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It is about time!  This is my first response to the publication of recent research addressing museum worker well-being.  The new work moves into rather rare territory of thought in the contemporary museum world.  Indeed, the last relevant research I have been able to uncover that seriously examines museum worker quality of working life issues was carried out more than a dozen years ago (Dubé 2001).  This recent work is long overdue and much needed.

Author of the new study Andrea N. Michelbach (2013) completed her M.A. thesis research on the well-being of museum workers in Seattle museums.  The study focusses on the psychology of work-related emotions and happiness measured by using The Happiness Initiative’s well-being survey.1

Michelbach (2013:15-16) defines well-being as a relative measure of “the experience of positive emotions” vs. “negative emotions” (the key being frequency rather than intensity) and “an overall evaluation of an individual’s life in all its aspects.” Michelbach states, “For the sake of this research, the framework of positive and negative emotions and experiences has been used, with the intent to identify trends occurring among each.”  In their own terms, survey respondents describe well-being as physical, mental, and emotional health, life satisfaction, feelings of peace and enjoyment of life, and work/life balance (Michelbach 2013: 53).2

Research Findings:

In summarising her findings, Michelbach (2013: 3) reports that “participants mostly had positive well-being, with purpose-based tasks, free-choice working, and social cohesion particularly influencing their experiences.”  Significantly, the study determined that museum worker respondents rank above those in the large pre-existing Happiness Initiative survey sample on all but one of 11 measures of well-being (Michelbach 2013: 3, 34-35).

In the context of this blog on solving task saturation, it is notable that Michelbach’s museum worker sample ranked markedly lower in the category of “time balance.”3 For example, “over half the study respondents agreed or strongly agreed that their life has been too rushed…, and two thirds disagreed or strongly disagreed that they had enough spare time…” (Michelbach 2013: 42).

Comments from a supplementary questionnaire and a diary study carried out by respondents confirmed that problems with time balance and work/life conflict create problems such as a disappointing lack of opportunity to think strategically, achieve personal goals of excellence [one also should add professional museum organisation, employer, visitor, and funder expectations], and opportunity to repair damage to family time brought on by work over-commitment (Michelbach 2013:60-61). These are significant and top-of-mind problems in the lives of museum workers represented in the study. Michelbach (2013: 68) posits that “Museum professionals may not be taking or have the time to reflect on the nuances of what contributes to or detracts from their well-being in the workplace.” 4 In essence, they become too busy to look out after their own interests—in fact becoming “willing slaves” to their work (Thistle 2010:3; Bunting 2004: xix, 7, passim).

If nothing else, these findings placing museum workers measurably below the general level of satisfaction with time balance surely places additional emphasis on the need for all stakeholders to address this issue.

One questionnaire respondent made a comment that speaks to the significance of the time balance problem for museum workers: “regardless of your job within a museum, we all serve people. If we’re not in a good state to perform our jobs, we aren’t giving back to the communities we serve as best as we can” (Michelbach 2013: 54; cf. Gurian 1995: 20-15).

Another respondent stated “In order to inspire others (which is the mission of our institution), we need to be inspired ourselves. Without being well, we are not equipped to be inspired” Michelbach 2013: 55). Beyond this important assertion, I would argue that time poor museum workers eventually become unable to maintain the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, family, or social health required to be able to sustain their own well-being and to perform their jobs effectively (cf. Posen 2013: 5, 10, 12, 15-16, passim).

Time Balance Solutions Identified:

Although Michelbach’s research was not primarily aimed at identifying solutions to the task saturation and time balance difficulties faced by many museum workers, some potential avenues of approach are mentioned.  For example, “When asked what one change they would make to their current work life to improve their personal well-being, participants’ responses covered a range of areas, including ones related to work/life conflicts, current workloads and job tasks, and interpersonal issues” (Michelbach 2013: 54-55).

Some respondents reported their actions to assert control over time balance difficulties including setting boundaries on checking work e-mails at home and identifying the need to take all holiday time due to them (Michelbach 2013:60-61). See my related previous blog postings Drowining! IT Time Sink Managed With Email Charter and Smartphones & Unpaid Overtime.

Michelbach (2013: 67; cf. 52) recommends various approaches such as:

. . . setting stricter personal boundaries or seeking regular opportunities for renewal in the workplace. For supervisors, this may also mean being careful about over-bureaucratizing the museum workplace. Stebbins (2004) notes that this can be particularly detrimental to occupational devotees and can further increase the risk of burnout.  In this research, for example, the effects of bureaucratization can be seen in participants’ recognition that meetings can be particularly negative experiences.”

As Dr. David Posen (2013: 191, 321) asserts in his book Is Work Killing You?, much of the work overload and stress problem has been created by employers.

Concerning unproductive meetings, from this reviewer’s perspective, the events per se are not necessarily the problem.  Rather, it is the unproductive purpose planning, failures in effective lead-up communication, unnecessary attendance requirements, insufficient preparation by all concerned, inadequate structure, lax control during the meeting, lack of prior follow-up on previously agreed upon tasks, no formal recorded decisions, and unstated or unclear future goals that make many meetings so unsatisfying and such atrocious wastes of time.  In my view, worker frustrations with meetings are in fact eminently solvable with committed attention to the basic productivity fundamentals noted above.

With respect to the main focus of her research, Michelbach (2013: 71-72) recommends the need to attend to the significant “well-being commodities:” 1) time (e.g. negotiation of meeting free days), 2) agency (e.g. the ability to arrange work day tasks to suit personal energy levels and to give staff more control and choice about how work is accomplished), essentially freeing and trusting the individual committed worker to have broader limitations in deciding on how to “get the work out,” and 3) purpose (e.g. allow worker participation in setting the future goals and course of the work).

Michelbach also suggests there is a need to address the ethical question of whether or not museum employers exploit workers because of their love for their job (cf. Thistle 2010: 16).

“The ethical obligation for professionals and the field is to not take advantage of museum professionals’ positive work-related well-being, for instance, their feelings of fulfillment. . .To ensure this is avoided, organizations and professionals need to set reasonable limits to what museum professionals can do and how. Again, the long-term view may help concerned parties do this. (Michelbach 2013: 68).

In this reviewer’s opinion, the field of ethics should be instructive as a foundation for solutions (Thistle forthcoming 2014). The key to avoiding unethical exploitation of museum workers is to focus on matching rising expectations with the available resources.  I believe it is long past time to recognise that museum workers are already fully loaded camels working in a rain of straws (read rising  and altogether new expectations).  We must respond to the ever-increasing demands on museum institutions and individual paid and volunteer workers in consideration of the resources actually available to carry out goals to the level of excellence desired.  As Janes (2009: 156) reminds us, deciding what not to do is a crucial part of rational planning.  Of course, William Ury (2007) helps workers learn how to say No to unreasonable demands. See my earlier post on Ury’s best book for fully loaded camels.

Additional research also is proposed by Michelbach (2013:69) because “there is a need to better understand how the well-being of museum professionals might impact the effectiveness of museums and their relationships with the pubic they serve” (cf. Posen 2013: 45ff; Thistle 2011: 2).  Among such avenues of research, Michelbach (2013: 7) and respondents make excellent recommendations on the need for future study on: i) former museum professionals who have left the field, ii) targeted analysis of individual workplace situations, and iii) self-analysis of individual museum workers own well-being and quality of working lives.  In regard to the latter point, one research project respondent in my opinion wisely wrote “Museum workers are passionate about their organization – but also need to strive to be passionate about their own wellbeing and health” (Michelbach 2013: 67).

Such individual action also must be combined with collective action.  Michelbach (2013:70) suggests the need for collegial sharing of information on various issues in the quality of museum working lives.  From this reviewer’s perspective, museum workers need to agitate cooperatively, demand that their human and legal rights against work overload exploitation be respected, that rising expectations must be managed in light of real world flat lined or declining resources, and take such actions as passing resolutions at professional museum organisation annual meetings to make the chronic lack of time balance a higher priority issue in the field (cf. Thistle 2011: 6, passim).


In her Final Thoughts, Michelbach (2013: 73) writes:

Near the beginning of Museums in a Troubled World (2009[: 15]), Robert Janes notes that “museums and galleries are potentially the most free and creative work environments on the planet. . .Janes couches this comment as a personal assumption, but it may hold the key to cultivating the well-being of museum professionals. . . Janes also urges professionals to seize opportunities that foster both their own well-being and the well-being of their organizations. . .

Once the field knows more about the well-being of museum professionals, it can hopefully continue to imagine, and seize, the potential for greater levels of personal and organizational well-being within the workplace. As Stephen E. Weil (1990[: 169]) reminds us:

Work is a human arrangement that we as human beings can analyze, discuss, argue over, or agree about and—if we so will it—remodel to better suit our purposes. The need is for a construct that would initially let us think about work—and ultimately enable us to make rules about work—in ways that might be far richer and more satisfying [than] those available to us today [emphasis added by reviewer].

Commendably, Andrea Michelbach (2013: 3, 11) began with a simple purpose: “to start conversations within the museum field about the well-being of museum professionals and to identify areas for further research.”

Having launched this important discussion with her “Are Museum Professionals Happy?” thesis, Andrea now has arranged for further conversation on this issue to take place at the “Happiness, Sustainability and the Museum Professional” session during the American Alliance of Museums Annual Conference in Seattle, WA scheduled for 18-21 May 2014.6

Session participants will be provided with the means and opportunity to begin mapping out a course of practical action steps to improve their own well-being to permit getting to a place where meaningful, sustainable, and innovative work is possible for task saturated museum workers again.

Followers of this blog hopefully should understand that task saturation and stressful time balance problems that make workers less than happy are solvable—even in the Post-Modern world that leads so many museum “occupational devotees” to become time poor “willing slaves” to our work (Bunting 2004).  Let’s all engage in this conversation so we can begin to take action on effective solutions.


  1. See The Happiness Initiative About Us at http://www.happycounts.org/about/ ; Survey Methodology at http://www.happycounts.org/survey-methodology/ ; and the Survey instrument at http://www.happycounts.org/begin-survey/ (accessed 9 December 2013).
  2. Personally, I would prefer focussing on another of the various definitions of well-being provided by Michelbach (2013:15): “the balance point between an individual’s resource pool and the challenges faced which include psychological, social, and physical aspects.”  I recognise the limits of the research project, but I believe that a comprehensive perspective above and beyond the subjective emotions focussed on happiness is necessary.  Eventually, museum work also needs to be analysed using a full range of objective material conditions of the situation, e.g. the rising expectations of employers in the era of staff cutbacks (Posen 2013: 55, 57) and the demands of other social roles requiring high energy levels such as caregiver identified by Duxbury & Higgins (2012: 6).  Indeed, family is only one of the roles outside employment assumed by modern workers.  Duxbury & Higgins report that modern workers often have a significant number of other commitments beyond expectations at work. Half of respondents occupy between 4 and 6 roles other than caregiver–between 2 and 4 of which have “high energy” requirements.
  3. Among the 11 well-being domains measured, Michelbach (2013: 77) explains: “Time Balance, including balance of time between leisure and work, and enjoyment of life activities.”  There is an extensive literature on the related subject of work-life balance, e.g. Burke (2006).  Also see Murphy (2000) on “task saturation.”
  4. Museum workers apparently are measurably happier than the general large survey sample on all measures with the significant exception of time balance where they rank significantly lower.  It can well be argued that the reason for the difference is that the museum field is populated by “occupational devotees.”  Stebbins (2004: ix, 10, 17, 76) defines the term: “Occupational devotion is a strong and positive attachment to a form of self-enhancing work, where the sense of achievement is high and the core activity (set of tasks) is endowed with such intense appeal that the line between the work and leisure is virtually erased.”  Museum workers are classed among a distinctive group including library and archive workers who devote themselves to socially important work. It is found to be highly challenging, intensely absorbing, and immensely appealing, engendering high value commitment, and rewards of self-actualisation.  Such workers demonstrate a “profound love for the job” and have deeply felt motives that are intrinsic to the work.
  5. Gurian (1995: 20-21) makes the following related ethical argument: “Even if impaired work performance were not the outcome of unabated staff stress, I would proffer another, and perhaps better reason to pay attention to staff needs.  If our work in museums is evidence of our collective commitment to enhancing the quality of life for society, then we must be attentive to maintaining a high quality of life for our work community.”
  6. Conference session details will be available by mid-January 2014 on the AAM web site http://www.aam-us.org/events/annual-meeting?utm_source=MagnetMail&utm_content=Annual%20Meeting%20%26%20MuseumExpo%20Registration%20Confirmation

Excerpt from the Session Description by Andrea Michelbach: “Within the field, it is widely acknowledged that museums can have a positive influence on public well-being — even being “happiness engineers,” as Jane McGonigal says. As museum professionals, we want to — and believe we can — make the world a better place through our institutions.

But at the same time, we’re experiencing a “more, faster, better” climate like we never have before. We find ourselves sometimes scrambling to adjust practices to meet the rapid pace of change – and we’re losing people, or burning them out, along the way. How do we continue to strive for innovation, while also maintaining our sanity and the sustainability of our workforce?

Panelists from this session take a moment to reorient our external focus to our inward well-being. How does the happiness of the people who staff museums influence our institutions’ effectiveness and relationships with the public we serve? How does happiness fuel innovation?”

 References Cited:

Bunting, Madeline. 2004. Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives. London: HarperCollins Publishers.

Burke, Ronald J. ed. 2006. Research Companion to Working Time and Work Addiction. Cheltenham, UK & Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar.

Dubé, Philippe. 2001. “View: Towards a New Generic Model for Small and Medium-Sized Museums.” Muse XIX (1): 8-9. Also see the related 2002 research report in French at http://www.erudit.org/revue/ethno/2002/v24/n2/006644ar.html (accessed 9 December 2013).

Duxbury, Linda & 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 10 November 2012).

Gurian, Elaine Heuman ed. 1995. Institutional Trauma: Major Change in Museums and Its Effect on Staff. Washington: American Association of Museums.

Janes, Robert R. 2009. Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance, or Collapse? New York: Routledge.

Michelbach, Andrea N. 2013. “Are Museum Professionals Happy? Exploring Well-Being Across Domains and in the Workplace.” A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts. Seattle: University of Washington. https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/bitstream/handle/1773/23533/Michelbach_washington_0250O_11485.pdf?sequence=1 (accessed 20 December 2013).

Murphy, James D. 2008. “How To Overcome Task Saturation for Flawless Execution.” Mattawan, MI: Peter DeHaan Publishing Inc. www.myarticlearchive.com/articles/5/071.htm  (accessed 11 December 2013).

_____ 2000. Business is Combat: A Fighter Pilot’s Guide to Winning in Modern Business Warfare, New York: Regan Books.

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

Stebbins, R.A. 2004. Between Work and Leisure: The Common Ground of Two Separate Worlds. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Thistle, Paul C. forthcoming. “Museum Worker Overload & the Ethics of Exploitation” to be presented at the Canadian Museum Association Annual Conference in Toronto, ON, 9 April 2014.

_____ 2011. “Problem Statement: Museum Workers as Fully Loaded Camels Standing in a Rain of Straws.” Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers Blog https://solvetasksaturation.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/problem-statement.pdf (accessed 16 December 2013).

_____ 2010. “Fully Loaded Camels: Addressing Museum Worker Task Saturation.” Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers Blog https://solvetasksaturation.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/thistle-fully-loaded-camels.pdf  (accessed 24 December 2013).

Ury, William. 2007. The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes. New York: Bantam Dell.

Weil, Stephen E. 1990. “A Meditation on Work.” In Stephen E. Weil. Rethinking the Museum and Other Meditations (pp. 167-169). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.