is rarely addressed.

“When I went freelance, the one resounding piece of advice that people gave me was to keep to office hours, which was very important and very helpful. But going freelance comes with the added pressure of the knowledge that you are completely responsible for your own income, and you start thinking that you can just add one extra hour on; that you could take on one extra client; one extra commission; a few extra hundred pounds,” a former design and lifestyle PR tells me. “You think you’ll manage it all, but you end up burning the candle at both ends. You don’t want to sacrifice anything, so you end up sacrificing your sleep because it’s the one aspect of your life where you don’t need to say no to someone.”

Even for those in permanent employment, it is often understood that working hours will stretch far beyond the ordinary working day. This is endemic throughout the art world, as well as in academia, which many enter in search of a more regular source of income. “There’s a big footnote in the contract we sign, to say that our hours are to be adjusted as far as the task at hand requires, due to the special nature of the job. It’s a bit of a joke as, whether it’s stated or not, everyone knows that we don’t just work nine-to-five,” one London-based university lecturer says.

A technician at a blue chip gallery in London explains, “I’m quite strict with not checking emails when I’m not contracted to work as I’m just not paid enough for that, but the head techs are on call constantly. During Frieze or Art Basel they’ll be answering specific questions about the weight of an artwork at midnight, from home.” Even as an artist, a role that supposedly allows for greater autonomy, the experience can be much the same: “You don’t really want to miss an email or phone call, and you just make yourself available constantly,” a sculptor in their mid-twenties says. “If I have a deadline, I’ll be leaving my day job at 6pm and going straight to the studio, where I’ll just work until I get as much as I can done.”

The unspoken understanding of these extra demands is exacerbated by the technology that enables us to stay constantly plugged in, whether or not we’re at work. As a UK-based curator argues, “I never really switch off because of the availability of email on your phone and the pressure to do social media. I’m working when I’m at home, over the weekend, in the evenings.” This is echoed by the university lecturer: “I don’t think there is a clear boundary between work and non-work. We are all in varying degrees addicted to screens and checking social media. I would say I’m also addicted to checking my emails, and that includes my work emails; I’ll be in bed after midnight and just mindlessly checking them.”

“With jobs in the creative sector, it’s very hard to separate what you’re doing for pleasure and what you’re doing for work”

The blurring of the boundary between home and the office, work and play, is pervasive—for better and for worse. “With jobs in the creative sector, it’s very hard to separate what you’re doing for pleasure and what you’re doing for work. Most things that I do on the weekend, like going to exhibitions for example, could feed into my work in some way,” an arts programme manager at a well-known British charity reflects. “It’s kind of the dream to mix the two in this way, but it’s not the same as someone who gets home at six or seven in the evening and then just plays a video game. For me, I don’t have that separation.”

Stress that comes from these routines inevitably takes its toll on sleep patterns, even unconsciously: “When I’m really stressed out, I find it very hard as my body clock won’t let me sleep in beyond 7am on weekends. It’s really frustrating, but I just can’t do it,” the curator says. Others describe waking up in the middle of the night with work-related concerns on their mind, or even finding that the workplace has entered their dreams.

It seems perhaps cruelly ironic, but unsurprising, that sleep has long been a source of fascination for artists. Andy Warhol famously filmed his lover John Giorno sleeping for the five-hour movie Sleep, first screened by Jonas Mekas in 1963. Fifty years later, Sam Taylor Wood premiered her own version at the National Portrait Gallery in London, featuring David Beckham. Meanwhile, Sophie Calle photographed strangers as they slept in 1979 for her project The Sleepers; Tracey Emin’s recent exhibition at White Cube earlier this year included fifty self-portraits, blown up in size and taken with her camera phone, during periods of “soul destroying” insomnia; and the composer Max Richter released an album in 2015 based around the neuroscience of sleep.

Amid the pressurized environment of our modern reality, it’s easy to see why sleep has become increasingly prized and commodified. In 2019, the wellness industry is booming. On public transport, in both London and New York, advertisements for modern mattresses dominate, touted by brands with personal names like “Casper”, “Simba”, “Eve” or “Emma”. “We have drift off”, one advert smugly proclaims, while another simply announces, “Better sleep, better you.” Apps for battling insomnia are everywhere, with names like “Sleepio” and “Sleep Genius”. “Sleep at the touch of a button,” one promises, in a sentiment that might sound like science fiction but nonetheless strikes an eerily similar note to the sleep trackers that have also proliferated in recent years. “Sleep Score” and “Auto Sleep” monitor light and REM sleep in graphs, with the aim of improving the efficiency of our slumber.

“So many of us in the art world, and certainly in this generation, are now complete workaholics”

For many, however, the pressure to work harder stems from a personal drive for success. This is amplified by the cult of the individual and a drive for personal fulfilment that so often fuels the creative industry. “If you want to play the game and if you have even minimal aspirations, then working out of hours is just a no-brainer,” one London-based art advisor says. A writer in his mid-thirties, based in New York, agrees: “So many of us in the art world, and certainly in this generation, are now complete workaholics, and that’s a much bigger problem than the drinking. It’s a tough thing to balance pushing yourself and working really hard with ambitions, and so much of the creative industry has taken on a nineties-noughties city lifestyle. You work all day and then you get fucked up at night—and then do it all over again.”

Nighttimes are undeniably an integral part of the art world. Private views will run until eight or nine in the evening, while talks, parties and fundraisers can often end at midnight. “There’s a lot of pressure on curators to go to evening events and dinners. I try to do it a lot because I’m representing the organization that I work for, and I bear a burden of responsibility for that,” the curator confirms. “I’m not a natural extrovert, and I do need a lot of time as a person to decompress. I think that is a real challenge with the work that we do. I really enjoy spending time with people, socializing and having conversations, but I need my own time and space.”

But where is there to turn in pursuit of peace and quiet when sleep doesn’t come easily? Ottessa Moshfegh presents a bleakly comic solution in her novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, published last July. In it, she painstakingly details the descent of a wealthy art history graduate into round-the-clock slumber, aided by a cocktail of prescription sedatives. The urban alienation and relentless career pressures that the protagonist leaves behind in her absurdist quest are laid bare, and we are left asking ourselves, who is really asleep in this scenario? As Jia Tolentino succinctly put it in the New Yorker, “Ottessa Moshfegh is easily the most interesting contemporary American writer on the subject of being alive when being alive feels terrible.”

Meanwhile, in a confession that rings starkly true to Moshfegh’s dark fable, the curator tells me, “At the weekends, a real treat for me is to wear earplugs and a sleeping mask, and take two sleeping tablets. Then I can finally switch off, and what I like about taking a couple of sleeping tablets is that you don’t dream, it’s just blank. It’s something that I genuinely look forward to.” She’s not alone. As one writer adds, “I’ve bought various downers like Xanax or melatonin when I’ve been having trouble with sleep. I think everybody’s stressed, everybody’s low on time, everybody needs more sleep.”

“At the weekends, a real treat for me is to wear earplugs and a sleeping mask, and take two sleeping tablets. Then I can finally switch off”

Others self-medicate in a different way. A London-based artist explains, “For me and my friends, who are mainly in art and academia, everyone is so persistently working that people tend to get quite fucked up on the weekend. In a way, having a hangover or a comedown is the only legitimate excuse to do nothing. You can’t choose to stay in bed otherwise without feeling guilty. No one stops, and the only time you do is when you’ve made yourself ill.”

For a growing number of arts professionals and graduates, the rising rents of London and New York—both focal points of the job market in the creative sector—are another crucial source of sleeplessness. How do you get some much-needed shut-eye when you’ve got nowhere to lay your head? And, more importantly, how do you survive? “When I’ve been really burned out, it’s always been at the point when my housing situation is at its least secure. It’s a crisis situation that causes an emotional vulnerability,” the arts programme manager explains. “It relates to questions around space more broadly; in London there’s no affordable space to work or live in. Precarity is anathema to creative output. That’s what limits everything for people who don’t have access to secure living. It’s what means that the pool of people who have the energy and the capacity to make great work just gets smaller and less diverse.”

This financial situation is often further complicated by individuals holding down multiple jobs, with the rise of the “side hustle” and spiralling living costs. “So many aren’t paid for their work as an artist, and yet the work that they are paid for is entirely predicated on their work as an artist—like guest lecturers in academia, for example. There is this unequal economic distribution, where so much that is necessary for your paid work is done in your own time and off your own back. You’re working on these two completely separate timetables,” the sculptor says. “Sleeplessness as an artist definitely goes hand-in-hand with this distribution of money. You’re not remunerated properly for your time, and you are the one who has to make sacrifices to squeeze everything in.

“Sleeplessness as an artist definitely goes hand-in-hand with the distribution of money. You’re not remunerated properly for your time”

For some, moving away is the only sustainable answer. The former PR describes her descent into a psychological breakdown last year as a result of overwork and the pressure to make rent: “I began to realize that I wasn’t just anxious but having debilitating panic attacks; shaking and sweating in meetings with clients and having to hide it from them. I felt that I had really brought it on myself, and I had certain responsibilities to meet. I had my overheads, my tax, my travel… Then I broke down. I was forced to address the problem, rather than choosing to.”

She relocated from London to Berlin, where she would need to earn less in order to survive. “They value work-life balance here; there’s no real pressure and they do take things slower. Since I’ve been here, no one has set me a deadline that seems ridiculous. I now sleep eight hours a night, and my wellbeing has never been better. There’s a certain toxicity to cities like London, where the pace is so fast. It’s made me realise that you can make a choice to do things differently, but I had to hit rock bottom; I was suicidal.”

“I’ve definitely made myself ill on many occasions, and I’ve only recently started to get better at knowing where my limits are,” the curator tells me. It’s a story that is all too common, with many in the industry kept up at night by overwork, stress and financial precarity. There is an easy connection to draw between these pressures and the booming wellness market, not to mention the (rather less wholesome) drink and drugs that others make use of.

It would seem that sleep doesn’t come naturally to the creative industry. Instead we are expected to be on call almost around the clock, whether as part of our job or in anticipation of the next one. There needs to be a more fundamental change of attitudes within the industry and beyond, whereby artists and arts professionals are properly reimbursed for their time. Sleep is not a luxury to be indulged in but a basic right, and this is something that we all need to wake up to.