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Historic trauma at the Abbey Theatre has eroded employee wellbeing, culture audit finds

The audit found an organisation perceived as split ‘upstairs – downstairs’, with a sense of ‘being in the dark’ about things

The wellbeing of employees at the Abbey Theatre has been eroded, according to a culture audit of the national theatre, which was published on its site today. The report by DCU Business School says “a confluence of significant environmental factors” contributed to this, including “some historic trauma in the organisation that has given rise to stress – and burnout in some cases – and remains somewhat unresolved”.

This is a reference to events at the theatre from over four years ago, still unresolved, including the controversial handling of payments to the theatre’s outgoing directors, a process which is thought to have cost the theatre over €1 million, including significant legal fees.

The report into the Abbey’s culture was commissioned by the theatre as an Arts Council condition for its funding. In July 2021 two new co-directors, artistic director Catriona McLaughlin and executive director Mark O’Brien took over from outgoing co-directors Graham McLaren and Neil Murray. Since then the senior management team has largely changed.

Other factors contributing to staff’s “eroded well-being” include the shock of Covid-19, which disrupted operations and also “interrupted opportunities to fully resolve and recover from this trauma”. The cost-of-living crisis, inflation and a lack of clarity around funding, “present further stressors, which are having a major impact on the organisation” and impact employee well-being. The report points out the new leadership team is making “strong efforts to encourage openness and inclusivity, where previously opportunities for employee voice seemed to be non-existent”. The new directors “are cognisant that the organisation has gone through a difficult period and want to ensure that staff are aware that they are the organisation’s main stakeholders”, with the culture audit being part of that, particularly given its role focused on making live theatre.


The survey was managed by DCU organisational psychologists Prof Yseult Freeney and Prof Edel Conway, with 70 employees, or 70 per cent of the core Abbey workforce, responding to it.

The report’s qualitative research found staff feel competent in work, experience social support and respect, and well-being is reasonably high. However, many findings suggest the Abbey “could be a healthier organisation, with only medium levels of meaningful work, engagement, job security, psychological safety, and low levels of autonomy, organisational commitment and identification, attitudes to change and welfare, trust in management, perceived job impact and involvement”.

Regarding governance, the culture audit says “there is evidence that The Abbey Theatre is overseen by a very competent board and chairperson”, with an “acute understanding of the challenges facing the theatre” and a need for strategic management. This is important “given that the organisation has been through tumultuous change over recent years, with the departure of its prior leadership and the appointment of two new directors”.

The culture audit which interviewed staff across the organisation also says “it would seem that The Abbey Theatre is chronically underfunded”.

It says the key positive feature of the Abbey working environment is its people, finding “a sense of community, camaraderie and collegiality”, passion about the Abbey and the arts generally, pride in their role, vocation and skills.

The work environment also has challenges, including “a sense of busyness, relentlessness, stress and cycles of high pressure points. This can lead to overworking and in some instances, burnout.” This is compounded by finances, notably pay and employee turnover. The old building and facilities lead to disconnect among colleagues, health and safety concerns and frustration about the lack of fit-for-purpose facilities for a modern theatre.

Funding emerged as a major impediment to the basic functioning of the Abbey, according to the audit. The theatre is funded year to year by the Arts Council. It is the council’s largest funding recipient, currently €8 million a year. The Arts Council withheld some Abbey funding and attached conditions to it this year (including this culture audit), on foot of concerns about governance and frustration about lack of information from the board handling of payments to former directors.

The culture audit said the issue of funding emerged as “a major impediment to the basic functioning of the organisation”, leading to a lack of ability to plan ahead. The annual funding cycle was restrictive; one survey participant described the organisation as “a prisoner inside the funding system”.

The audit found an organisation perceived as split “upstairs – downstairs”, with a sense of “being in the dark” about things. “While people have a huge passion for their work, there are signs that well-being is being slowly eroded due to stretched resources and piling demands. ‘Relentless’ is the word frequently used.”

Conversations with participants “revealed some serious issues about the chaotic and stressful work environment”, which must be addressed “as a matter of top priority”. The audit makes several recommendations regarding funding, involvement, wellbeing, people and culture, and stressed that “a new building is essential for The Abbey Theatre to thrive in the future. The current building is not fit for purpose”.

Among the lower scoring areas in the survey is “involvement”, or employees feeling they are involved openly in decision-making, and trust in senior management, which “may have been impacted by recent events” and “will take time to rebuild”. Among the most positive findings, employees feel they have the opportunities to develop close relationships at work and that the workplace is characterised by integrity, fairness, collaboration, professionalism and trust.

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey is a features and arts writer at The Irish Times