Solving Museum Worker Burnout & the ‘Immorality of Inaction’: FIX CAUSES (vs. Solely Symptom ‘Self-Care’)

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In the image above, your blogger corrected one from the Internet.

Recent posts here have addressed various aspects of what I regard as the chronic averting of eyes from the long-standing unchecked rise of expectations, resulting work intensification, task saturation, worker exploitation, & burnout problem in the museum industry.

Dr. David Posen (2013:111) diagrams the burnout process

Dr. David Posen (2013:111) diagrams the burnout process

As an aside here: The author happened to be listening in to a Texas Historical Commission webinar “Moving from Theory to Practice: Doing the Work of DEAI” presented by Dina Bailey (2021), CEO of Mountain Top Vision. I was profoundly struck by a concept identified that I had never encountered previously in the last 30 years investigating working conditions & burnout in museums. My new awareness was sparked by a key element of ‘doing the work on DEAI.’ The new term for me was “root cause analysis.” This morning, the Internet describes ‘root cause analysis’ as “define, address and manage the root causes of problem to prevent further issues.”

In light of the above, I believe that museums could encourage workers to engage in “self-care” until all concerned are “blue in the face” [as was the latter term used in my family under such circumstances], BUT, unless & until we begin to directly address the CAUSES of burnout, we simply condemn museum practitioners to a working life constantly plagued by this debilitating problem. “Self-care” does nothing to fix the main source of the problem.

I am changing my normal format in this post by putting relevant links to my sources directly in my text that I usually place only in my References Cited section. Under normal circumstances, I believe inline links are merely ‘click baiting’ diversions from a line of reasoning. Inline links scatter readers’ attention across the Internet & in my view reduce comprehension of the whole analysis. However, in this post I am presenting summary ideas from a wide variety of relevant commentaries that do not necessarily follow one from the other in any event. In recent years, I have gathered several sources on solutions to burnout beyond those cited to date on this platform that I feel should be introduced to my readers sooner than later.

Unless otherwise indicated, all bolded text in what follows should be read as [emphasis added] by your blogger to the cut & pasted indented quotations. I will underline emphasis in my own thinking. Inline editorial comments by your blogger will be shown [in square brackets].

Center for Future of Museums on Burnout:

Interestingly, the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) recently posted a blog by Elizabeth Merritt (2021) on “Combatting Burnout in the Museum Sector.” This resource will be reviewed as a jumping off place to evaluate various commentaries on burnout solutions specific to the museum industry & also those identified in sources dealing with the wider world of work. To date, I believe that the most of them are ‘barking up the wrong tree’ & failing miserably to actually deal with the root causes of burnout.

An April 2021 survey by the American Alliance of Museums (2021) “Measuring the Impact of COVID-19 on People in the Museum Field” found the following:

The pandemic is taking a grave toll on mental health and well-being [depending on age, rated on a low 1 to 10 strong impact scale as 6.6 to 7.8 & a key factor is]. . . burnout.

In the related AAM Center for the Future of Museums blog post “Combatting Burnout in the Museum Sector,” CFM’s founder & Director, Elizabeth Merritt (2021) states:

A particularly troubling finding from the survey: one-fifth of museum staff think it is unlikely they will be working in the museum sector in three years and cite burnout [as] a significant barrier to remaining in the field. https://www.aam-us.org/2021/05/05/combating-burnout-in-the-museum-sector/?utm_source=American+Alliance+of+Museums&utm_campaign=ac77c27952-Dispatches_May6_2021&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f06e575db6-ac77c27952-37245349 [Compare with Stimler (2020: 4-5); Merritt; (2019: 43, 44, 47); Morris (2019); Milldrum (2017); Ocello et al. (2017: 6, 8, 10, 12); Erdman et al. (2017 {especially in comments on burnout}).]

I. One of the first links in the above CFM post takes readers to a report by an important world-wide risk management & consulting firm reporting on its own “Workplace Burnout Survey.” Deloitte announces results that say 77% of the survey’s professional respondents [well-educated specialists similar to museum workers] report experiencing burnout at their current job & more than half of those refer to more than one occurrence (32% “a few times a week”). As argued here repeatedly in the past, Deloitte finds that employers are “missing the mark”:

Many companies may not be doing enough to minimize burnout . . . Companies should consider workplace culture, not just well-being programs. . . Burnout affects millennial retention [emphasis in original].

In a critically important book, Is Work Killing You? A Doctor’s Prescription for Treating Workplace Stress, M.D. Dr. David Posen (2013: 5) places the primary onus for changing the culture of work on employers. In this observer’s view therefore, crucially museum institutions need to take responsibility above & much beyond recommending ‘self-care’ to start addressing what is now a widely identified problem of burnout in the museum field.

In 2020, a survey report by a major Canadian health care provider emphasises the critical nature of the associated risk management problem & strongly advises paying serious attention to managing this burnout risk.

We have to get at this now, or else mental health claims at staggering levels are going to be the new norm  (Sanofi Canada 2020: 8, 9, 35).

The following resources also are linked in the CFM post including:

II. from the 21 April Harvard Business Review (HBR) article “Your Burnout Is Unique. Your Recovery Will Be, Too” that states [with an apparent wink following it]:

Research has definitively shown that burnout is an organizational problem, not an individual one.

Typical of a ‘business’ analysis, however, the HBR article immediately qualifies its ‘definitive’ point by placing the responsibility back on the worker [ ;-) ]. Indeed, the term “employer” appears only twice in this article.

While this by no means recuses employers from taking accountability for supporting the mental health of their employees, our recent research suggests [but NOT “definitively shown”?] that when you’re feeling burned out, the best person to help you recover may be yourself. . . real recovery comes when managers give employees the space to pursue their own restorative opportunities [ HBR’s ;-) ] https://hbr.org/2021/04/your-burnout-is-unique-your-recovery-will-be-too?utm_source=American+Alliance+of+Museums&utm_campaign=f701ac9322-Dispatches_April29_2021&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f06e575db6-f701ac9322-37245349  .

Again & again, focus is directed at “supporting mental health” of workers RATHER THAN ACTUALLY DEALING WITH THE CAUSES OF POOR MENTAL HEALTH AT WORK! The idea of “responsibility” of employers for causing burnout isn’t quite entirely absent:

. . . it can’t be stressed enough that the best cure for burnout is prevention. It’s on managers and organizations to protect their employees from becoming resource-depleted in the first place, and it’s also on the employer to provide the resources necessary to support employees’ mental health. That said, no matter how much effort an organization puts into combatting burnout, there will always be a need for employees to understand where their burnout is coming from and to develop strategies to help pull themselves out. [ HBR’s ;-) ]

This latter business journal article sentence qualifies the bolded text immediately above it with the ultimate big ‘wink’ at employers’ responsibility for burnout.

So, if HBR’s “burnout is an organizational problem, not an individual one” isn’t the primary source, from where exactly is all this burnout coming from? Its greatest source is management’s unrealistic & under- or totally unresourced expectations of workers. Elon Musk-like long hours are foolish, unkind, short-sighted, and counterproductive (Posen 2013: 297). We in the museum industry must challenge the apparent psychotic need of organisations to accomplish unrealistic goals that eventually morph into “everything with nothing” (Posen 2013: 58-9, 136).

Please recall too that the World Health Organisation (2019) now defines “burn-out” in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed (cf. Posen 2013: 102-113, passim). Burnout is workplace stress that has FAILED TO BE MANAGED! It is NOT a problem that has failed to be avoided or corrected by the workers themselves. After winking, HBR implies ‘burnout is the workers’ responsibility—if not ‘fault’—& disregards the mismanaged control by employers over both Marx’s ‘means’ & the ‘relations of production’ the latter of which refers to the labour force.

Who then has the real power & authority to deal with burnout here? Museum workers have little or no control over the unresourced expectations that management & other stakeholders unheedingly dump on our backs! When will “all” our ‘self-care’ advocates recognise that the vast majority of museum practitioners’ work intensification, stress, & burnout remains beyond the control of the individual worker!

The primary sources of stress at work arise from unending collegial, management, professional organisation, professional development, regulator, & public (cf. Posen 2013: 5, 38, 45, 321; Duxbury & Higgins 2012: 4-6; Green 2006: 57). This is to say nothing about occupational devotee professional development ‘handfuls of straws’ collected at every training event—purposeful expectation inflation.

The Harvard Business Review expects workers themselves to be proactive in assuming responsibility for their own burnout. How about employers proactively taking their own responsibility for solving burnout’s MAIN CAUSES?

II: In 2021, Gallup, Inc. has posted “How to Prevent Employee Burnout”:

Gallup’s breakthrough [sic] discovery in this research is that managers are largely responsible for the conditions most likely to cause or prevent burnout.

By all means, recognise the above problem, BUT then PLEASE DO SOMETHING about it! Solutions suggested by Gallup include:

    1. Make wellbeing part of your culture. [ ;-) ]
    2. Equip your managers to prevent burnout.
    3. Design your employee experience to reduce burnout. . . employees need to have clear, meaningful goals that are within their power to attain . . .

[Under Help Employees Fight Burnout:] Make managers responsible for addressing burnout. . .

[Under What Can Managers Do to Prevent Employee Burnout?] The root causes of burnout are within the span of control of managers. . . . too few managers make frequent employee check-ins and ongoing conversations a high priority. . . . employees believe their opinions are welcome and make a difference, . . .

Alter Company Systems, Structures and Workspace to Reduce Employee Stress. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/313160/preventing-and-dealing-with-employee-burnout.aspx?utm_source=American+Alliance+of+Museums&utm_campaign=f701ac9322-Dispatches_April29_2021&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f06e575db6-f701ac9322-37245349#

III. Mayo Clinic’s “Job burnout: How to spot it and take action” web page:

Evaluate your options. Discuss specific concerns with your supervisor. Maybe you can work together to change expectations or reach compromises or solutions. Try to set goals for what must get done and what can wait. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/burnout/art-20046642?utm_source=American+Alliance+of+Museums&utm_campaign=f701ac9322-Dispatches_April29_2021&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f06e575db6-f701ac9322-37245349

Again, most of Mayo’s advice is directed at what an ‘individual’ patient can do, NOT what the employer MUST ‘take action’ on. In lieu of Mayo Clinic’s medical advice, instead managers need to follow the Gallup Inc. recommendations above: make frequent employee check-ins and ongoing conversations a high priority. . . Alter Company Systems, Structures and Workspace to Reduce Employee Stress. Employers need to listen to your employees as well as to reorder those letters to make it uninterrupted silent attention.

IV. GEMM the Gender Equality in Museums Movement (2018) “5 Things You Need to Know About Burnout”:

Museum professionals are not immune to the pressures of the fast-paced, non-stop work culture that seems to have become the expected norm. [Full stop! Self-care tasks only in this piece. Nothing at all on any employer ‘knowing’ & ACTING TO FIX burnout! See this post’s corrected feature image above]. https://aam-us.us18.list-manage.com/track/click?u=2605bbc11e6752de338ce7e61&id=fe7aeb1d76&e=736ac5ad5d

V. Cleveland Clinic / Health Essentials / April 22, 2021 Women’s Health “How Women Who Do It All Can Combat Burnout: How to beat burnout and ask for help”:

Learn to live with the mess . . . Dr. Sullivan . . . awareness. If you realize you have burnout, you need to find ways to manage it, she says. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-women-who-do-it-all-can-combat-burnout/?utm_source=American+Alliance+of+Museums&utm_campaign=f701ac9322-Dispatches_April29_2021&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f06e575db6-f701ac9322-37245349

Thanks Cleveland. ‘Employees, YOU are responsible, so live with it!’ ;-) Advice like this is NOT at all helpful in addressing CAUSES rather than simply the SYMPTOMS of burnout! “All” in this & related “7 Red Flags” links apparently are directed at fixing your own burnout WITHOUT EVEN ONE reference to the primary role of the ‘employer’ or ‘manager’ in its causes—not even in the “Ask For Help” section. In your blogger’s view, this is egregious malpractice for a ‘health essentials’ resource on burnout.

Please refer instead to the valuable ‘treatments’ for stressed & burned out workers that employers MUST implement prescribed by a physician in the essential resource book Is Work Killing You? by M.D. Dr. David Posen (2013: 225-325). He identifies MANY practical solutions that employers need to implement.

Merritt (2021) continues with the following advice summary:

VI. The U. Washington research reinforces many other studies that identify the primary causes of burnout, which are generally agreed to be [Listing follows. Thankfully, the prime emphasis is on employer responsibility.]:

. . . [O]rganizations can address the root causes of burnout by:

  • Including staff in the process of identifying the causes of burnout in the workplace and crafting an organizational response . . .
  • Giving individuals control over their work, e.g., . . . (One notable example: . . . the Oakland Museum of Cailfornia held over 30 workshops . . .
  • Setting clear and reasonable expectations around jobs and assignments and working with employees to establish appropriate and realistic metrics of success. . .
  • Encouraging clear and consistent communication from leadership to staff . . .  (In the AAM impact survey, “communicating information and decisions” was most frequently cited by museum staff as an action by their employer that contributed to their feeling safe/valued/supported.)
  • Fostering work-life balance by setting healthy expectations regarding work hours and encouraging employees to use their vacation time.

With regard to the bullet immediately above, your blogger firmly believes that a simple ‘balance’ goal is NOT sufficient because “work creep” much too easily invades non-work time off at home or on vacation. This idea needs to be strengthened by implementing the strict “work/life SEPARATION” concept, e.g. Volkswagen shuts their employee cell phones down after working hours until it really is time to start work again.]

  • Training managers to practice supportive listening, foster teamwork, solicit and value employee input, and help employees focus on their core strengths.

The American Alliance of Museums’ tip sheet on “Combatting Burnout in the Museum Sector” (Last updated May 3, 2021) “shares resources to help combat burnout, from the creation of supportive work environments to the practice of self-care.” Most were introduced by Merritt (2021) above, but other useful ones are identified at https://www.aam-us.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Combatting-Burnout-in-the-Museum-Sector-FINAL.pdf :

A. Society for Human Resource Management, by Dori Meinert, July 19, 2017 July 19, 2017 “How to Prevent Employee Burnout: HR professionals share their advice for minimizing worker stress and boosting retention.” https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/0817/pages/how-to-prevent-employee-burnout.aspx

Some ideas in this source are important but, much ‘HR-speak’ here is ‘bromide:’ “3. a trite and unoriginal idea or remark, especially one intended to placate.” Those few sections actually directed at solving the CAUSES of burnout vs. piling more expectations on workers follow:

Adjust the Workload: Create Fair Workloads . . . “ensure that performance goals are communicated clearly to employees” . . . [BUT NOT ONE WORD ON ACTUALLY ADJUSTING GOALS OR WORKLOAD!]. . .

Monitor Scheduling . . . “It comes down to [managers] knowing when someone is struggling because he or she has been on the road too much or has had a rough patch dealing with demanding customers or repairs. . . open dialogue allows the managers to schedule the techs a quiet week or give them an extra day in the office to decompress.”

Don’t Add Stress “Include your team members in any decisions that are relevant to their work. Ignoring employees when making important choices relating to their assignments will negatively affect their commitment [to say nothing about their overall Quality of Working Lives!] and will certainly lead to burnout. And don’t create stress by adding new assignments when workers are in the middle of a project.”. . .

Train Managers: “Supervisors bear the responsibility for preventing employee burnout and improving retention because they control the employees’ workload. They create the climate or culture within their divisions.. . .

If HR professionals spot red flags, such as high turnover, . . . they have the responsibility to educate the leaders and provide them with the tools necessary to retain quality personnel.

However, note that the above’s AAM ‘tip sheet’ feature image showing a ‘group therapy session’ is NOT the most important thing in combatting or preventing burnout. The CRUCIAL consideration is taking DIRECT ACTION to REDUCE work intensification arising from unrealistic & unresourced expectations, resulting stress, burnout, & push-out from the field.

Other resources collected by the author include:

B. Ontario Museum Association. 2020. “Exhibiting Resilience: Empowering Ontarios community museums for strategic recovery,” p. 11 that includes the necessary role for government finders at https://members.museumsontario.ca/sites/default/files/Ontario-Museum-Association_Exhibiting%20Resilience_Empowering%20Ontario%E2%80%99s%20community%20museums%20for%20strategic%20recovery_White%20Paper_Online.pdf

Further to limited operating funding and its availability, other sources of funding for Ontario’s community museums are restricted to short-term project funding. . . to satisfy requirements of project grants contributes to mission drift, employee burnout, and added stress on operations. Without adequate, stable operating funding, the core functions of museums suffer.

C. The author who is not EMP & has not consulted it because I do not use the following platform, but for those who do use the F…k, see 1 October 2019  Chicago “CEMP Discussion – The Current State of Museum Employee Burnout Public. Hosted by Chicago Emerging Museum Professionals.” I am unsure if solutions are offered in the seemingly relevant one among the 5 agenda discussion topics “-Organizing and unionizing for better work conditions” at https://www.facebook.com/events/384825032214607/ :

“Other Duties as Assigned: The Current State of Museum Employee Burnout”

We invite you to join a discussion led by Jessica Weller, who will share her research on the current state of museum professional burnout and its implications on progress in the field. Her examination of the issue, based on responses from over 350 current and former museum professionals, serves as an important record of the challenges and frustrations faced by those passionate about working in museums.

Conclusion:

My investigation of the resources dealing with burnout I had collected in recent years clearly demonstrates to me that there is a significant preponderance of suggestions out there on how to treat the SYMPTOMS of burnout with great reliance on ‘self-care’ by workers. On the other hand, there is a noticeable DEARTH of attention being paid to deliberate working at the primary causes of preventable exhaustion in our industry!

In my considered opinion, we will never fix burnout in museums without first attending to actual ‘root causes’ & then taking direct action to address the reasons for museum worker burnout & then prioritise the most effective fixes! Employers, managers, & professional museum organisations need to STOP relying solely on workers doing “all” the ‘heavy lifting’ to combat burnout. Already overloaded & ‘burnt out to a crisp’ museum workers risk ‘breaking their backs’ due to the additional expectation that they will add ‘self-care’ to existing task overloads so they can continue working WITHOUT EMPLOYERS FIXING THE CAUSES OF THE PROBLEM! Most resources on burnout I have encountered focus almost exclusively on the responsibility of workers to take care of themselves rather than identifying the inescapable need for employers to STOP exploiting worker commitment to ‘excellence’ & ‘occupational devotion’ to their jobs.

Let’s get this straight. Apart from the ‘problem’ that “occupational devotee” workers’ love our work, we cannot fix the ENTIRE problem on our own! Museum employers & professional organisations MUST accept primary responsibility for the causes of museum practitioner overwork, stress, & burnout! We can no longer tolerate employer & professional organisation abdication of their culpability for the harm they cause to museum workers—UNLAWFULLY in most locations—by ignoring the primary cause of burnout—but simply saying ‘Yes, go ahead. You take good care of yourselves [ ;-) ] !

My content analysis of recent communications in the museum field shows that some more stakeholders now seem to have actually recognised that there is a burnout problem in our industry. HOWEVER, without serious & concerted deliberate ACTION taken by employers, professional museum organisations, & other stakeholders to address the primary CAUSES of burnout we continue to—by default or deliberate intent—exploit & abuse museum workers’ mental, physical, family, & social health. Without ACTION on the CAUSES of burnout, we knowingly exacerbate an egregious human resources CRISIS in our museums.

In closing, is it not therefore time right now to instigate “progressive change” in our industry & finally “challenge the immorality of inaction” (Janes & Sandell 2019: xxvii, 2, 18, passim [emphasis added]) on our issues with working conditions that cause reprehensible levels of burnout in the museum field?

In my view, IT IS NOW OR NEVER!

References Cited:

American Alliance of Museums. n.d. “Tip Sheet: Combatting Burnout in the Museum Sector” https://www.aam-us.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Combatting-Burnout-in-the-Museum-Sector-FINAL.pdf (accessed 19 May 2021).

Bailey, Dina. 2021 “Moving from Theory to Practice: Doing the Work of DEAI.” Texas Historical Commission webinar at https://www.thc.texas.gov/preserve/projects-and-programs/museum-services/webinars (accessed 24 May 2021) [free access to recording & PDF resources are provided under Recent Webinars link].

Duxbury, Linda and Higgins, Christopher. 2012. Revisiting Work-Life Issues in Canada: The 2012 National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada. Ottawa: Carleton University and the University of Western Ontario http://newsroom.carleton.ca/wp-content/files/2012-National-Work-Long-Summary.pdf (accessed 23 March 2021).

Erdman, Sarah et al. 2017. “Leaving the Museum Field.” Alliance Labs blog [American Alliance of Museums] posted 22 September https://www.aam-us.org/2017/09/22/leaving-the-museum-field/  (accessed 6 October 2020).

Green, Francis. 2006. Demanding Work: The Paradox of Job Quality in the Affluent Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Janes, Robert R. & Sandell, Richard eds. 2019. Museum Activism. London & New York: Routledge.

Merritt, Elizabeth. 2021. “Combatting Burnout in the Museum Sector” Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums web page posted on May 5, 2021 at https://www.aam-us.org/2021/05/05/combating-burnout-in-the-museum-sector/?utm_source=American+Alliance+of+Museums&utm_campaign=ac77c27952-Dispatches_May6_2021&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f06e575db6-ac77c27952-37245349 (accessed 8 May 2021).

Merritt, Elizabeth. 2019. TrendsWatch 2019. Washington: Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums https://www.aam-us.org/programs/center-for-the-future-of-museums/trendswatch-2019/ (accessed 18 May 2021).

Milldrum, Claire. 2017. “Why I Left The Museum Field: A Guest Post By Claire Milldrum.” ExhibiTricks: A Museum/Exhibit/Design Blog posted 11 September http://blog.orselli.net/2017/09/why-i-left-museum-field-guest-post-by.html (accessed 18 May 2021).

Morris, Martha. 2019. “Reinventing Museum Careers.” American Alliance of Museums Career Management web page blog posted on November 18, 2019 https://www.aam-us.org/2019/11/18/reinventing-museum-careers/ (accessed 18 May 2021).

Ocello, Claudia et al. 2017. “Why are Great Museum Workers Leaving the Field? Survey by Claudia Ocello, Dawn Salerno, Sarah Erdman, & Marieke Van Damme.” https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1_aHdxmG0Jdb4deqsjyhH9eoDUIPXz_EdkU-7gWuXDwE/edit?usp=sharing (accessed 19 May 2021).

Posen, David. 2013. Is Work Killing You? A Doctor’s Prescription for Treating Workplace Stress. Toronto: House of Anansi Press Inc.

Sanofi Canada. 2020. The Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey 2020. Laval, QC: Sanofi Canada at  https://www.sanofi.ca/-/media/Project/One-Sanofi-Web/Websites/North-America/Sanofi-CA/Home/en/Products-and-Resources/sanofi-canada-health-survey/sanofi-canada-healthcare-survey-2020-EN.pdf?la=en&hash=F1C763AA6B2F32C0BF2E623851FD05FD (accessed 1 April 2021).

Stimler, Neal. 2020. WHITE PAPER: GLAMs’ (GALLERIES, LIBRARIES, ARCHIVES, AND MUSEUMS) DYNAMIC SUSTAINABILITY PLATFORM STRATEGY. SAN DIEGO, CA: Balboa Park Online Collaborative (BPOC), BPOC.ORG posted October 6, 2020 at DOI: https://doi.org/10.47786/TLOU3193 (accessed 29 March 2021).

World Health Organization. 2019. ‘Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11)’ web page posted 28 May 2019 at https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases (accessed 27 November 2020).