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Reality TV duty of care rules: Lessons for HR

New guidelines for TV broadcasters offer useful lessons for all employers on their duty of care to employees

The duty of care that reality TV producers owe to contestants has been in the spotlight after the highly-publicised, tragic deaths of a number of participants. The suicides of Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis, both former contestants on Love Island, and the alleged suicide of Steve Dymond who was a guest on the Jeremy Kyle show, have forced the TV industry to rethink its level of responsibility.

Further, several former reality show participants have complained that they received little or no support during and after their time on programmes, with many opening up about the impact it has had on their mental health. Outside the spotlight of the reality TV world, employers in all sectors are also struggling to determine how best to safeguard the mental wellbeing of their staff.

We advise companies in many different industries on employment practices, including the contractual arrangements between production companies and their stars, and are recommending clients pay attention to the new duty of care obligations arising.

So what do these new duty of care rules mean?

Ofcom has proposed two new rules to ensure that participants in television and radio shows are properly looked after by broadcasters, namely that:

  • Due care must be taken over the welfare, wellbeing and dignity of participants in programmes
  • Participants must not be caused unjustified distress or anxiety by taking part in programmes or by the broadcast of those programmes

It’s unclear whether these new rules will also extend to talent managers who are responsible for the workload of the contestants once they then leave the show. Arguably this representation has escaped the spotlight (with the programmes themselves being held responsible) and agents would do well to follow suit on these new rules before the curtain is lifted on their practices.

Due to Ofcom overseeing the TV, radio and on-demand sectors, but not the entertainment industry as a whole, we may be unlikely to see regulations extending to agents in the near future. However, public concern and increasing government action around duty of care in the entertainment industry may lead to other protections being introduced.

In the television industry context, the new rules would require all broadcasters to review their processes from start to finish to ensure they are meeting their enhanced duty of care. In particular they would need to review and consider the following:

  • Pre-production – Undertaking in-depth background and medical checks and thorough risk assessments, particularly in relation to mental health and wellbeing. Experts such as psychologists can be engaged to advise on a person’s suitability to deal with the media spotlight and potential abuse from the public, whether on social media or otherwise.
  • During production – Providing support and counselling, with participants able to privately raise their concerns. Editorial and production techniques will need to be reviewed and assessed for the potential to cause unjustified distress and anxiety.
  • Post-production – Arguably the time that participants need the most support is after the show has ended, with public interest and social media having the potential to greatly affect their lives and negatively impact their mental health. Maintaining contact with participants to monitor their mental wellbeing and providing them with sufficient support is crucial.

Clearly these three points translate directly to businesses of all kinds. All organisations must ensure they’re taking their duty of care towards employees seriously.

For example, on the first bullet point, any company should make sure employees are mentally fit and healthy before putting them in situations that might cause them stress or anxiety, like pitching for new business or speaking in front of a large crowd.

On the second point, companies should ensure they’re providing a safe space in the office for employees to share their concerns – and should be able to offer third-party support or counselling where required.

On the final point, businesses in all sectors should also understand that mental health problems such as stress and anxiety can last a lot longer than just days or weeks. Providing holistic support for months or even years after an employee goes through a distressing event (should they need it) is crucial.

So these duty of care rules are not just relevant to employers in the TV industry. They also highlight the importance of any business properly addressing its duty of care towards its workforce. The message is that, whether you’re a contestant on a reality or game show, or an everyday employee in a corporation, the support you require when things get difficult is the same. We’re all humans after all.

HR professionals would therefore do well to watch how these broadcasters change their practices as a result of the new rules. They will provide useful lessons for all businesses on the issue of duty of care.

Keely Rushmore is a partner in the employment department at SA Law