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The B Word: Actors and Burnout.

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

To be honest: I feel burned out a lot of the time.

My peers frequently experience signs and symptoms of burn out.

And yet, there is virtually no research into the connections between an acting career and burnout. Have a little google and you may find some non-medical advice from players within the industry to light a scented candle and to slow-down, to exercise, to meditate.

Yeah beauty, problem sorted.

I know my nature: driven, competitive, motivated, I've an unshakeable desire to push myself to the limits of my potential. So I’m not interested in telling you to take the foot off the gas, because I wouldn’t listen to that advice myself. What I do want to do is: understand what burnout is, how it may impact actors, and what we can do to recognise and de-stigmatise rising burnout in our industry.

A confused actor

What is Burnout?

The term burnout was coined by a US psychologist in 1975 and contrary to people who dismiss it as laziness, it’s now recognised as a legitimate medical disorder by mainstream medicine, with the International Classification of Diseases referring to it as a ‘state of vital exhaustion’.

Working too long or too hard can lead to burnout, but research shows other factors can be just as detrimental. A comprehensive report on psychosocial stress in the workplace published by the World Health Organization identified consistent evidence that “high job demands, low control, and effort–reward imbalance are risk factors for mental and physical health problems.”

There are six key components of the workplace environment that contribute to burnout: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. Burnout emerges when one or more of these six areas is chronically mismatched between an individual and their job.

Richard Gunderman, a physician at Indiana University, described burnout as: “the accumulation of hundreds or thousands of tiny disappointments, each one hardly noticeable on its own.”

Damn. Seeing some links to our industry fam?

Alright, so burnout is real, but…

Actors and burnout? Why?

Unpaid Labour.

According to the Australian medical journal The Lancet, it’s hypothesised that for employed individuals, a high unpaid workload can lead to stress, role overload, role conflict, and time poverty; all of which might negatively affect health and wellbeing.

For me, the idea of ‘time poverty’ sticks out like a sore thumb.

The demands of unpaid labour for actors such as auditioning, self-taping, learning lines, researching, de-rolling, preparing for a role, networking, up-skilling, self-promoting, etc can often create an enormous amount of time poverty as this unpaid work combines with a ‘day job’ or other sources of financial income.

Psychologically, I think we have to remember that the process of working as an artist is not the same as working in finance, hospitality, law, real estate, construction etc. But work is work. Whether or not you’re getting paid doesn’t negate it’s effect on your mental and physical wellbeing.

I’d recommend being weary of anyone who attempts to minimise your work, as they are likely seeing the world from an increasingly archaic and dated paradigm of the economy. The same one that diminishes the alarmingly high unpaid work that women do in comparison to men.

An actor learning lines

The Demands of Performing.

Scientific research is still scarce in this area, but some of the initial findings are staggering. There are some indicators that the brain doesn't differentiate between real and imagined experience, which would explain why actors’ heart rates can climb to 180 beats per minute as they deal with constant rushes of adrenaline (Christoffersen, 1993). Some studies suggest the physiological experience of acting on stage is similar to being in a crisis, such as a car accident.

A Sydney University study of 782 actors, found that over 40% of actors drink to ‘let go’ of a performance and over 80% are active users of legal or illegal drugs.

Even in our happy-go-lucky, she’ll-be-right-mate, grateful-to-be-here culture, don’t forget the demands acting places on your nervous system. Performing at an elite level is comparable to being an athlete. Don’t. Forget. That.

Financial Stress.

One of the terrifying facts the WGA / SAG-AFTRA strike is revealing is that even actors who are constantly employed; working, jobbing, professional actors… are often not able to achieve financial security.

Andrew Leeds says, “no matter how long you’ve been doing this, no matter how much experience you have, no matter any of those things. You could be 65 years old, be a veteran actor, done hundreds of hours of television, you will still be offered the minimum.”

This is especially pertinent to actors from working-class backgrounds, who often have to work several jobs in addition to their paid and unpaid work in the arts in order to simply survive.

It’s also the nature of capitalism; hard work is rewarded, but mitigating circumstances mean people have vastly different abilities to work hard.

I think many of us start to experience burnout when we continue to work exceedingly hard despite being in a financially unstable position. Again, it’s capitalism and competition: your productivity will reward you, but likely cost you too.

Lack of control.

I can’t help but laugh / despair at one of the earlier definitions of burnout as ‘hundreds or thousands of tiny disappointments’. If accumulating micro-disappointments creates burn out, then consider us the Burnout Queens.

The ebb and flow, wins and losses of an acting career is understood by all actors: from emerging artists to A-List celebrities. It is fundamental to what we do. Auditioning is not a job interview, it requires an investment of time, energy and resources across mental, physical and emotional faculties. Rejection is part of the gig, something we all have to learn to mitigate and deal with. And yet, it would appear, that these ‘tiny disappointments’ may be contributing to burnout.

a full plate: my own experience of burnout.

An actor rehearsing on a set

Earlier this year I performed in a one man show at Malthouse called Loaded, based on the novel by Christos Tsiolkas.

I’m still feeling minor effects of burnout from this role, ten weeks after closing the show.

I spent a bit of time internalising outside opinions: maybe I’m just lazy? A bit soft? Not strong enough to handle that kind of severe mental and physical pressure?

No, girl.

It’s burnout.

You can’t learn a forty page monologue overnight. I spent twelve months working on that role. Learning lines, researching, building the character. I went into rehearsal 95% off book, ready to rock. That’s a lot of unpaid labour. Like, a lot.

I was sick with a terrible flu for the entirety of rehearsals and the first week and a half of shows. I loaded up on medication and pushed through. This play was very important to me, and I refused to take days off and lose rehearsal time. Of course, I could have. I had the total support of the company, who were keenly invested in my wellbeing. None more so than the director, a personal hero of mine and now cumare (friend), who always prefaced my physical and emotion wellbeing as the priority.

The company manager, who is extraordinary at her job, constantly said to me, ‘Danny… you don’t have to work this hard’. She’s right, I didn’t have to. But that was my choice, because this opportunity was more valuable to me than burnout prevention. I was working with icons and idols of mine.

Sure, I could have done less, but I don’t want a life as an actor exploring the middle ground. I didn’t know when the next opportunity like that would come, and I didn’t want any regrets.

The psychophysical demands of the performance were enormous. I had to be on pretty serious vocal rest for the duration of rehearsals and performances, virtually never being able to exert myself vocally or physically outside of work.

I also had a really difficult time managing my nervous system after processing huge amounts of adrenaline every night.

And to be completely honest, I’d do it all again. Wouldn’t change my output. In fact, there’s things I’d wanna explore even deeper.

This story is etched onto my heart (and the character’s name onto my forearm hehe) and I wanted to give it everything I had. I actually said to the director, ‘I’m sacrificing myself at the alter for this - you can hold me to that’, DRAMATIC MY GOD. But true.

And yes, there’s the altruistic component of the story, but also, I want to work as an actor, and this was a great opportunity to show my peers what I’m capable of and galvanise the opportunity to secure more work, which I did. There isn’t any shame in that.

That’s essentially the predicament we face: we are hungry for these opportunities and we’ll fight for them. And that’s why I’m not going to tell you to buy a candle and take some time off. Because I wouldn’t do that.

We’re in a precarious industry where the supply well outweighs the demand. Opportunities, roles, jobs are precious things, and for many of us, can be associated with scarcity, so…

Where to from here?

I am offering no to solutions to anyone reading this other than: if you are experiencing burnout as an actor, I see you.

The first steps are changing our own relationship and attitude towards burnout.

It is real.

It is highly pronounced in our industry.

And it is something we need to begin to quantify, de-stigmatise and discuss openly.

My name is Danny Ball, and I’m feeling a little burned out =)

351 views2 comments


Danny! Thank you for sharing this stunning article. I will be using quotes from this (and of course citing your name). I've been having some interesting interactions in my last few jobs as an actor, where industry people who are around us actors e.g. producers, technicians etc...are complaining a lot about the hours that they work compared to how 'little' we actors us 'actors can just come in for a few hours at night then go home'. I even had someone say to me recently "what do you even do during the day?"......because I was performing my one woman show at night. A one woman show that is 75 mins of just me talking, singing 11 mega songs an…

Danny Ball
Danny Ball

Thanks for reading Michaela!

I feel you, I can only imagine the challenges of performing a show like that. I think it's important that we all understand and expand our ideas of what constitutes 'work', so we don't all start trying to compare who works hardest. How boring!

Wish you all the best,


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