Museum Practice: Why Do We Work So Much?

Anne-Lamott-Quote-Almost-everything-will-work-again-if-you-unplug.jpg

A million years ago when I was a young, museum director, I worked a lot. It was hard not to. I lived on site, and work–to bastardize William Wordsworth–was with me late and soon. Even having friends over meant discussing work because conversations began with questions like what’s it like to live next door to the period rooms? What’s it like, besides mortifying, when the dog barks at the sound of 4th graders on the other side of the velvet ropes?

While I was grateful for housing as part of compensation, it definitely affected my ability to separate work from life. It was all too easy to settle down after dinner for a cosy hour writing a grant application as opposed to reading or a walk. My circadian rhythms for what is known in HR as work/life balance were messed up. But that was then. Now you can work 8 hours a day, add on a two hour-plus commute, during which you scan and return emails or phone calls, and you never leave work. It’s there on the device of your choosing, and depending on the culture of your organization, you may be criticized or applauded for checking email, texts, and voicemail when you’re not officially on the clock.

Americans as a group work hard. According to a Gallup 2014 poll, Americans work 47 hours a week, one of the highest numbers in the world, and significantly higher than folks in, say,  the EU countries. Most Americans get at least two weeks off each year, in addition to federally mandated holidays, but for financial reasons many end up not taking the full two weeks. The museum workforce is no exception to the hard work/too much work conundrum. Elizabeth Merritt, director of AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums, wrote about a facet of this in 2016, terming it “the sacrifice measure.” In Merritt’s scenario, the young and presumably privileged, are willing to accept ridiculously low salaries simply to gain a toehold in the museum community. Although it’s unspoken in Merritt’s piece, we have to assume that along with the tiny salary comes a huge expectation in terms of workload. The combination of low wages and a ridiculous amount of work is not dissimilar to the Grimm’s fairy story where the aspiring princess is told to empty a pond with a spoon full of holes. And as soon as a few agree to that scenario, it becomes increasingly difficult for others to say whoa, no way, I’d have more time off waiting tables and presumably no one would text me that the salt and pepper shakers needed refilling.

What kind of culture does your museum or heritage organization have around work? Is there a sense that you’re doing something noble? Is there life and death drama to every project? Is time managed sensibly? Or conversely, do you work in a place where deadlines are mutable, where few are held to account? Are you compensated adequately? Do you and your colleagues complain, but still work an extra day’s worth each week?

Social media sites are used by one third of the world’s population. It’s likely since you’re reading this blog, that you scamper around the Internet with the best of them. If that’s true and you aren’t thinking about how Silicon Valley and social media changes your brain — not to mention your workday — then you have some more reading to do. You might want to start by listening to this. 

In the meantime, if you are a museum leader do you model good work practice? Apart from dire events, do you unplug at home and on vacation? Do you talk about your workplace culture with your staff? Do you counsel staff who seem to spend countless hours working and question those who seem to need to work all the time?

As museum leaders you don’t need one more thing on your to-do lists, but workplace culture matters. If the work week extends from 40 hours to 60 because you can always get something done at midnight or 5:30 am are you really managing time well? Some advice:

  • Tackle your own addictions first. Barring fire or flood, unplug at home and on the weekends.
  • Try not being a museum leader part of every weekend. Be a partner, a parent, an athlete, a friend instead.
  • Talk about your work culture in a generative way at work. Acknowledge the weak spots. Encourage behavioral change.
  • Discuss how texts from home, Facebook and Twitter intrude on work as well.
  • Talk about not taking work home. And if there’s a reason for that—like too many interruptions at work–how can that be fixed?
  • Support breaks, walks, the occasional yoga class.

We all want happier, more productive workplaces. And working more isn’t always the answer.

Joan Baldwin

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3 Comments on “Museum Practice: Why Do We Work So Much?”

  1. Janice Klein says:

    I am reminded of a few bright moments of sanity in the years of voluntary overwork:
    As the brand new director of a small museum I recall saying out-loud (although no one was there) that I could work 24/7 and all that would happen is that I would burn out faster.
    Of the same job my husband pointed out that when I chose to go to work on my days off I was rarely productive.

  2. Evelyn says:

    This definetly describes me. My manager encourages and orders me to not work so many hours. He tells me to work smarter not harder. But it is impossible to do in a large department when you are the sole employee. If I don’t do it No One can/ will and others are affected. I don’t take my vacation days and never have a sick day. My family is grown. I am still looking for answers as to how to fight this feeling I need to work more than I should.

  3. Paula Allen says:

    I have frank conversations with my manager about over-work, and 60 hours weeks, and 7 day weeks, but it never seems to amount to a change in procedure. I’m barely a Supervisor (1 part-time employee I share with another department) and company culture pushes me constantly to the same kind of overwork as the Director level. So far this year I have not figured out how to schedule a vacation, although I have about 50% of the time traded a planned weekend day for a weekday. The only reward for doing my work well is to be given more work, rather than be told to take vacation, or work 60 hours one week and only 30 the next. An exempt job is the most damaging thing I have ever done to myself in pursuit of my career.


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