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The following post contains excerpts from a full 8,000 word article submitted, but not accepted by the American Alliance of Museums’ Leadership & Management Network on-line Journal LMN Online Press. [See my responses to 3 anonymous reviewers who recommended against publishing my proposed article in the Comment at the very bottom of this post.]  Here, the first section of the original submission has been shortened substantially to allow this post to focus on the main purpose of this blog, i.e. solving the rising expectations, limited resources, resulting time poverty, task saturation, stress, & burnout problem facing many museum workers. The entire original article submission has been revised and posted on the this blog’s Resources Page https://solvetasksaturation.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/thistle-managing-expectations-stress.pdf .


This is an attempt to apply critical museology to the quality of working lives in museums. It is aimed at raising the profile of constantly rising—but unresourced–expectations in our field that produce task saturation leading to dangerous and unsustainable levels of stress among museum workers. Our ultimate ability to continue achieving excellence and meeting performance objectives depends on how well we can create solutions to deal with these dilemmas. The first issue of  LMN Online Press (August 2014) is analysed to demonstrate the prevalence of the problem among museum leaders. I apply the general literature on the sociology and psychology of work to analyse the situation of constantly rising expectation in the museum field in a context where resources are static or declining. Ways and means for museum leaders to manage rising expectations and stress on museum workers are addressed in order to challenge the prevailing “more with less” culture that often morphs into what is essentially a psychotic need to accomplish “everything with nothing” (Posen 2013, 5; cf. McIsaac et al. 2013, 5).


Review and analysis of the first American Alliance of Museums Leadership and Management Network’s  LMN Online Press (August 2014) (LMNOP) issue will be instructive as I begin to make my case.

It must be said at the outset that LMNOP exhibits a clear excellence-driven enthusiasm that is typical in the museum field. I do want to challenge readers, however, to reflect on each offering in the August 2014 issue from the perspective of the increased—yet unresourced—expectations represented.

  • Outgoing Chair Casey Steadman: reflects on “a time of substantial change”
    • Change is a stressor for workers including those museum practitioners operating LMN (Schultz and Schultz 2006, 13, 367; cf. Merritt 2005, 64; Gurian 1995, 17-18[i]; Krahn and Garden 1994: 191, 195, 202).
  • Incoming Chair Charlotte Montgomery: plans “restructuring,” “revamping,” “expand Board diversity,” “taking content to regional meetings,” and states “None of these thingscan be accomplished without the hard work and dedication of the Board and LMN membership.”
    • Ditto comment on above bullet. A strong case can be made that both paid and volunteer museum work often is characterized by ‘task saturation’ defined as the lack of time, tools, and resources to achieve objectives (Murphy 2008) [I would add the word chronic to this definition because of continually rising unresourced expectations (Thistle 2013a, 22)], ‘time poverty’ (Schor 1991, xx, 5; 2003, 6-11), and the resulting stress (Posen 2013, 2 passim).
  • Bonnie Styles: despite welcome—but extremely rare—50% time reduction and 75% shorter self-study in the AAM accreditation process, mentions that now the “new [emphasis added] Core Documents Verification program must be completed first.”
    • Mountains of new standards continue to erupt in the museum field absent new resources to enable already overloaded museum workers to implement them (Thistle 2011, 10). AAM Museum News editors ran an article on new standards by AAM director of Museum Advancement and Excellence Elizabeth E. Merritt (2005) with the title “Running in Place, But Faster: New Changes in Museum Standards.” The piece was sub-headed by the quote from Lewis Carol’s Through the Looking Glass: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Merritt admitted its applicability in the museum field—but sadly did not analyze its relevance to the impact of the continual ramping up of museum standards on museum practitioners. In my view, whether intentional or not, the quote from Carol serves as an unaddressed critique of the impact of standards on museum work in Merritt’s article. Why use the quote and related image if it is not addressed substantively in the article and simply a throw-away line?

It must be said here that nothing I argue is against the ultimate value of museum standards or other pursuits of excellence in the museum field. I do, however, maintain that the impact of standards and other expectation inflation in our field—absent sufficient resources to implement them—must not be allowed to escape critical museology as defined by Ross (2004, 84). Also see my comment on the bullet below.

. . . [see the additional examples from LMNOP in the full article on this blog’s Resources page at https://solvetasksaturation.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/thistle-managing-expectations-stress.pdf ]

I wish to emphasize again here that nothing I have presented above is meant as a criticism of any of the dedicated museum professionals who contributed to the first issue of LMNOP nor about the ultimate ideal value of anything recommended to the readers. They all represent the exemplary values and the commendable drive for excellence in our field. This blog post is simply to attempt to look critically at continually rising—yet unresourced—expectations in museum leader thinking. Museum managers need to become aware of the museum worker task saturation problem and to start  to consider implementing potential solutions to, or at least ways and means of ameliorating, rising expectations, task saturation, stress, and burnout among our paid staff & volunteers.

Nevertheless, after reading the first issue of LMNOP and given my own work experience over 26+ years in the museum field as well as my thinking and writing about task saturation among museum workers since 1990 (Thistle 1990), my first question is: From where have and where will all of the resources—especially time and personal energies—necessary to meet the rising expectations noted above come? For the intended audience of LMNOP I ask this important question in light of author of the challenging book Museums in a Troubled World Robert Janes’ (2009, 64) observation that many museum directors already are “hopelessly overburdened.” Beyond the overload suffered by museum leaders, Dubé (2001, 8-9) carried out one of the extremely rare formal research studies on museum working conditions. He and discovered a “general state of fatigue” and significant levels of “burnout” at all levels of museum work in Quebec. Recent research by Museums Journal in the UK reports a majority (65%) of museum professionals say that greater demands on them as a result of funding cuts, has created increased stress among workers in this field (Sullivan 2015).

. . . [see the critical analysis of the role of management in this problem outlined in the full article sections omitted here located on this blog’s Resources Page at https://solvetasksaturation.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/thistle-managing-expectations-stress.pdf ]


Among the extensive expectations for museum workers propounded by the Canadian Museums Association are: possession of skills that analyse, create alternatives, act to minimise problems, and value original approaches to problem-solving (Canadian Museums Human Resource Planning Committee 1997, 15). Surely, these skills can be applied to solving—or at least ameliorating—our expectation inflation and task saturation dilemmas in museum workplaces.

Based on the literature dealing with the general sociology of work and the rather rare relevant museum-specific research on this question, recommendations on how the problem can be addressed follow:

Organization-Wide Solutions:

  • The first step toward any solutions to the dilemma of increasing—yet unresourced—expectations, task saturation, long hours, overwork, stress, and burnout in the museum field is to acknowledge that the problem exists (cf. Posen 2013, 321). “The workload, deadlines, pressures to perform, long hours, and all the other workplace stressors will never be addressed unless we acknowledge that there is a problem and take it seriously” (Posen 2013, 68). In my work trying to raise the profile of this issue, I have encountered some denial and resistance from the leadership in the museum field (cf. Posen 2013, 73, 141). From their research, Higgins et al. (2007, 35, 103) report management’s “strong resistance” to dealing directly with the problem. In my view it is long past time to apply critical museology to the situation and to begin addressing it vigorously (Thistle 2013, 22; 2011, 16 passim).
  • Organizations need to take the responsibility for action on reducing the impact of ‘more, better, faster’ culture on their workers (Duxbury and Higgins 2012b, 4-6). The problem is systemic. “Self-care” by the employee is not sufficient to avoid the negative consequences to the individual workers or the organization’s productivity. It is the organization that is the primary source of the pressures to overwork” (Posen 2013, 5, 49; cf. Higgins et al. 2007, 160). Therefore, it is museum organisations that need to implement coping mechanisms such as alternate work arrangements, flexibility, hours, supportive supervisors, above and beyond family-centric policies (Higgins 2007, 31).
  • We must stop demanding increased volume and velocity of work (Posen 2013, 321) to meet many laudable objectives for which museums typically possess insufficient human resources. Dr. Posen adds “abuse” by supervisors to his list of the three most important causes of stress at work (Posen 2013, 247). Obviously, museum managers must avoid abusing workers or exploiting their love for the job (Posen 2013, 5-6).
  • We will need to work hard at changing the culture of unrealistic expectations and overwork in museum workplaces by significantly reducing unresourced expectations as well as the pace and undue pressures to work long hours. Long hours are foolish, unkind, short-sighted, and counterproductive (Posen 2013, 297). A comprehensive review of labour standards in Canada has recommended the 8-hour work day be maintained and that no worker should “be subject to coercion, or . . . be required to work so many hours that he or she is effectively denied a personal or civic life” (Arthurs 2006,x, xiii).
  • If we add one task to a workload, we should subtract a similar amount of work (Posen 2013, 296). This is especially necessary for fully loaded camels in the museum field so as to avoid the risk of eventually breaking their backs with just “one more straw.”
  • The above approach would be wise museum management because prevention of stress and burnout is more cost-efficient than treatment of stress-related physical and mental illness (Posen 2013, 292). At the 2014 Canadian Museums Association conference trade show, an exhibitor from the firm that handles the Association’s insurance program told me that mental illness claims due to stress now have gained substantially on physical injury claims. Research in the health insurance field from 2009 reports 51% of respondents “experienced higher levels of stress than acceptable level” (Group Health Global Partners 2009). The Sanofi-avena Healthcare Survey 2011 found that 35% of respondents agree that “workplace stress has been so overwhelming that it has made them physically ill at times, during the past year” Sanofi 2011, 18).

Dr. David Posen provides lists of actions that can be taken by employers to manage stress—a critical necessity, not a luxury—for healthy workplaces (Posen 2013, 87). Among his many recommendations are:

  • “Stress is a fact of life, but it does not have to be a way of life” (Posen 2013, 303).
  • Monitor levels of worker energy, tension, and ability to focus positions measured on the Human Function Curve to allow remedial action when they “pass the hump”
  • Solicit direct, anonymous feedback on worker status on the curve
  • Don’t allow crossing the unhealthy stress level line too far or for too long
  • Ensure that workers take time outs, breaks, meals, exercise, social time in gathering places (Posen 2013, 91-93, 292-307 passim), and see my blog post on vacation.
  • Supervisors must become alert to the occurrence of signs of stress (Posen 2013, 112). Front-line managers need to focus on and improve their ‘people management’ practices (Higgins et al. 2007, 237). Managers must take care to manage energy outputs of their workers (Posen 2013, 80). I believe that this especially important because of the “occupational devotee” character of museum workers (see Stebbins ix, 10).
  • Pay strict attention to how we respond to the ever-increasing demands on museum institutions and individual paid and volunteer staff members in consideration of the human resources actually available to carry out goals to the level of excellence desired. In short, we must manage rising expectations. As Janes (2009: 156) reminds us, deciding what not to do is a crucial part of rational planning (cf. Ury 2007). Can we not ethically match museum goals to the resources actually available? Is it “strategic,” or sustainable, much less ethical to continue attempting to operate museums by “hopelessly overburdening” our employees?
  • One such source of increased expectations is the impact of rising professional standards in the museum field (cf. Janes 2009, 19). One unexamined–yet I believe highly significant–aspect of this issue is that the AAM defines standards as “generally accepted levels that all museums are expected to achieve” [emphasis added]. This definition of a professional standard museum creates “a trap that makes museum work increasingly complex and even absurd” Dubé (2001, 8) [emphasis added]. Dubé (2001) has recommended that we should develop an alternate model of what standards small and medium-sized museums can, could, and should be expected to achieve.
  • HR departments as employers need to become true “Resources for Humanity” [comment by a participant at the 2012 AAM brainstorming session in Minneapolis. See Solutions! (Thistle2014c, 8)].
    • I believe Gurian (1995, 20-21) makes a crucial case for this: “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.”
  • Use the organizational principle of kaisen (Japanese for continual learning and constant improvement) and concentrate on the realm of reducing stress points for staff (Posen 2013, 300). It is notable that Japanese organizations, once notorious for the atrocious rates of karioshi (Japanese for “work to death”), have been able turn a 45 degree angle rate of increase into a decline at the same rate (Kanani 2006, 170). Those charged with managing museum workers need to investigate how the Japanese have made such significant progress in the fight against “work to death.”
  • Organizational solutions list from Higgins et al. (2007, 204-10):
    • Increase management support for stressed staff and decrease the number of non-supportive managers
    • Listen to employee concerns
    • Make managers available to answer staff concerns
    • Plan the work effectively
    • Ask for input before making decisions that affect the amount and intensity of work
    • Share information with employees and provide feedback on performance
  • Organization solutions list from Schultz and Schultz (2006, 365-8):
    • Provide daycare at work
    • Flex scheduling
    • Increase the control workers have over the rate of work and mandated overtime
    • Hire supervisors who support worker quality of working life
    • Make use of part-time and telecommuting options
    • Reduce role ambiguity and role conflict
    • Provide stress management training and/or resources
    • Make fitness programs available

Middle Management Solutions:

  • As recommended by those commenting on the general world of work (Duxbury and Higgins 2012, 12; Edmonson and Detert 2005, 406-7), employers must attend to the behaviours of immediate supervisors and their relationships with staff as the primary variable in an organization’s ability to deal with unresourced rising expectations leading to overload and stress. This chronic stress must be reduced not only to sustain employee well-being but to prevent loss of organizational efficiency and productivity (Posen 2013, 115; Schultz and Schultz 2006, 374).
  • Change the ‘willing slaves’ syndrome by “humanizing the workplace” (Bunting 2004, 270 ff., 325) in order to seek reductions in the common situation of overwork and to create the possibility of more work/personal life “balance” for museum staff (cf. Duxbury & Higgins 2012b, 11-12). Museum managers must begin to plan and act as if we truly believe that ‘people are a museum organization’s most important asset.’ As noted above, protecting our human resources from work intensification, overwork, and debilitating stress loads is an ethical obligation in the museum field (American Association of Museums 2000, 2; International Council of Museums 2006, 1). In light of museum ethical standards, “There is no point in occupying the ethical high ground if that results in museums becoming unsustainable” (Museums Association (UK) 2008, 4). I firmly believe that safeguarding museum staff and volunteers from damaging unreasonable expectations, work intensification, long hours, stress, and burnout is just as important as our legal responsibility for their physical safety in constructing exhibits for example. Museum employers need to ensure our workforce is functioning at safe, sustainable levels of intensity and workloads.
  • In this regard, we need to realize that we attempting to change culture—the culture of overwork in museums and this is primarily a leadership issue (Posen 2013, 303; Duxbury and Higgins 2012, 10, 11-12, 13; Burke 2009, 171). As Karen Kienzle intimates in the first issue of LMN Online Press, organizational culture change is neither easy nor quickly done. Although it is the museum labour system that needs to change, it is not simply a matter of writing policy (Edmonson and Detert 2005, 409). Absolutely critical is the real world practice of what managers expect of our human resources! I believe strongly that museum managers must renounce always “doing more with less or everything with nothing” (Posen 2013, 5). Solutions need to be directed at the system of work intensification driven by the museum workers striving for excellence as well as collegial, visitor, management, board, and broader social expectations.
  • Her recent work on museum worker well-being prompted Andrea Michelbach to state:

The responsibility for museum professionals and the field lies in fostering the well-being of dedicated individuals on both an institutional and a personal level since committed individuals may be at additional risk of burnout (Schultz & Schultz, 2006). Museum supervisors and workplace policymakers need to consider the impact of current demands on their staff while also bearing in mind how such demands could compromise the well-being, and retention, of their staff for the future (Michelbach 2013, 67, cf. 68; cf. McIsaac 2013, 21).

  • One of the most crucial measures needed to restore workplace sustainability for museum staff and volunteers in my view has been stated succinctly by Dr. David Posen: “Most importantly, modify unrealistic expectations” (Posen 2013, 112). I have been attempting to make this point for those of us in the museum field for more than a quarter century now (Thistle 1990, 1).
  • Attend to and improve ‘people management’ practices to focus on the people part of managers’ jobs (Higgins et al. 2007, 237). Supervisors must take care to manage the energy of their workers (Posen 2013, 80). I believe that this especially important because of the “occupational devotee” characteristics of museum workers.
  • Essentially, museum managers have two choices: i) match expectations to levels supported by reasonably sufficient existing human resources or ii) hire more staff (cf. Posen 2013,60-1, 136, 323 passim). To continue current museum practice to run “lean and mean” and “press on regardless” to “do more with less” is short-sighted in the extreme because it not only harms worker health, it also undermines productivity (Posen 2013, 58-9, 136).
  • Focus on output rather than time at work. Understand that long hours, working harder, and doing it faster are counterproductive (Posen 2013, 92, 96).
  • Gurian (1995, 20) writes about the dangers of the psychological consequences of workplace stress for staff and asserts that museum management has a responsibility to attend to the psychological and emotional well-being of staff.
  • Museum priorities require attention to what is important vs. the urgent. Posen (2013, 125) cites Stephen Corey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People in making this point.
  • A number of other recommendations to management for solving the problem are given by Dr. David Posen (2013, 125, 147, 291-325).

Individual Solutions:

  • As is the case for managers, individual workers need to make regular checks on where you are situated on the Human Function Curve and to be aware of when you “pass the hump” (Posen 2013, 91-2, 112). Appropriate responses include time outs, breaks, meals, exercise, social experiences, and vacations. See my previous blog post on the importance of vacation.
  • A participant at the “Fully Loaded Camels: Strategies for Survival” brainstorming session of the British Columbia Museums Association conference in Prince George in 2006 suggested “Say no; we need to take a stand” (Thistle 2014c, 3). This is rather easy for a museum worker to say in a conference session, but much more difficult to put into practice on the job. In order to be successful with such a strategy, William Ury, Director of the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard, presents a plan of action that I highly recommend. It bases ‘No’ on first saying a positive ‘Yes’ to the individual’s own values [e.g. volunteering with community organizations], life situation [e.g. workload], and core interests [e.g. work/family conflict (Higgins et al. 2007, 194)]. Then, negotiation is required to jointly create a plan of action for dealing with unreasonable demands in the real world (Ury 2007, 2, 17-18, 34, 43, 80-1, passim).

Finally, I will add some of my personal suggestions about solutions here:

  • First for managers and individual museum workers, take care of your own best interests up front so you can preserve your ability to work to full capacity without the debilitating effects of stress (Ury 2007; Posen 2013).
  • Provide time and space for staff returning to work from training so they actually can implement learnings gained from training sessions. Professional development participants could attempt to solve the typical expectation inflation problem during professional development events by asking trainers: How do I find the time and personal energies to implement what I just learned? Concerned museum workers also could pass resolutions at professional museum organization AGMs that would encourage, if not require, trainers presenting training programmes offered by the association to address how to implement new learnings when learners return to work where already overflowing lists of tasks await.
  • Museum professional development instructors need to provide suggestions for example on exactly what can be dropped from a full-to-overflowing load of existing museum worker tasks in order to put their presentations into practice.
  • Don’t allow the plethora of ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ piled unheedingly on our workloads to produce the warning signs of task saturation identified by James Murphy 2000, 130-9), former USAF fighter pilot turned business consultant:
    • shutting down, being unable to proceed, becoming paralyzed, giving up, quitting
    • compartmentalising, avoiding the large overwhelming tasks, hiding overload through busy-work, making lists of things to do rather than actually doing them
    • channelizing, choosing to do only one task and ignoring everything else–with eyes fixed on one cockpit dial, flying your high-tech fighter plane [or museum operation] into the ground.
  • Abandon the rampant pessimism! I hear constantly ‘Everyone is in the same boat, so we can’t do anything about it.’ If we are to accept Robert Janes’ (2009) challenge to involve museums in solving world problems, l suggest that applying the creativity expected of museum workers by the CMA above could identify ways and means of effectively dealing with our own problem. These could then be ‘sold’ to the rest of the working world also burdened by rising expectations and task saturation. Even though we cannot prove for certain that Margaret Mead ever stated “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has[,]” the quality of this wisdom remains beyond dispute. Surely, the problem can never be solved by saying or doing nothing about it. Indeed, speaking up is the first step toward achieving sustainable balance in working lives (Edmonson and Detert 2005, 422).
  • Beyond funders and regulators, museum trustees and other like stakeholders tend to bring a constant stream of bright new ideas to the table. The danger of engaging in what I call “management by the next bright idea” when the last bright idea has not yet been implemented fully is an issue that also requires serious attention (Thistle 2011, 3). I strongly advise that we stop managing museums by the next bright idea. Instead, we must spend existing limited resources to consolidate the last bright idea before moving on (cf. McIsaac et al. 2013, 5).
  • Museum workers must start being brutally realistic about what is doable given the relatively minuscule human and other resources actually available compared to our own lofty expectations and those placed on us by others. Trying to do too much to meet the exponential expectations curve simply reduces the quality of everything we attempt–not to mention the quality of our own working lives. Instead, let us determine to do a few top priorities well (cf. Barton 2014; Babauta 2009), rather than attempt everything expected of us in an under-resourced and therefore unavoidably and frustratingly mediocre–not to mention personally stressful–fashion.
  • Museum-specific research on quality of working lives is required to justify the need in the museum field to overcome denial of and resistance to acting upon the problem (see Thistle 2013; Kahn and Garden 1994, 211; Thistle 2013c, 11 passim).
  • Interested individuals also will find 20 pages containing a wide variety of suggestions generated by experienced museum workers at 3 conference brainstorming sessions in the Solutions! document  (Thistle 2014c) on this blog’s Resources Page.


I began this piece by pointing out the number of unresourced expectations found in the first issue of the American Alliance of Museums Leadership and Management Network’s LMN Online Press (August 2014). Obviously, in my argument I have raised many more expectations for readers. My main purpose here, however, has been to raise the profile of the museum worker task saturation problem among the leaders and managers in the museum field. I aim to generate a conversation about how we might best manage the way museum workers are forced to deal with rising expectations absent sufficient resources. Clearly, expectation inflation in the museum field must be managed as a rather high priority.

I believe strongly that museum professionals and our managers cannot continue to work in the manner that we typically do. We are burning out our human resources and this is not sustainable. We must begin thinking and talking about changing the existing museum constantly ‘doing more with less’ work culture. Museum managers need to care for our own work/life balance and that of our employees and volunteers so as to avoid burning ourselves to a crisp.

Now is the time for creating a new vision for quality of working life in the museum field and implementing effective actions to manage rising unresourced expectations and the resulting unaddressed task saturation and untreated stress among museum workers (cf. Posen 2013, 322-3) so that Museums Can Change the World.

[Note that my responses to the 3 anonymous reviewers who recommended my article not be accepted are contained in the Comment at the very bottom of this post.]

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[i] Gurian writes about major “traumatic” change events in museum institutions but, in the Post-Modern world of work, change now is not characterized by single, but rather serial, events and the resulting stresses accumulate unabatedly. The pace of Post-Modern work is so high that there is no time for recovery or consolidation. We are infected by “hurry sickness” (Green 2006, 44, 46, 52, 57, 61, 64; cf. Bunting 2004, 37; Posen 2013, 166 passim).

Paul C. Thistle has more than 26 years of museum management and mission work experience. He has taught museum studies at Beloit College and for professional museum organizations in Canada. He has been thinking and writing about the task saturation problem since 1990 and currently writes the Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers Blog.