What’s classed as sensitive content?
Sensitive content is a broad term, and while there’s no strict definition, it could include themes of sexual abuse, racism, bereavement, emotional distress, torture, suicide, crime, illness, natural disasters, terrorism – or even locations like morgues, hospitals or prisons.
The detrimental impact
During research for the Film and TV Charity’s Looking Glass survey, people told us that exposure to sensitive content can detrimentally impact their mental wellbeing.
In some cases, it can lead to vicarious trauma – symptoms that may include an over-identification with the sensitive content (or person) resulting in feelings of anger, sadness or guilt.
It can also mean becoming preoccupied with the content to the detriment of one’s own wellbeing, and it can have a negative impact on interpersonal relationships.
For example, if a Black and Global Majority team member has lived experience of racism, and is working with similar content, the content could trigger difficult emotions and potential distress.
Duty of care and safeguarding
As an employer, it’s important to know that if your production engages with themes or depictions that may be deemed as sensitive or distressing, steps should be taken to anticipate, manage and reduce the impact on your team.
Protecting your crew from psychological harm and completing mental health risk assessments (MHRAs) are legal requirements.
Duty of care
The duty of care, under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, requires businesses, employers and service providers to put reasonable measures in place to ensure that everyone associated with them is reasonably protected from physical and psychological harm.
Therefore, as an employer or manager, you must take reasonable steps to protect the mental health and wellbeing of supporting crew and vulnerable contributors.
Safeguarding in a mental health context means protecting people from harm or damage with proportionate measures.
It includes ensuring that:
- Employees struggling with poor mental health are supported appropriately, especially when they might be at risk of harming themselves, including attempting suicide.
- Employees know where they can access appropriate support to address mental health needs.
- Employers and employees are equipped to recognise signs when someone may be struggling and issues are responded to and supported.
- Carrying out risk assessments and putting appropriate protections in place afterwards.
A safeguarding approach can help you uphold a duty of care and take steps to protect vulnerable contributors and crew from emotional distress, and to further support those affected.
While there’s no current safeguarding framework for film and TV, you could review health and care service requirements on six principles of safeguarding.
Reduce the impact of working with sensitive content
There are key steps that can be taken by managers and crew – during pre-production, production and post-production – to support wellbeing and emotional resilience, and to buffer distress for those exposed to sensitive content.
A production should encourage the following for everyone:
- Lunch breaks and tea breaks being taken
- Adequate sleep
- Access to natural daylight or breaks outside where possible
- Physical health, exercise and movement
- Healthy, balanced lunches and snacks and regular hydration
- Encouraging colleagues to support one another
- People maintaining connections with their family and friends
- Knowing where to turn if help is needed
Specific actions at production stages
Development and pre-production stage
A production should be designed to limit the impact of sensitive content from the start.
Development and pre-production are key to setting the tone for a safe production.
- If difficult themes are explored in development or writers’ rooms, give a sensitive content briefing covering what to expect.
- Everyone should have access to support – so check that anyone working remotely, such as writers and researchers, knows how to access this.
- If potentially distressing locations are being scouted, give a sensitive content briefing and ensure support is available.
- All crew should receive sensitive content briefings as necessary.
- The filming schedule for sensitive content should allow for more regular breaks.
- Stress risk assessments must be undertaken based on the scripts, depictions, locations and schedules. Perform an MHRA as early as possible.
- Define and implement support options, which could include additional or expert support, such as a mental health first aider (MHFA), wellbeing facilitator, counsellor, intimacy coordinator, medic on set – or HR support or an employee assistance programme (EAP).
- Create a pool of related resources, organisations and free support that crew can access throughout production – these should be detailed in your wellbeing pack and could include resources from the Film and TV Charity, Mind and the Samaritans.
- Design a simple and clear process for feedback and support requests for crew who are affected by sensitive content.
During production, stress levels often rise and it might be tempting to forgo actions to reduce impact.
However, it’s important to ensure you fulfil the legal duty of care and continue to actively reduce the impact of working with sensitive content.
- Things can change quickly – review and update your MHRA on the spot if changes occur and ensure you follow through on actions.
- Call sheets should clearly brief on the nature of sensitive content.
- Sheets should also clearly list access to support for all crew on set, on location or working remotely.
- Emails can include short briefing messages and reminders of support.
- Ensure sensitive content briefings are carried out for crew, in advance, to explain the context of the content and what to expect.
- Anyone expressing severe emotional distress should be discreetly and sensitively taken off set or location and offered full support.
- Encourage and facilitate open conversation around the topics for those wishing to talk.
- Make sure crew know that they can access support – such as support from an intimacy coordinator, an MHFA, a wellbeing facilitator, a counsellor, a medic on set, HR support, or an EAP programme – to help process emotional distress.
Post-production teams often work extremely long hours in isolation and have the highest degree of repeated exposure to sensitive content.
As such, any measures to protect crew should be revisited and emphasised at this stage.
- Give a sensitive content and context briefing to the crew involved in post-production.
- Check in with the crew regularly about their wellbeing.
- Schedule more frequent breaks for crew members who are repeatedly exposed to sensitive or distressing content – such as an editor, post supervisor, colourist or sound editor.
- Consider rotating crew to reduce repetitive exposure.
- Make sure all support options are known about and available throughout the post-production stage, such as support from an MHFA, a counsellor, HR support or an EAP.
- If crew are working in windowless spaces, encourage them to take breaks where there is natural light and access to nature.
- Anyone expressing severe emotional distress should be discreetly and sensitively removed from the situation, and fully supported.
Also, experiment with making adjustments to the viewing experience and adding distance to how your crew view images:
- Some people find concentrating on certain details and avoiding others helps with stress – such as clothes rather than faces.
- Consider applying a temporary matte/mask to distressing areas of an image.
- Encourage editors to minimise use of the loop play function when trimming footage of violent attacks and death scenes.
- Try adjusting the viewing environment, such as reducing the window size or changing the screen’s brightness or resolution.
- And generally, digital files with sensitive content should be clearly flagged to prevent unnecessary viewing.
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