New Research on Retention of Museum Workers

museum occupational stress caused high turnover rates [& may continue to do so]

Survey initiative to measure why museum workers are leaving the field

Are ‘great museum workers leaving the field?’  Lots of anecdotes to this effect certainly are out there (e.g. Thistle 2014).

Some rare formal related research in the wider nonprofit world of work (McIsaac 2013: 3, 22-23, 47) also supports the increasing incidence of staff burn- & drop-out causing increasing difficulty in recruiting and retaining workers in this sector. Particularly concerning to this blogger is the finding that 25% [original typo should read a much more serious 37%] of younger nonprofit leaders 18-34 years of age report they are thinking about leaving their role in 2 or fewer years—exceeded only by the 65+ cohort at 50%.

A 2009 Canadian Human Resources Council study of nonprofit arts organisations (including Heritage) found a surprisingly high staff turnover rate of 20.3%, compared to 12% in the general not-for-profit sector, & markedly above the 7.9% turnover rate in all sectors. Very limited resources among small nonprofit arts organisations make “staff turnover one of the key human resources challenges for organisations” (Deloitte & Touche 2009: 4, 5, 18).

This is by no means a new human resources crisis in the museum field. More than 2 decades ago, a study on the museum workforce in the UK found that occupational stress caused high turnover rates (Kahn & Garden: 1994: 195; cf. Mercadex International 2002: 9, 22 re volunteers in the Canadian cultural sector). Most recently, another UK study reports that a majority (65%) of museum professionals say that greater demands on them as a result of funding cuts, has created increased stress among museum workers (Sullivan 2015). Your blogger has long argued that formal research is needed on stress & its consequences for museum practitioners (e.g. Thistle 2017: 7, 11 passim).

Since one of the main contentions of this blog is that museum worker overwork & ensuing chronic stress lead to burn- & drop-out & needs to be addressed, we should attend to one of the recommendations of Andrea Michelbach’s (2013: 69-70, cf. 17) valuable study of the comparative happiness & well-being of workers in the museum field [see the review in a previous blog post Are Museum Professionals Happy?]:

. . . future research might investigate the well-being of former museum professionals or those leaving the field. To what extent are the causes of their attrition related to well-being? To what extent does well-being change after leaving the field?

See the invitation to contribute to this necessary research  below.

Dr. David Posen who has been treating stressed out workers for more than 25 years  states “. . .workplace stressors will never be addressed unless we acknowledge that there is a problem and take it seriously” (Posen 2013, 68). From their longitudinal studies of substantial samples of Canadian professional & educated respondents who closely parallel museum worker characteristics, Higgins et al. (2007, 35, 103) report management’s “strong resistance” to dealing directly with the on-the-job stress problem. In your blogger’s work trying to raise the profile of this issue in the museum field, resistance to addressing the issue & denial that a burnout problem exists is common among museum managers & leaders of professional organisations in the field (Thistle 2017: 7, 10-11; cf. Posen 2013, 73, 141)..

In my view, it is long past time investigate the actual quality of working lives in museums so we can begin addressing it vigorously in order to ensure the sustainability of careers in our field.

Clearly, to overcome denial & resistance, we need formal research focussed on questions such as those posed by Michelbach (2013: 69-70) & in the survey below so as to determine if anecdotal evidence of task saturation, stress, burnout, & leaving museum work is a valid concern—or not (Thistle 2017: 11; Kahn & Garden 1994: 211).

Those among Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers blog followers who do not subscribe to MUSEUM-L will have missed the following post encouraging participation in a much-needed survey of workers in the museum field about why you may leave or have already left the museum field.

Canadian museum worker input is welcome. The invitation follows:

Date:    Sat, 10 Sep 2016 19:09:33 +0000

From:    Marieke Van Damme <mariekejvd@YAHOO.COM>

Subject: Why are great museum workers leaving the field and what can we do about it? — survey!

Hi everyone,

(I’m working with museum colleagues Claudia Ocello, Dawn Salerno, and Sarah Erdman on this project.  Thanks in advance for your help!)

As museum professionals we know that the success of the field depends on the individuals working in it. Ongoing conversations have looked at how to recruit and maintain a diverse and committed workforce and what museum professions need from the institutions they serve. In addition to looking at ways we can remove barriers to those who want to enter museum work, we also need to look at why good museum workers are leaving the field. We hope to learn what museums can do to encourage workers to stay. We also wonder how our museum skills translate to other fields.

 As a first step, we have created a survey. We are hoping for responses from people who are still in the field as well as those who have left the field.

 Here’s the survey link:

If possible, can you forward to friends and former colleagues who have left the museum field?

We really appreciate your time– thank you!

Marieke Van Damme

Please consider participating in this survey & contributing important data on the questions surrounding the retention of workers in the museum field. We need to demonstrate with solid research that there is a problem in our field that needs to be fixed.

Thanks for thinking about this.

Respectfully yours

Paul C. Thistle

References Cited:

Deloitte & Touche LLP. 2009. National Compensation Survey – 2009 Update for Management and Administration of Not-for-Profit Organizations. Ottawa: Cultural Human Resources Council National Compensation Survey – 2009 Update (accessed 22 September 2016).

Higgins, Chris, Duxbury, Linda, & Lyons, Sean. 2007. Reducing Work-Life Conflict: What Works? What Doesn’t. Report 5. Ottawa: Health Canada.

Kahn, Howard and Garden, Sally. 1994 (original 1993). “Job Attitudes and Occupational Stress in the United Kingdom Museum Sector.” In Museum Management ed. Kevin Moore. New York: Routledge.

McIsaac, Elizabeth et al. 2013. Shaping the Future: Leadership in Ontario’s Nonprofit Labour Force. Final Report. ONN Human Capital Renewal Strategy: Phase One. Toronto: Ontario Nonprofit Network & The Mowat Centre. (accessed 22 September 2016).

Mercadex International Inc. 2002. Face of the Future: A Study of Human Resources Issues in Canada’s Cultural Sector. Findings and Recommendations. Ottawa: Cultural Human Resources Council (accessed 22 September 2016).

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. (accessed 21 September 2016).

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

Sullivan, Nicola. 2015. “Museum Professionals Have to Meet Higher Demands Due to Cuts.” Museums Journal, Blog. Museums Association, UK  (accessed 22 September 2016).

Thistle, Paul C. 2014. “Museum Worker Overload & the Ethics of Exploitation, Canadian Museums Association, Toronto, 9 April 2014 Audience Participation Comments Report to CMA Secretariat” (accessed 20 September 2016).

Thistle, Paul C. 2017. “Fully Loaded Camels: Addressing Museum Worker Task Saturation” [updated and expanded version of paper presented at the University of Toronto Museum Studies Program 40th Anniversary Conference Taking Stock: Museum Studies and Museum Practices in Canada on 24 April 2010] found on Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers Blog found at Fully Loaded Camels 2017 (accessed 21 August 2017).



Author: fullyloadedcamel

Paul C. Thistle has more than twenty-six years of mission and management work in museums & archives. He has an interdisciplinary MA in history and anthropology, a BEd in cross-cultural and museum education, a BA in anthropology and history, and a Museology Certificate. Paul is a national, provincial, and academic award-winning author. He has taught Museum Studies at Beloit College and certificate courses for museum associations in Canada. He also writes the Critical Museology Miscellanea blog.

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