Is ‘Self-Care’ Sufficient to Solve Poor Quality of Working Lives in Museums?

This post argues that the preponderance of solutions proposed to address increasing levels of burnout in museum workplaces ignore the need to address the CAUSES of the problem rather than expecting its victims to take the responsibility for ‘self-care’ of their own symptoms.

While your blogger was preparing for his presentation on the above topic scheduled for the Museums Association of Saskatchewan (MAS) Community Chat on 2 February this year, I realised something. Essentially, I found myself putting together a summary of my experience, research, & writing on problematic working conditions in museums over the last 32 years since my first editorial on the unrelieved “burnout” found among museum workers in northern Manitoba (Thistle 1990).

photo showing a large board room meeting table with many men & 1 woman seated with a large elephant looking on
White elephant of burnout that occupies “all” museum work spaces (Thistle 2022a: minute 4:15).

My 2-sentence description provided for the MAS webinar promotion read:

In recent years, the term “burnout” increasingly is named as a troubling character of museum work. This presentation will briefly identify the precipitating causes and focus on solutions to this stress & exhaustion problem that a major health care provider referring to the wider world of work urges, “We have to get at this now, or else mental health claims at staggering levels are going to be the new norm” (Sanofi Canada 2020: 8, cf. 9, 35).

My presentation now has been posted on the MAS YouTube channel (Thistle 2022a). It is described there by a summary of the above plus the following taken from my webinar proposal.

MAS Community Chat: Paul Thistle – Museum Worker Burnout: More than ‘Self-Care’ for Survival

. . . Current COVID conditions have heightened museum worker stress & burnout levels. Lots of evidence now is proving this leads to ‘great resignation’ effects seen across all sectors including our own. In this light, ounces of systemic prevention are worth many pounds of additional symptom ‘self-care’ cure responsibilities for individual workers who have little power to fix the primary causes of burnout on their own [emphasis added].

images show a woman with crossed legs meditating & an exercise session in a museum
Images from the AAM TrendsWatch 2019 Merritt (2021: 41, 47) addressed at Thistle (2022a: minute 34:00).

See the entire webinar video at the link provided for Thistle (2022a) in the References Cited below. I recommend that viewers attend to at least the bolded comments below before viewing the webinar presentation. Additional key ideas not addressed in the presentation are identified in the Q&A segment following the formal end of my presentation at minute 47:20. The final point on the International Labour Organisation’s Decent Work Movement at minute 57:30 following some less than useful conversation should not be missed.

What follow are some key expansions, clarifications, & additions of items not spoken at the time in my narration. The commentary below serves as an incomplete topical index for my presentation.

Minute 29: comment about your blogger ‘leading my boards around by the nose.’ I should have clarified that this was accomplished—not out of power-hungry or conceited self-importance—but rather my commitment to excellence based on my musicological training. I continually made arguments for ‘best practices’ by informing stakeholders of the support for my recommendations provided in related museum literature. I firmly believe that this is a primary role for institutional, departmental, and/or others in museum leadership roles. Over the course of my career, the boards I served were persuaded to accept the vast majority of my recommendations on museum ‘best practices’, thus the strong ‘ring in the nose’ portrayal .

Minute 32:50: Discussion on ‘self-care’ begins.

Minute 33:50: Re my colleague’s statement that “this is a good idea, if I had the time.” I did not take the time to explain that, his ‘task saturation’ & ‘time poverty’ is the proof that my colleague might reconsider the solution included in my original communication I had broadcasted to him & our colleagues. Of course, expecting us to fix our own burnout problem with additional ‘self-care’ chores, merely places more ‘straw’ on the backs of ‘already fully-loaded camel’ museum paid & volunteer staff. Beyond this, we ‘willingly’ over-committed practitioners need to understand how to apply The Power of a Positive No & be able to negotiate realistic expectations from our employers basing our “No” on first saying a positive “Yes” to our own values and core interests (Ury 2007: 2, 17-18, 34, 43, 80-1, passim [book reference at Thistle 2022b: 56).

Minute 34:00: Gender Equality in Museums Movement recommends only additional new tasks for women to  engage in ‘self-care’ of their burnout symptoms rather than how to actually solve the causes of their burnout.

Minute 36:10: Presenter ‘robbed’ the original image from an Internet page on burnout, altered it to reflect that action is necessary, & used in on this blog.

Minute 36:30: In my experience & research, the Ontario Museums Association is the first in our profession that accepts the necessity of employer responsibility to fix burnout among museum workers!

Minute 38:50: The Ontario Bill addressing “the right to disconnect from work” is now law in that province.

Minute 40:45: The 20-page “Solutions!” document crowdsourced from museum workers at 4 professional museum conference sessions is linked in Thistle (2022b: 19).

Minute 42:25 & Minute 44:25: Fixing causes of burnout are most effectively accomplished by collectively directing our organisations’ governing bodies at annual general meetings. I recommend using the same political lobbying strategies for museums to influence governments that are promoted by many of these organisations.

Minute 45:10: Presenter is NOT referring to ‘self-care’ activities at work here. I should have explicitly stated the need to improve Quality of Working Lives (QWL) issues—otherwise known as poor working conditions in museums—are caused by unrealistic & unresourced expectations, depending on workers’ love for the job that results in over-commitment, reliance on illegal uncompensated overtime, resulting stress, burnout, family, physical, & emotional ill-health, & eventual push-out of workers from our industry.

Minute 45:30: Presenter did not state his main point here. We members of professional museum associations need to pass resolutions at our AGMs to the effect that “all” trainers at EVERY professional development event be required by organisers to present ways & means of OFF-LOADING existing responsibilities that will allow session attendees to actually implement the recommendations made without burning themselves out! Your blogger firmly believes that ‘time management’ training has reached its effective limits—a very long time ago!

Answers to Participant Questions:

# 1 @ Minute 48:00: Re underfunding of museums, etc. Presenter’s sources for ‘there will never be enough resources’ follow. It is a quotation from a senior staff member of the American Association of Museums (AAM [now Alliance]).

(As you can guess, there is no one right answer. Part of it is institutional and managerial; part of it is personal responsibility and ambition. The truth is the way we work is changing and will never be the same as it was. There will never be enough resources (time, staff, money) to do everything we want/need to do [emphasis added to the response to a question from your blogger about the AAM’s approach to the problem of task saturation and resulting burnout among museum workers from Julie Hart et al. (2009), AAM’s Sr. Director, Museum Standards and Excellence with contributions from other AAM staff] in answer to my question about AAM’s recognition of the problem of task saturation and resulting burnout among museum workers. [Your blogger also has made the following point on several different occasions:]

 In light of the AAM’s admission that sufficient resources will never be available, I believe that it becomes absolutely crucial to address the other variable in the rising expectations + flatlined resources = task saturation, stress, & burnout equation shown in Figure 1. Given AAM’s admission, and in light of William Ury’s (2007) negotiation approach [outlined in a previous blog] for example, are the variables of rising expectations and museum worker task saturation not the factors which are most amenable to managed change in the current situation (Thistle 2010)? At a bare minimum, is effort directed at attempting to manage expectations and reduce overwork any less likely to be an effective strategy than the current reliance on what is admittedly a doomed lobby for additional resources—unless museums begin to address current world problems (Janes 2009: 176)? From your blogger’s perspective, for example, the ‘pandemic’ burnout at work is one of such problems.

Why do professional museum organisations appear to resist addressing the museum worker task saturation directly? This and the related issues cry out for critical museology, new research, analysis, and concerted remedial action (see Thistle 2012 for the full argument presented).

# 2 @ Minute 25:35: Re board pressures on museum staff Identified in the BCMA’s courageous & disturbing report on museum board governance by Willard & Bell (2021) to achieve unrealistic objectives without sufficient resources required: I was uncertain how to respond at the time & lost my train of thought. I mentioned my idea of the ineffective strategy of ‘management by the next bright idea’ while the last one has not yet been fully consolidated & ‘best practices’. In my view, the most effective means of countering the continual inflow of new unresourced ‘bright ideas’ is to rely on existing strategic & yearly planning documents. We need to say “let’s look at that idea next year.” New initiatives that keep pouring in must be set aside until the next planning cycle begins in order to be able to maintain our workers’ mental, physical, family, & social health. ‘Management by the next bright idea’ undoubtedly is a recipe for burnout!

I also should have commented on the eruption of mountains of new professional standards in the museum field, accreditation, etc., etc. that almost NEVER are accompanied with any new resources necessary to actually implement them effectively—i.e. without burning out museum workers to a crisp! See my 3 related blog posts analysing the negative impact of ever-growing, yet rarely-resourced, standards & ‘accreditation’ pressures on the QWL of already ‘time poor’ & task saturated museum paid & volunteer ‘willing slaves’. Also see my extensive critique of one provincial museum association’s proposed set of museum standards that failed to consider the critical issue that not “all” museums have equal access to the necessary levels of resources to support implementation identified & linked in Thistle (2022b: 19).

# 3 @ Minute 57:30: Re Nonprofit organisation resource suggested. The presenter expressed his disappointment with the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) that promotes adoption of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) “Decent Work Charter.” Readers interested can use that term in the search function on this Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers blog to find posts here that use the ONN’s own research studies on the “decent work” concept. I point out the Charter’s obvious deficiency as proposed by the ILO & ONN. The recommended “Decent Work Charter” fails to include the concept of protecting workers from debilitating overwork caused by the unrealistic unresourced exploitative expectations by managers. In particular, read the search hit posts numbered 7 October 7, 2016 ; 6 November 16, 2016 ; & 4 November 1, 2018 .

As promised MAS, I now have added several pages to the PDF of my PowerPoint presentation with live links to my references referred to in “MAS Community Chat: Paul Thistle – Museum Worker Burnout: More than ‘Self-Care’ for Survival” in Thistle (2022b).

In addition, I provide another 20-page document titled “Solutions! Shared Working Document” (Thistle 2014) that records the results of 4 museum conference “brainstorming” sessions I ran that focussed on crowdsourcing practitioner solutions to task saturation, stress, & burnout in the museum field. I also provide my analyses of the ideas generated.

In closing, readers should stay tuned here for a future more extensive analysis of the current enthusiasm for ‘self-care’ as the ‘cure’—i.e. 1 more chore—for poor Quality of Working Lives in the museum industry.

References Cited:

Hart, Julie et al. 2009. Personal Communication regarding museum QWL via e-mail to Paul Thistle, 28 October.

Sanofi Canada. 2020. The Sanofi Canada Healthcare Survey 2020. Sanofi Canada, Laval, PQ  (accessed 20 December 2021).

Thistle, Paul C. 2022a. “MAS Community Chat: Paul Thistle – Museum Worker Burnout: More than ‘Self-Care’ for Survival.” Museums Association of Saskatchewan Community Chat presented on 2 February 2022 at–RbABKPnRk (accessed 8 March 2022).

Thistle, Paul C. 2022b. “PDF VERSION: MAS Community Chat: Paul Thistle – Museum Worker Burnout: More than ‘Self-Care’ for Survival.” [Shows all the PowerPoint slides of the above presentation plus additional pages providing full references including live links to those available on-line] at (accessed 5 March 2022).

Thistle, Paul C. 2014. “Solutions! Shared Working Document.” Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers blog posted 10 June 2014 at (accessed 9 March 2022).

Thistle, Paul C. 2012 “Overloading of Entry Level Workers: Forewarned Is Forearmed.” Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers blog posted August 21, 2012 at (accessed 9 March 2022).

Thistle, Paul C. 1990. “Editor’s View.” Little Northern Museum Scene No. 38, August 1990 (Sam Waller Little Northern Museum, The Pas, MB), p. 1 at (accessed 6 April 2021).

Willard, Michelle & Bell, Lorraine. 2021. Governance Challenges and Opportunities in B.C.’s Small to Medium Non-profit Museums: A conversation with past and present Executive Directors about what needs to change and how to change it. Vancouver: British Columbia Museums Association, Mighty Museum, & Vancouver Foundation posted September 22, 2021 at (accessed 7 January 2021).

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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