‘Coordinated Sector Response’ Necessary to Address Museum ‘Staff Burnout & Stress’

As nonprofit organisations, museum institutions—and their workers—continue to be damaged by escalating stresses that create practitioner burnout. Newly published research is presented to urge action on solving what now is a “RELENTLESS HR CRISIS” in the museum sector.

According to the Canadian government & the Canadian Museums Association (Canada 2019; Vitali 2020), there are some 2,700 nonprofit museums & related heritage institutions in Canada. A more recent study of the broader nonprofit sector in Ontario completed this year is relevant here:

In May 2022, the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) and l’Assemblée de la Francophonie de l’Ontario engaged nonprofit Community Researchers to conduct a bilingual survey of Ontario nonprofit organizations. The focus was on the experiences of nonprofits between April 2021 and March 2022, with regards to their financial health, staffing and volunteers, and general operations (Nonprofit Network & l’Assemblée de la Francophonie de l’Ontario {hereinafter ONN & l’AFO} 2022) [emphasis added].

In relation to my earlier posts here on the subject of burnout, this recent Ontario report emphasises the following using red letter capitalised headings:

NONPROFITS ARE EXPERIENCING A RELENTLESS HR CRISIS

Also,

STAFF BURNOUT AND STRESS, SKILLS

SHORTAGE, WAGE DISPARITY, AND NONCOMPETITIVE

COMPENSATION PACKAGES ARE

TOP FACTORS AFFECTING ORGANIZATIONS (Ontario Nonprofit Network & Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario 2022: 6, 8).

This is not the first time your blogger has remarked on red letter caps emphasis—if not ‘screaming’—directed at museum workers. It was published in an American Alliance of Museums’ career advice book chapter & also presented as an article in its industry-leading journal Museum using red letter capitals subheadings, one of which stated “DO YOUR JOB, AND THEN SOME” (Peña 2012). In more than thirty-nine (39) years of reading this bi-monthly periodical, I cannot recall ever seeing any other such red capital letter ‘screaming’ at museum workers. See Thistle (2013) & Thistle (2017) for critical analysis of the damaging consequences from this entirely unresourced expectation red letter caps “asseveration” [one meaning of which is “a declaration that is made as if no supporting evidence were necessary”].

The ONN & l’AFO report “STATE OF THE SECTOR DURING UNCERTAIN TIMES” details the following:

ABILITY TO RECRUIT AND RETAIN STAFF

Nonprofits in Ontario are in the midst of confronting fallout from the pandemic – unprecedented demand for services, a domino effect of record breaking inflation, deepening financial precarity, and a relentless HR and volunteer crisis. It’s clear that current solutions are not working; the sector’s health is worsening (ONN & l’AFO 2022: 8) [emphasis added].

Moreover,

Multiple and repeated efforts to recruit for current openings are not working, retaining current staff is a concern as they are burnt out from having to ‘pick up the slack’ when other staff leave, service levels and quality are suffering (ONN & l’AFO 2022: 7) [quotes following are on same page. Emphasis added].

We have recently announced that we have to dissolve due to volunteer burnout and lack of funds to hire staff.

Those left in the sector are burning out with the increase in demand for services and high acute case workloads amidst decreasing resources and ongoing staff turnover.

Two-thirds of organizations indicated that both staff burnout and stress and a skills shortage (lack of candidates with skill sets sought) are the main factors affecting their organization’s ability to recruit and retain staff. Wage disparity and non-competitive compensation . . . key reasons identified by more than half of organizations, while a third also said lack of funding is a barrier (ONN & l’AFO 2022) [emphasis added].

Do museum workers recognise any of the above reporting in their own nonprofit institutions & working lives? Your blogger wagers that you do!

Solutions:

As argued here repeatedly for the past ten (10) years, the Ontario Nonprofit Network & Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario study identifies an “urgent need” for action by asserting:

There is an urgent need for a coordinated sector response and long-term public policy solutions to not only mitigate challenges nonprofits are facing now, but also to prepare us for future emergencies. Without action, the erosion of Ontario’s critical social infrastructure will only speed up (ONN & l’AFO 2022: 1) [emphasis added].

Conclusion:

As fully-documented in this blog over the past decade, it is abundantly clear that, “Houston, we have a problem”—a serious one!—for the maintenance of our practitioner well-being. This is to say nothing about the ultimate sustainability of our heritage preservation & interpretation industry!

For evidence of this dilemma in the museum field specifically, see the annotated Index of my blog found via the last item on the page header above linking 3 posts with the term “burnout” in their titles that I believe are worthy of reader attention. In addition, there is a ‘tag’ for “managing burnout.” Also see a total of 37 hits resulting from entering that term in the search field at the top right of every page on this blog site.

Clearly, the museum industry is burning out our workers—to a crisp! Recognition of this fact by all stakeholders must be the first step in urgent ACTIONS to fix this problem. Do we need any more evidence of the damage to museum workers Quality of Working Lives before developing & implementing effective solutions to our widely recognised HR crisis?

This blog’s content contradicts the current seemingly sole emphasis on ‘self-care’ solutions being recommended—i.e. essentially unheedingly dumped onto—for museum practitioner workloads (Thistle 2022). Among the more than 80 posts here, there also are 55 hits from a Boolean search of this blog site for “solve AND solution”.

In closing, please attend to a partial list of necessary burnout solutions presented in this blog, e.g.:

  • immediate removal & packing away for good our standard issue rose-coloured  glasses
  • brutal honesty AND awareness of real world conditions in matching strategic & annual plans to the resources actually available to accomplish them
  • abandon forever the ‘do more with less’ solution to every shortfall of time, tools, & resources that removes responsibility from institutional managment & places it on the backs of already overloaded workers
  • follow museum ethics to protect workers [i]
  • intentionally manage working conditions to avoid exploiting workers
  • STOP relying on ‘occupational devotee’ museum workers’ love for our jobs & commitment to excellence to accomplish inadequately resourced objectives
  • actually adhere to labour legislation
  • AND END the common museum ‘blind eye’ practice of overlooking working illegally for longer than employees are paid.

As documented on this blog, many more necessary corrective actions & attitude alterations needed to reduce museum worker burnout are provided. ‘Fill your boots’.

References Cited:

American Association of Museums. 2000. Code of Ethics for Museums. Washington: American Association of Museums [unpagenated version available at http://www.aam-us.org/resources/ethics-standards-and-best-practices/code-of-ethics (accessed 7 November 2022).

Canada. 2019. “Government of Canada Survey of Heritage Institutions: 2019” web page at https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/corporate/publications/general-publications/about-survey-heritage-institutions/2019-report.html (accessed 7 November).

Canadian Museums Association. 2006. Ethics Guidelines. Ottawa: Canadian Museums Association https://www.museums.ca/uploaded/web/docs/ethicsguidelines.pdf (accessed 7 October 2022).

International Council of Museums. 2004. ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums. Paris: International Council of Museums [in PDF format. Very sadly, the most recent edition dated 2017 has substantially limited its call for protection of workers at] https://icom.museum/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/ICOM-code-En-web.pdf (accessed 7 November 2022).

Ontario Nonprofit Network & Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario. 2022. STATE OF THE SECTOR DURING UNCERTAIN TIMES. Toronto & Ottawa: Ontario Nonprofit Network & Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario https://theonn.ca/publication/2022-state-of-the-sector-policy-report/ (accessed 13 October 2022).

Peña, Elizabeth S. 2012. “Leadership at All Levels.” Museum 91 (3): 44-9.

Thistle, Paul C. 2022. “Is ‘Self-Care’ Sufficient to Solve Poor Quality of Working Lives in Museums?” Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers blog posted March 9, 2022 at https://solvetasksaturation.wordpress.com/2022/03/09/is-self-care-sufficient-to-solve-poor-quality-of-working-lives-in-museums/ (accessed 7 November 2022).

Thistle 2017. “Museum Workers Leaving the Field: Survey Results & Solutions.” Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers blog posted November 14, 2017 at https://solvetasksaturation.wordpress.com/2017/11/14/museum-workers-leaving-the-field-survey-results-solutions/ (accessed 7 November 2022).

Thistle, Paul C. 2013. ‘Expectation Inflation: “DO YOUR JOB, AND THEN SOME.”’ Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers blog posted January 14, 2013 at https://solvetasksaturation.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/expectation-inflation-do-your-job-and-then-some/ (accessed 7 November 2022).

Vitali, Vanda. 2020. “Written brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage in support of its Study of the Challenges to Art, Culture, Heritage and Sport Sectors caused by COVID-19.” Ottawa: Canadian Museums Association web page posted December 16, 2020 at https://www.museums.ca/site/aboutthecma/newsandannouncements/december162020 (accessed 7 November 2022).

[i] According to the International Council of Museums (2004: 1) Code of Ethics First principle, “museums have a primary responsibility to protect and promote heritage as well as the human, physical and financial resources made available for that purpose” [emphasis added] (cf. Canadian Museums Association 2006: 10; American Association of Museums 2000: 2). It can well be argued that this principle extends beyond just protection from physical injury to include the rapidly growing overwork and stress-related outcomes of poor working conditions in the museum industry resulting from debilitating overwork caused by the unrealistic & unresourced exploitative expectations of museum managers, visitors, regulators, & other stakeholdersincluding museum workers still wearing our rose-coloured glasses!

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