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Current Definition of Decent Work:

Decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives. It involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men (International Labour Organization 2016). [Note: Is there anything important missing in this definition here?]

This blog is posted to mark World Day for Decent Work on 7 October 2016 & to again raise the question about whether or not work in museums is as “decent” as it could & should be.

What does the term “decent” connote? Among other shades of meaning, freedictionary.com places the primary emphasis on “a. Characterized by conformity to recognized standards of propriety or morality… b. Morally upright; moral or respectable…”

Regular readers will understand that your blogger believes museum work can be—& in some respects undeniably is—indecent (unethically/immorally so, contrary to commitments to protect workers under the ethical standards set by American Association of Museums 2000: 2 & International Council of Museums 2006: 1). This is in terms of rising, unrealistic, & unresourced expectations placed on the workforce, the tendency of museum practitioners to love what we do & to be highly committed to excellence—the consequences of which commonly result in over-commitment & overwork that result in unrelenting stress & burnout (e.g. Sullivan 2015).

Burnout is defined by Schultz and Schultz (2006, 370-2) as emotional exhaustion, apathy, depression, and a variety of other negative symptoms such as loss of job performance due to work overload. Typically burnout strikes workers who are committed to their work (Schulz and Schultz 2006, 371) &, as I have argued elsewhere in my comment on anonymous reviewers following a recent post Managing Expectation Inflation & Resulting Stress in Museum Work, museum workers are at particular risk of such negative outcomes.

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

Dr. David Posen (2013:111) diagrams the burnout process in his book Is Work Killing You?

The International Labour Organization (ILO) Decent Work initiative advocating positive outcomes such as fair income, diversity, equal opportunity, etc. undoubtedly is laudable & I can have no argument with the overall thrust of the ILO undertaking. Sadly however, in this blogger’s view, the Decent Work movement ignores an extremely significant & salient fact that much work in the Post-Modern world is characterised by growing chronic pressures that result in unsustainable—if not exploitative—levels of job stress and related ill-health outcomes (Posen 2013, 2, 45, 87 passim; cf. Sullivan 2015).

Research in the health insurance field from 2009 reported 51% of respondents “experienced higher levels of stress than acceptable level” (Group Health Global Partners 2009). The Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey 2016 reports:

“Stress Management suffers the most with 40% indicating their work environment negatively affects their ability the manage stress” (Sanofi Canada 2016: 13; cf. Posen 2013: 65).

The ILO definition of “decent work” cited above, therefore, misses a critical component of what I believe decent work must reflect: i.e. freedom—(beyond just “freedom of expression”)—& protection from unreasonable (& in many jurisdictions illegal) work intensification & the deliberate, or simply unheeding, exploitation of workers in the current pervasive ‘more, better, faster,’ & ‘evermore with less’ work culture (Posen 2013, 5-6, 53, 289 passim; Duxbury and Higgins 2012b, 4-6; Thistle 2014; Thistle 2015: 6-8).

On a positive note, undertaking on this front finds the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) working on a Human Capital Renewal Strategy for the last number of years. Initial research in the Ontario, Canada nonprofit sector by ONN & its partners has found evidence of the workplace problems named above (McIsaac 2013: 19, 22, 28-30, 33, 36, 47, 56, 65: cf. Posen 2013).

Constructively, the ONN now has proposed a draft “Decent Work Charter” that will be the focus of a strategic dialogue during the Building a Decent Work Movement in Our Sector sessions at its upcoming 20 October Nonprofit Driven Conference 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

The aim of the conference is to build a strong & resilient nonprofit sector & —significantly—to “drive change.” In the words of Ron Howarth, ONN Board Policy Committee member, the goal of the ONN Building a Decent Work Movement session is:

. . . to push back against the fraying of our labour market. In committing to and pursuing decent work, individual nonprofits can make important contributions to countering malpractices of work in our society. . . It is only through shared efforts that we will be able to make any significant reforms in the shape of work in our sector, and in our communities” (Howarth 2016 [originally erroneously cited as Mazurk 2016]).

This kind of initiative is exactly what task saturated & stressed-out museum workers experiencing poor quality of working lives need!

The 5 Key Issue Areas in the current ONN’s Draft Decent Work Charter usefully include: fair income, good benefits, stable employment (vs. precarious work), opportunities for development & advancement, & respectful and inclusive work cultures. Being based on the ILO definition of decent work, however, the ONN Draft Decent Work Charter (currently being considered by a focus group to prepare for the conference dialogue) exhibits the same deficiency.  It does not explicitly address the major problems of worker task saturation, overload, time poverty, & related stresses found in many nonprofit workplaces & beyond.

The ONN’s own research worryingly reports that 68% of study respondents report challenges in recruitment in the previous 3 years.  Among the reasons given, 31% state “excessive workloads/insufficient staff resources” (McIsaac 2013: 21, 22).  Also see the evidence cited in a previous blog post on staff retention .

I believe strongly therefore that there must be a sixth Key Issue Area in the ONN Draft Decent Work Charter that will address chronic underfunded expectations, overwork, stress, & the related above-noted deterioration of workers’ mental & physical health.  Surely, there can be no “decent” work until we also begin to address the destructive conditions of rising & unresourced expectations leading to over-commitment & resulting decent work deficits found in museum and other nonprofit organisation workplaces.

There is an extensive literature dealing with the problem of debilitating work intensification in modern workplaces that results in worker stress, loss of productivity, ill-health, & burn-out. Dr. David Posen who has been treating stressed workers for more than a quarter century summarises the current problem that many museum & other nonprofit workers will recognise in their own working lives in his book Is Work Killing You?:

There is too much work, the pace is too fast, the expectations are too high or unclear, the pressures to perform are too great, and the resources are too few” (Posen 2013, 10; cf. Duxbury & Higgins 2012).

Much more needs to be said about the need for improvements in the concept of decent work currently being propounded by ILO & ONN.  I hope to be able to voice some important recommendations for strengthening the Decent Work Charter during the ONN conference dialogue. Look for a future blog post on the outcomes of the discussions.

References Cited:

American Association of Museums. 2000. Code of Ethics for Museums. Washington: American Association of Museums.

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 6 October 2016).

Group Health Global Partners. 2014. “Workforce Tolerance.” Group Health Global Partners http://www.grouphealth.ca/ .

Howarth, Rob. 2016. “Championing Decent Work.” In Our Blog.  Toronto: Ontario Nonprofit Network http://theonn.ca/championing-decent-work/ (accessed 5 Oct. 2016).

International Council of Museums. 2006. ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums. Paris: International Council of Museums.

International Labour Organization. 2016. “Decent Work”. http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/decent-work/lang–en/index.htm (accessed 4 October 2016).

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. http://theonn.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Shaping-the-Future.Leadership.pdf (accessed 22 September 2016).

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

Sanofi Canada. 2016. The Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey. Sanofi-aventis Canada Inc. http://www.sanofi.ca/l/ca/en/layout.jsp?cnt=65B67ABD-BEF6-487B-8FC1-5D06FF8568ED (accessed 7 October 2016).

Schultz, Duane P. and Schultz, Sydney Ellen. 2006. Psychology and Work Today. An Introduction to Industrial and Organizational Psychology Ninth Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Sullivan, Nicola. 2015. “Museum Professionals Have to Meet Higher Demands Due to Cuts.” Museums Journal Museums Association, UK http://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/06052015-staff-stress (accessed 4 October 2016).

Thistle, Paul C. 2015. “Managing Expectation Inflation and Resulting Stress in Museum Work.” Unpublished paper found at  https://solvetasksaturation.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/thistle-managing-expectations-stress.pdf (accessed 5 October 2015).

Thistle, Paul C. 2014. “Museum Worker Overload & the Ethics of Exploitation” presented at the Canadian Museums Association Annual Conference, Toronto, ON, 9 April https://solvetasksaturation.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/museum-worker-overload-the-ethics-of-exploitation-final-final-project.pptx (accessed 5 October 2016).