‘The Passion Can Actually Drive You Insane’: Video Interview With Psychologist Katja Mierke

Prof. Dr. Katja Mierke
John M. John, Düsseldorf
– Prof. Dr. Katja Mierke
Specialist in social psychology, communication and management of group dynamics, systemic counselling, and empirical research methodology at Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Cologne, Germany

Pollstar sat down with professor Katja Mierke, a psychologist teaching at Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Cologne, Germany.
Katja specializes in social psychology, communication and management of group dynamics, systemic counselling, and empirical research methodology.
Aside from teaching Bachelor and Masters students in those fields, Katja also offers seminars, trainings and workshops to all kinds of companies, non-profit organizations and private clients.
In this interview, we talk about the particular mental health challenges faced by people working in the live entertainment industry, and ways to mitigate the stress that comes with the success.
Katja is currently writing a book with co-author Holger Jan Schmidt on the topic. It will be called “Stay Sound & Check Yourself: Honest Reports and Best Practices on Stress and Self-Care in the Music, Festival and Event Business,” set to be released next year.
Pollstar: How far has society come in talking about and dealing with mental health issues?
Katja Mierke: I do think we have observed major changes over the last, say, 10, 15 years. Some people claim that there’s an increase in mental issues and psychic diseases, for instance stress-caused diseases. 
Diagnoses have risen, and some people argue that this is due to changed working environments, which is definitely also true, but also due to a change in diagnostics behavior by the doctors, and by people talking.
People are opening up, and I think there has been much more public awareness [for] it, so we do observe a change here. The stigma that used to be around the issue is finally being taken from it. 
Also, the coming out of many very prominent artists or soccer players suffering from major depression or other psychic problems helped people to open up.
How would you sum up the state of mental health in the live music industry?
I do think, in fact, that all the benefits, and all the wonderful things that come along with working in that industry do have a downside in themselves, because it also fosters the readiness of people to literally exploit themselves, and to work themselves down, until they hit rock bottom.
And they oftentimes don’t realize it in advance, because they get so much vibrant, positive feedback, and so many rewards just from what they do: creating wonderful events, and even social and political change. They’re on a mission and it’s so rewarding that they work crazy hours. It’s not just a requirement, but also a readiness to do that, it comes along with it. 
So, the passion can actually drive you insane. 
A double-edged sword.
It is. There is this distinction between Eustress and Distress, the positive and the negative stress, but to your body, it’s all the same.
I’ve talked to people, who said that, “from the burnout bed, my mind was willing to continue, just my body denied to deliver service.”
Maybe we should just listen to our bodies way earlier.
And also, the industry, of course, attracts people, who are not just stand-up boring, living their lives, having all kinds of endurances, but the more interesting people. And sometimes the creative people are somewhat more vulnerable – in a very positive way, because they are sensitive.
Can you talk about the importance of recovery phases?
Our body is well-prepared, actually. The stress reaction we show provides us with our full forces, adrenaline is poured out to the body, and then you’re action ready and able to do a lot of stuff. Body-wise it’s fine, because that energy is provided in order to be invested.
If you don’t invest it physically, there’s a residual arousal, a residual energy remaining in your body, that can for example turn into muscle tension, or into headache, or stomach issues, and all kinds of consequences.
If you recover fully, and you get enough sleep, do sports, and you have a real break, and your mind can take a real break, all the stress hormones go down all by themselves, and then you’re back to normal.
You recharge your batteries, and the next day, or the week after, you can unfold your full potential again and flourish.
If you don’t get that recovery, stress piles up over time, and there’s always a residual level of those stress hormones like cortisol, and oftentimes chronically increased blood pressure. These can do really bad things to your inner organs, to your heart, to your veins, and also to your brain, as too much cortisol leads to lack of concentration, memory failure, bad decision making. People become irritable and start overreacting, which my result in further conflicts and more stress.
So, it’s really important to go to full recovery, before you add further tasks on your list.
Amsterdam Dance Event introduced ADE Zen this year
Piet van Strijp
– Amsterdam Dance Event introduced ADE Zen this year
A space in which guests could wind down and catch their breath in the midst of all the bass madness

Time for recovery is hard to find in this business. Do you have any tips for how to still mitigate the stress?
The way I just put it, it could sound like you need to take a week off. This is, of course, not true. 
Fortunately, our system is a very quick responder. So, in everyday life, even during a festival, there’s always two minutes. Whatever you do, there’s always two minutes. And I would also say that you even have those a couple of times a day.
There are breathing exercises that help a lot, that tell your system to calm down, signalling that you’re safe. Because if you get into this over-reaction cycle, it’s like an permanent alarm-state for your autonomous nervous system.
To calm down, breathe really deeply, five seconds in, five seconds out, and do that for two minutes. That helps a lot. You can do that while sitting on the toilet actually, so combine it with something else.
Or, try to slow down tasks you have to do anyways. There are awareness and mindfulness trainings for doctors doing surgery, for instance, which is also pretty stressful, as in their job it’s literally about life and death sometimes. And they learn for example to disinfect their hands really slowly, because that gives them time, that gives them an additional 30 seconds. 
Just concentrate on what you do right now, stay in that moment, do it very consciously, while doing the deep breathing, that helps.
Another one would be: Change of location, go for a quick walk, be it 10 minutes. Get out of the noise, get out of social interaction, switch off the phone for 10 minutes. Normally that’s possible, nothing will collapse during those 10 minutes. If it is not, put it at least on vibration mode to avoid the ring tone. If you wish to switch it off for a longer period of time during stressful phases, announce it to your team in advance. They will accept and handle it.
Allow yourself those small islands of fully tuning down. That can help a lot.
Are people willing to forgo short-term success in favor of long-term health?
There’s more and more people gaining an awareness of how important it is. You love what you do, all of you love what you do, luckily, in most businesses. It can be a very hard decision to say, “well, I turned down this particular offer, or this chance, or this networking opportunity, just in order to have my one-week vacation, or my day off.” But more and more people realize that there is no alternative.
And also, more and more industries and organizations realize that. And this is one thing I would really like to add and stress in the overall context, that in my opinion it is hardly only a matter of individual stress coping and stress prevention, but there is also a responsibility on the side of the employers: how you deal with each other, with all the freelancers, and all the self-employed people, how do you treat each other?
Be a bit more compassionate there. 
Employers do have a responsibility, in Germany actually by law, the Arbeitgeber Fürsorgepflicht, which means that you have to provide an working environment that helps people to stay healthy and safe, and since 2013, that law includes the assessment and reduction of psychic stress and strains, over and above physical ones. 
If things further accelerate in this business, as they seem to do now, this is something where some of the major decision makers are really required to put up a stop sign, and to think about what is going to become of the industry in 10, 20 years, if this trend continues. Because otherwise it’s just a turbo-capitalism kind of thing that will eat up itself in the end, and eat up the enthusiasm and the passion people working in the culture sector, and nobody may want to do it anymore if it just totally ruins you. So invest there, in the people. 
The live entertainment industry is such a rewarding space to work in
Jelena Ivanović, EXIT Photo Team 2019
– The live entertainment industry is such a rewarding space to work in
It makes it easy to sometimes forget your own health in all the excitement. Scene from EXIT Festival 2019 in Serbia.

The music and the festival industry, I think, is so successful, because it nourishes from that resource of creativity. And creativity, there’s piles of experimental research, is only possible, if you allow yourself to recover, if you have a positive environment with only a sane amount of pressure. There we have it again.
More and more people realize that, and cherish their own passion enough to care, and to say, “I slow down, I do go on a sabbatical, I take the risk of maybe even not getting back into this job. But there will be another job, and by then I will be able to last in this business until I retire. Otherwise I may have a breakdown or burnout when I’m 30, 40, 50, and become this literal yoga teacher.” It’s not a metaphor anymore.
I think the awareness has changed, and with the generation coming up now, the so-called Generation Z – I don’t really believe in these things – there is a trend toward mindfulness, also among elder people there is a trend towards staying alive and sane, despite of all the rock’n’roll.
It seems everybody knows someone, who has had burnout, and as we said in the beginning, it’s now coming out of the taboo zone, the stigma is being taken from the issue, and this helps people a lot to allow themselves to slow down, just a little bit.
How important is communication among individuals within the company?
It’s extremely important, and obviously there is a high sensitivity toward the issue right now, and a high willingness to communicate. 
I think this is actually the key: team culture, organizational culture, and also something like an industry culture, which might include a code of conduct, some ground rules that will help everybody to appreciate what everybody else does, not to foster further conflict, further stress through bad communication, and also to find agreements that are good for all of you.
Is it important to have a strong network of friends and loved ones?
Yes, because we are just social animals. Humans are not meant to wander alone in the wilderness, they would just die. Our ancestors wouldn’t have survived if they had done it all on their own. 
We’re meant to live in clans, in groups of 20 to 40 people, as it was in the ancient times, and I think, really, those mechanisms have their roots there.
We do know from health psychology research that social support, just someone who cares, who will listen to you, who is empathetic towards your concerns, is the best buffer there is between stress and health problems arising. And even if people already have health problems, social support is a very well researched predictor of curing more rapidly, even physically, so it is a very, very powerful resource.
Katja Mierke speaking at the European Festival Conference
Gideon Gottfried
– Katja Mierke speaking at the European Festival Conference
Aside from teaching Bachelor and Masters students, Katja also offers seminars, trainings and workshops to all kinds of companies, non-profit organizations and private clients.

Is there anything you would like to add?
You could add a lot of things. I would just really like to stress that, on the one hand, of course everybody is responsible for himself, herself, to take care, and not to overdo things, and to look after yourself. 
But it’s also a mutual responsibility in teams, not to nag on each other. “What is it, you’re leaving at six already?” Those kind of remarks. Or those emails, where you’re like, “oh, you’re not available on Sunday? What’s up with that?”
And last but not least it’s also the employer’s responsibility to offer health support, prevention, things like coaching or psychic first aid, all kinds of support people could wish for, who work under such high pressure, and who create these jewels for our society, because it’s so valuable. 
Sometimes people say, “there’s five people queueing for your job, so if you are not strong enough, well, I’m sorry, but then maybe you should rather become a yoga teacher.”
This is not the way you should treat your employees, as you’re losing very valuable long-term experience, expertise, and non-replaceable human beings. Also, it may do serious long-term harm to your employer image – who will queue for a job where they don’t care for their people?