Thursday, 28 June 2012

How can work be addictive?


You've been moping at home all week, your partner wisely giving you space as he senses how antsy you are. Then the phone goes: a buddy has scored, and it's a big one. Do you want in? You only want to know two things: when and where.

The weeks that follow are a blur.  You and the others – the gang - are in the same boat: when you're not doing it, you're talking about it. And when it's done, and you return to mundanity, that emptiness sets in. At the anniversary dinner your partner makes for you, all you can think about is the next big score.

This is a narrative of addiction. In a fascinating article on the New Zealand film industry, Lorraine Rowlands and Jocelyn Handy argue that this is just what freelancers experience due to the nature of their working patterns. They conducted interviews with 21 industry insiders, interpreting the data using interpretative phenomenological analysis, a technique that emphasises emotional features of responses, rather than simply looking to cluster content into themes.
They found a number of features that chimed with this addiction model. What were they?

Firstly, people tend to enter the film industry because it offers something scarce and intrinsically desirable: an opportunity for artistic expression. Moreover, freelance project work has a heightened quality: no lazy days at the office surfing the web and making small talk. As one respondent put it,

"From an artistic point of view there is a definite energy and pace.... you can actually come up with some incredible work and you couldn't have contrived it outside of that crazy environment. It's a collaborative energy that is created by pressure, by unreasonable deadlines and last minute changes."

This highlights a key feature of addiction: the addictive object or activity exists within a social context, where relationships strengthen with those who share the addiction and wither with those outside it. If all you want to talk about is the shoot tomorrow, your mundane friends are likely to seem like encumbrances; this leads to a vicious circle where the addictive context is the only thing that offers comfort.

Moreover, freelancing work involves extended periods of downtime, or withdrawal. A respondent notes that when their project came to a close "a lot of other people too went into depression. You start thinking 'oh god, I'll never get employed again'". These quieter times could be a time to reinvest in neglected relationships, but this can feel more like an obligation, whereas chasing ties with other industry figures remains urgent, as gaining new work involves being in the right networks. This means the relationships around the object of addiction continue to be prized.

Finally, freelance work is hard to quit, for the simple reason that without a company to formally exit, it's very easy to come back for another hit. What's more, given the specialisms of the industry you can very well be the necessary piece for your network of worker-friends to secure a piece of work, so exiting can be seen as a slight or even as a betrayal. One respondent took that plunge, and noted "all these people I had connected with were just like - snap - never seen me before....Even at the film première and the post thing - it was like - no one spoke to me".

The authors suggest this confluence of features may be common to other cultural industries such as “theatre, television, fashion, music and new media work.” And you never know; it might be worth examining the highs and lows offered by our own working patterns.

ResearchBlogging.orgRowlands, R., & Handy, J. (2012). An addictive environment: New Zealand film production workers' subjective experiences of project-based labour Human Relations , 65 (5), 657-680 DOI: 10.1177/0018726711431494

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