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Home » Symphonic Services Division » When Orchestra Committees Burn Out

When Orchestra Committees Burn Out


by Adam DeSorgo, AFM Symphonic Services Division Negotiator

It is wonderful to see musicians returning to the stage and audiences returning to concert halls. However, amid the good news, orchestra committees and locals are dealing with increasingly complex sets of problems: COVID-19 protocols, requests for extensions, grievances, and collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations. Some employers are turning to orchestra committees to do their jobs for them. “Well, you figure it out and come to us,” they say. Orchestra musicians are generally type-A people, so when given that kind of a challenge, we will rise to meet it, usually on a volunteer basis.

Sometimes it isn’t that we’re burning out, but rather that we’re getting burned. 

Regardless, the effect is the same. In fact, the World Health Organization has classified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon … resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, and/or increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

For orchestra musicians, this can spill over into our artistic life, which further amplifies these feelings. Particularly, if you are in a difficult or complex dispute, remedies like taking a vacation to relieve stress aren’t that useful. If you’re like me, it won’t be much of a vacation because you’ll still be thinking in committee mode.

Burnout Is About the Workplace, Not the Workers

According to Christina Maslach, University of California, Berkeley Professor Emerita, we are attacking the problem from the wrong angle. Although the WHO classification is useful, she recently stated that “categorizing burnout as a disease was an attempt by the WHO to provide definitions for what is wrong with people, instead of what is wrong with companies. When we just look at the person … it becomes that person’s problem, not the responsibility of the organization that employs them.” The fundamental advantage of our union is that together we can and should shift the responsibility of a stress-free workplace back onto the employer. 

Acknowledging burnout is key but challenging. A wonderful handout on this subject from the United Steel Workers lists a series of “lies we tell ourselves, relating to denying the signs of burnout,” including: 

  • I am fine. 
  • I am happy to take more on. 
  • You don’t understand, no one else can do this. 
  • People are depending on me. 
  • I really want to be helpful. 
  • I will be fine once this is done. 

But once we recognize signs of burnout, how can we mitigate the inherent stresses that come with working on an orchestra committee?

Finding Balance 

A 2012 study of Belgian union activists for the International Labour and Employment Relations Association used an occupational health psychology model to illustrate how we can mitigate burnout by balancing the demands of committee work with the resources we have at our disposal.

The study found that union workplace activists felt less burned out when they had: 

  • Clarity in their roles and expectations. 
  • Time and resources available to accomplish their tasks. 
  • Real influence over management decisions. 
  • Support from the rank and file. 

These points identify ways we can be proactive to avoid committee burnout.

Tips to Alleviate Burnout

Support and encourage each other—Find ways to get together, either virtually or in person. You don’t always have to talk about committee business—you can let off steam, offer advice and encouragement in getting through a particularly tough week, or just be social. It’s okay to have fun! When committee work is on the agenda, make committee responsibilities clear. Talk to each other so everyone feels empowered in their roles. Have people take on roles that best fit their strengths and interests. All of us in the Symphonic Services Division are here to support you. When discussions get heated within the committee, keep in mind that everyone wants the best for their colleagues, even if they differ in the way to get there.

Allow time and be flexible—An orchestra committee takes a lot of work, but it’s not the only thing in our lives. Sometimes, people need to step back. There can be an ebb and flow to participation. If we stay communicative, we can lift each other up through busy times. Self-care is a part of being a healthy person. Have a self-care plan that works for you. Sometimes it’s okay to tell our employers that we need time to effectively work through issues and tend to our primary job as musicians.

Recognize challenges and hindrances—A side note in the Belgian study stated that stressors were frequently seen as challenges and became motivational. Again, we musicians know something about rising to a challenge. However, challenges can become hindrances when we take them on alone. Turn to your colleagues—especially when management is fighting with us. Ask them how they feel and let their responses galvanize you. 

Celebrate your wins, even small ones—As University of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt used to say, “it’s still a W.” You settled a grievance that is beneficial for your colleagues, or the management made one concession. Give each other and your colleagues credit for their hard work. Each victory leads to another and gives you a sense that you are influencing management’s decisions for the better. 

Stay connected to your non-committee colleagues—Staying connected to our colleagues is absolutely necessary. The Belgian study states:

… a sense of community is a very important factor that contributes to engagement and when union representatives lose a positive connection with others in the workplace, they are at an increased risk of burnout. The amount of social support by workers-colleagues seems key in the continued functioning of union representatives.

I would take this a step further. Rank-and-file support is a two-way street. When we empower our colleagues, we can shift from a representative model to an activist model. Together as activists, we can create a community where the orchestra committee isn’t seen as “the union,” but is one with their colleagues. Facilitating this kind of empowerment comes with frustrations. Orchestras are microcosms of society and we have different perspectives to consider and respect. It can take a long time to develop an empowered base, and the process rarely proceeds in a straight line. However, at the end of the day, the unity we can achieve from the effort will be well worth it.

Do You Need Assistance with Your Next Symphonic Collective Bargaining?

Local officers can submit requests online through the SSD Resource Center. Navigate to the SSD Resource Center in the members-only section of the AFM website and search “Negotiations Assistance.”

Please note: There are many things that must be done to prepare for bargaining and the negotiator, once assigned, can assist and guide the local and orchestra committee in that preparatory work. SSD encourages locals to request negotiator assistance 12 months prior to CBA expiration.

If you have questions about these services provided by SSD, please contact SSD Contract Administrator, Communications & Data Coordinator Laurence Hofmann at (917) 229-0211.

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