Difficult by Default

The facts are simple enough to understand. I am trying to claim statutory sick pay. I am self-employed and have paid up on all my National Insurance Contributions. I have been signed off for a period which has meant me missing work obligations and therefore pay. In order to do this as a self-employed person in my area I need to enrol for universal credit.

This is where it all starts to get tricky. Universal Credit is a system of welfare that looked to simplify pay-outs for claimants in whichever system. It has been roundly criticised and attacked as a bureaucratic nightmare that manages to disenfranchise the claimant and keep lengthy distances between claim and first pay-out.  The system is digital by default which is a premise that while online registration should not be the only way to access the system, it is greatly encouraged and should help simplify the process.

I am in no way an expert in the intricacies of our welfare system but I wanted to communicate my experience with universal credit so far.

Firstly, it began with a cursory online search – how does a self-employed person claim SSP? I didn’t know.  This took me to gov.uk/statutory-sick-pay where I could find no information for self-employed workers. Annoying but understandable, that is a particular niche. Further googling took me to Employment and Support Allowance. The Gov.Uk webpage leads me to believe this is how I access SSP. I give them a call. After going through some standard procedures, I give my postcode, I am informed that I am in an area where universal credit is rolled out and I need to apply for that.

Great. I am getting somewhere. It needs to be done online. That’s fine for me – I have a laptop. I was on it at that very moment.  I type in the address and begin my process as a Universal Credit Claimant.

The process, as expected is arduous.  Scroll down boxes and forms galore. I make my way through all this. There is a handy tick box page keeping you updated on what you still need to do. It informs me, as I am married, my wife also needs to register as a claimant. Odd, she has also been signed off at the moment as she supports me through a difficult illness.  But she is an employee of the NHs so her SSP and any additional payments while signed off come out of her payslip and is dealt with by the NHS. She doesn’t need to claim. But it won’t let me progress without her.

This stalls things for a bit. My wife needs to fill out her own details.  This proves troublesome as her last payslip was from before she was signed off and we don’t want to fill out anything incorrectly.

This has already been a good couple of hours of form filling and I am already frustrated by it. It certainly isn’t the easiest task to complete when suffering from depression. We decide to put it on pause. It allows me to tackle the application when I am calmer and allows us to wait for the NHS payslip.

It finally arrives and we complete my wife’s ‘claim’.  Great. Next Steps. Forward we go. I look on my tick list. I have to verify my identity. OK.  I give them my home address history, passport information, driver’s licence and two bank card details. The result comes back. Not enough information to proceed. I am unsure what else I can provide them. But they have a solution at hand all I need to do is verify my identity with any one of their approved identity verifiers.  Just download the app and off you go – there seems to be no other simple way around this.

I click on the post office. It is the only one I have heard of so the only one I remotely want to share this info with.  Laptop open screen on the application page and now phone out and app downloaded. I begin to think of my mother. She is in no way computer illiterate and had to work with computers a lot before. But this is beginning to get complicated and taxing. Downloading apps. She would be struggling by now. She is not retirement age so it is perfectly feasible she could be applying for this. I also begin to think that with libraries being closed across the UK, access to the internet in free and welcoming spaces is limited.

But I am privileged to have access and capability so on I plough. The post office app requires me to scan in my passport and then to take a photo. The photo taking task can only be described as a comedic escapade. It has an outlined head. You have to fit your head to it. So, you move the phone back and forward trying to get it just right for the most official selfie you have undertaken. Snap 1. Now it informs you turn your head to the side. It wants a police style mug shot. You do this. You wait. Nothing happens. IT appear not to take but you can’t see the phone your head has turned to the side. You turn back and it takes. A blurry image of your face turning. You reject this one and start the whole process again. You repeat this a few times. You begin to try and figure the system out. Is it a timer. Do you have to wait for a long timer? Nope. Does it register the movement of the turn of the head? You begin trying to forcibly and deliberately move the head to register. Do you need to move your head then press the phone? No joy, no joy no joy. I get my partner to look as I take the selfies see if she can figure out what is happening. I give up. They get one picture of me facing the camera with stern passport face and one blur of me turning in bewilderment trying to figure out the annoying system.  It seems to be accepted. Thank God!

So now I am verified. Great. Next up. Now I need to phone for an interview. I phone. I press the correct numbers to the answers on my dial pad. I am informed via electronic voice I have an interview at 10.20am on Monday in Kirkcaldy Job Centre.  No possibility of negotiation or consideration for my diary. I am signed off but I have a number of doctors and psychiatric appointments.   I don’t live in Kirkcaldy but it is my nearest branch. The appointment clashes with a doctor’s appointment for my wife. So, our car is taken. I look at public transport but it proves possible but quite tricky for the time frames and I am very anxious. I know that job centres can look very unfavourably on late or missed appointments. As a 30-year-old man I have to phone my parents. Ask If I can get a lift.

Final few steps before the interview. Add my C.V.  I’m not looking for a job. I have a job. One I love. One I am lucky enough to be going back to and that I can make a living at. But I upload my C.V and write down 4 skills I have and 4 jobs I could do. I fill in the faceless impersonal forms and feel as if I’m lost in a spiral of bureaucracy. I write about my work situation in the comment boxes. I just want statutory sick pay.  don’t think anyone will notice. I’m now wondering if this is a colossal waste of time.

Oh wait, just when I thought we had gotten over all the hurdles before meeting someone. Now my wife is asked, please download an app. Pleas scan in a passport and a photo. She doesn’t even want to claim. She submits a face and a blur also.  Arrgh.

Have we made a mistake? Have I ticked a wrong box that has put us down this path? I check. I double check.  We haven’t.

I wonder if I even need sick pay. I wonder if National Insurance is now one giant insurance racket

It is now Sunday; my appointment is tomorrow. I wonder where this adventure might lead next. I am not excited to find out

The Show Must Go On

‘The show must go on’ that’s the old stalwart phrase. It’s like a theatrical version of the old stiff upper lip or ‘Keep calm and…’ motifs. It speaks of something noble and virtuous. The chips are down but, by god, we keep on going. It’s admirable. We’ve all heard stories of actors muddling through. In the face of sickness or injury and ensuring the audience get what it came for. After all that is what we offer. Bodies in space. If the bodies aren’t there, there isn’t a show. So, it is essential that we band together and hold the spirit of ‘never say die’ close to our hearts.

But sometimes, we should be aware. Sometimes the show shouldn’t go on. Or at least the version which you wanted. I have been very lucky, in my last two projects I have worked as a puppetry director and as more of a dramaturg. Important but not necessarily vital elements. Which has meant the show has gone on. But If I was a performer or a director on any project at this time, life would have been much different.

Officially, I have been signed off work until the 21st of January. I have been suffering from Anxiety with depression. This has meant more than a few nights in hospital and a terribly scary time for my family. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to revisit the details. But during this time, I was trying and failing to ensure that I fulfilled my roles to the two productions I was working on. The pressure of failing weighed heavily on me and fed into me ending up in hospital time after time.

I have received support, love and care from both Tortoise in a Nutshell and The Lyceum teams.  During a time when our industry is rightfully doing some much needed soul searching and questioning its moral and ethics, I have found it comforting to know that my needs have been so well supported when I really feared they may not be. Both also, it must be said supported me financially even when I failed to meet contractual requirements. This was hugely encouraging and only know as I’m officially signed off do I realise how important this was.

Currently, I am undertaking the herculean bureaucratic effort of applying as a freelancer to the new universal credit system as the only way to access any form of statutory sick pay for self-employed people in my area. It is not, for this blog, but It is one of the most stressful things about being signed off. I am so glad that when I was at my lowest point neither of the theatre shows looked to pay me less as this would have been devastating for me mentally.

So, what was the cause of this pressure? I wasn’t essential. Both shows were being made both with and without my presence at various times. Progressing with my input well but managing just fine without. The people surrounding me who were in the know were taking care of me. So, the only thing I can say about the pressure was I think it was built in my head. I am an artist. I must create the art. As a theatre maker, the show is the thing. That’s what we do. We carry on. We artists, make work to be shown. It’s like a weird artist machismo. We must bleed for our work. Do everything we can to realise our creative ideas.  Cry out to the world all our feelings of laughter or sadness, through our work.  This pressure is all in my head and it is utterly useless in making my work. I have an image like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man of the perfect artist. They are there with their oeuvre and their tale of suffering for each one, here I was impoverished, here I was persecuted, here, how I portrayed my mental anguish. Holding up idols of artists, somehow thinking their ability to create in face of their repressions is what makes them great. The brightly burning, quickly diminished candles. The pure, fragile objects reflecting the world as it tears at them. Even as I type this, I find myself leaning to this model but we should fight this. Artists are not Prometheans with flames. They are humans. They identify with the common humanity. They reflect tribulations that a human can find themselves in. They are no set apart. And that means like all humans, its ok for things to get on top of them. To take a pause and take a breath.

The show must not be the be all and end all. After all the arts is about human interaction and it is so important that we keep the people at the centre of it. Cancelled or altered shows may mean bad box office and disgruntled audiences. But I need to learn that there will be another chance, another time for art. If all art is abandoned then make sure to abandon it at the right time. Abandon it before it starts taking your health with you. Abandon it, abandon the whole craft and know it will be there to pick up when you come back.

‘The show must go on,’ is foolish posturing.  To hell with the show. There will another show, the artists must go on and sometimes that mean the artists must allow themselves to stop.