A much needed attitude adjustment is a coronavirus lesson we should take seriously
Updated: Apr 21
I hear a lot of talk in our community about finding ways to create new content while keeping our social distance, but we aren’t really addressing the underlying cause that makes this so necessary. It is a reality that sick people often don’t stay home when they are sick. There are a million reasons why, and I am not here to place blame or judgement, just to address the issue where I have some influence, which is in production.
Don’t get me wrong, I embrace the fearless spirit of the entrepreneur that eats the impossible for breakfast. I dare say, she lives in me. But I think it is important to clearly define the difference between a great work ethic and a reckless one. With the mounting pressure of deadlines and bottom lines, those boundaries start to blur and the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the potential fallout if we don’t pay attention.
I am not going to get into things like unemployment benefits etc., those topics are being covered. But I do want to bring up a more cultural workplace issue that I think is particularly relevant. Americans in general, but our industry especially, tends to value a “get it done no matter what” mentality that has fostered amazing innovation and some of the most creative problem solving imaginable but has also created an extreme “tough-it-out” workplace culture that is, at times, irresponsible.
We pride ourselves on our ability to withstand long work hours on countless consecutive projects, rain or shine, in an industry that is consistently demanding more content in less time with less support. And while we should be free to run ourselves ragged and overachieve, as is our prerogative, we should also set clear boundaries. Boundaries that are not acceptable to cross because they endanger others. As an industry largely made up of freelancers and small businesses we typically do not have sick-pay and many live on a financial razors edge, making it impossible to call in sick. If someone happens to start coming down with a virus in the middle of a project they often feel that they have no choice but to keep it quiet, down some DayQuil and show up to work early. This cultural attitude not only risks workers’ own health but also that of their colleagues, customers, and the broader community. I don’t think we can ignore that anymore, as-well we shouldn't.
As a producer, I feel I have been presented with an opportunity to nurture a more balanced and responsible mindset during pre-pro and on set. It seems timely for us to start a conversation in the wake of this pandemic that tweaks best practices and creates a new perspective. One that still values the scrappy grit that is the hallmark of our industry but also understands the need for self-care and sick-pay.
So, what can we do? Beyond the obvious - upgraded sanitization, craft/catering adjustments, remote capture feed and video streaming, monitor hygene habits on set (cough into your elbow! Wash your hands!)
I am thinking about adding a line item in my estimates that covers some paid sick leave. It would be earmarked for that purpose and not available to the general budget. Most of the time it would not be spent because no one would get sick. Meanwhile, it would justify adopting a no-tolerance policy toward showing up to work sick and support the worker in taking that day off and helping production find a replacement for themselves quickly. I should think this would also help to make everyone on set (including the clients) feel a bit more comfortable. I'm pretty sure most of us are already adept at providing remote capture feeds, online streaming of shoots + video conferencing in an effort to keep attendance numbers down but we should also use this same technology to keep the people who are in attendance safer by keeping essential personnel who get sick during a project off set, but still involved. A client or agency person who wakes up not feeling well on a scheduled shoot day can stay in their office or hotel room and attend the livestream. This could also work for wardrobe stylists with an assistant on set and, in some cases, set designers as-well.
What else? There are a few people on set that just really need to be there. They are not replaceable at the last minute or able to do their jobs remotely (like the photographer, director, DP, producer etc). What can we do for them and everyone else in attendance? We can have a kit and medic on set designed to reduce the possibility of spreading infection and give them some mandatory and separate physical space. But possibly themost effective thing we can do is adopt a new attitude of taking even mild sickness seriously and accommodating it right away. It won’t even be necessary most of the time. After all, we are not sick farmore often than we are.sick, but it needs to be non-negotiable. With a good attitude adjustment and some workflow changes we could easily and quickly adopt a highly upgraded health model that becomes the new normal.