Held Together by Humans: Museums and a Healthier WorkplacePosted: April 4, 2022 Filed under: AAM, Center for the Future of Museums, Gender, Happiness, Human Resources, Leading in Crisis, museum staff, pay equity, scarcity, Self-care, Work/life balance, Workplace wellness 2 Comments
A confession: I adore English television mysteries. Not the kind with the dithering, elderly amateur, but the darker more urban variety. One of the tropes of these dramas is the main characters often suppress a ton of personal feelings to get their job done. They go to work–without guns–this is the UK after all, and deal with the sad, the lonely, and the psychologically messed up. Meanwhile, their marriages fall apart, their children are angry, and their lovers are sick of being neglected for the job. I thought about those characters when I listened to CBS’s recent report on mental health post-Covid. Families and individuals are dealing with unresolved grief, leading to deaths from overdose, resulting in four times the rate of anxiety and depression overall. It’s a full-blown mental health crisis. This week the Centers for Disease Control released a report saying that 4 in 10 adolescents feel persistently sad or hopeless. Arthur C. Evans Jr., head of the American Psychological Association says this will be with us for seven to 10 years, in other words a second pandemic. And I’m pretty sure this segment was taped before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the now ongoing devastation and threat of chemical or nuclear warfare.
What does this have to do with museums? Only this: Museums are held together by humans, who are likely suffering, while also serving communities who also suffer. We’ve been over the laundry list of what’s undone us many times: pandemic, racial injustice, gender inequity, epic inflation, wealth disparity, and now war and a mental health crisis. Is the answer that we’re too busy as Robert Weisberg posits in a recent post? Maybe. Honestly, I’m no longer sure about this or much else. I know many of us are overworked. I know staffs have contracted, and many people are doing two times the work of the pre-pandemic era, and because no one found them breathing into a paper bag in the supply closet, everything is supposedly okay. Being asked to do more for the same crap salary is debilitating. Pay isn’t everything, but salaries are still inequitable. In many institutions leadership makes a gazillion times what the front-of-the-house makes, and yet daily the front-of-the-house workers shoulder a good portion of the community’s anger, yet another facet of the country’s mental health crisis.
I respect Weisberg’s argument, and I love his “Time, Money, People, Resources,” but I don’t share his assurance that busyness is the culprit or at least the only culprit. For me there are too many intersecting circles, each part of an overlapping problem. It strikes me that when field-wide salaries are dismal, the museum workplace promotes to reward. That means you move up the food chain, receiving a bigger salary and a title change because you succeeded in your first position. The problem is that being able in one position doesn’t always translate into being an able at leading people. If the organization needs a leader at whatever level, it should hire a leader, not reward staff by throwing them into the deep end. How would the picture change if museums could acknowledge and reward good work, allowing individuals to stay in their lane, while making more money and perhaps receiving a title change. Logically, that should happen, but it rarely does. We have a culture that teaches us success comes with managing others. (Some state HR laws are written such that an employee’s desire to be salaried as opposed to hourly, hinges, in part, on whether they supervise staff.) In the museum world we don’t train for leadership. So when promotions work, we pat ourselves on the back. When they don’t, we scratch our heads. And sadly, it’s staff who suffer in these circumstances.
In all our moaning about what Covid did to us, and it did plenty, it also taught us that flexibility is a key workplace resource. Not everyone can work away from their museum or heritage organization, but many can. In the first month of Covid we learned how much we could get done from our home offices. But Covid taught us something else. It isn’t just a binary choice between remote vs.on-site employees. It’s an acknowledgement that, particularly for women, flexibility matters. Many have life situations which make flexible hours a necessity. We know the failure to flex meant many women who are also caregivers and parents left the workforce over the last two years. But we don’t need to be workplace thought leaders to imagine that when staff are happy and not worrying about child or elder care, their work is better. If you have an employee who needs to begin work later because of family responsibilities, would it kill you to make that happen? And most importantly, can flex time become not just an individual exception, smacking of favoritism, but an organization-wide trend?
I wonder too, whether in a field like museums where jobs are hard won, if we expect too much from them. They represent huge investments and when they don’t speak our love language daily, we’re convinced they’re not for us. I am the first to admit this field has its share of bad leaders and boards, but even the best job isn’t Nirvana every day, nor should it be. I’ve written about this before, but your job, however intellectually stimulating is not your family. It may include some in your friend group, but hopefully it isn’t substituting for your friends as well.
The Canadian writer/researcher Paul Thistle has done a ton of work on the museum workplace and self-care. In addition to the high expectations and ridiculous pace of many museums, something that comes through loud and clear in his writing is our responsibility to ourselves. Yes, I know it’s often impossible to seek mental health care when you have no insurance or when the one counselor who takes your insurance is miles away, but we need to try, and our organizations need to try too.
Decades ago I remember a conference conversation where having heard a living history site was thinking of interpreting an 18th century workhouse, the cynical and jaded in the group opined we could go there when we “retired” because by that time we’d be so burnt out, role playing someone who had had a breakdown wouldn’t be a stretch. Not funny, but also darkly funny, and an indication that the constant search for perfection, coupled with too little time and too few resources has been a theme in museum work life for decades.
I’ve made a tradition of adding to-do lists at the end of blog posts with ideas for individuals and organizations, but I think this isn’t a one size fits all scenario. So here are some links and resources:
- If you’re not already reading Dr. Laurie Santos, start. A Yale psychology professor whose classes are consistently oversubscribed, Santos offers practical tips for leading a happier life in her podcast “The Happiness Lab.“
- Read Mike Murawski. Not everyone can let go of the security of full-time employment, but if you need a positive role model for making change, it’s Murawski.
- If you supervise staff, you may want to read AAM’s 2022 Trendswatch, particularly the chapter on mental health. I am not a fan of putting leadership in the position of acting as a mental health counselor, but I do think it’s important for leaders to model wellness behaviors, and be transparent and open about their own challenges.
- Remember to lobby for improved healthcare and childcare at the local, state, and national level. It may seem out of your lane, but knowing family is cared for at a price you can afford is a stress reducer.
- If you’re a reader, try also On Being, NPR’s Lifekit, and The Marginalian, and Henna Inam. And keep in mind, if your stress was a disfiguring rash, you’d undoubtedly see a doctor. If you find yourself beset by stress and mental health issues, try to see a caregiver.
- If you’re a leader, be careful not to talk about the importance of your front-line/hourly staff unless you are willing to regularly make them part of museum decisions. Their work experience is part of your organization’s DNA. Respect it.
Spring is coming. Take some time to be outside. Sit, walk, run, whatever works for you. Your work will be better for it.
Is Lack of Self-Care Another Form of Scarcity Mindset?Posted: May 24, 2021 Filed under: AAM, Leadership, scarcity, Work Habits, Work/life balance 1 Comment
How many of us know a museum where the mantra–even in this post-COVID reawakening–is one of can’t, meaning an absence of resources prevents the organization from changing? It’s a mindset that’s riddled museums and heritage organizations for decades, often those founded in a great rush of concern around preserving a particular building, event or individual collection. What begins as promise, excitement, and hope devolves into a culture of “Well we can’t (you fill in the verb here) because this is the way we’ve always done it.” The result is museums turned inward rather than out, clinging to the familiar rather than walking a path toward change. In this kind of culture, struggle and sacrifice become virtues. Doing without, frenetically working to maintain a mediocrity no one cares about becomes the norm, inverting healthy museum behavior. Instead, work becomes a virtue, and in the worst cases, a loyalty test. It’s brutal, and it’s unhealthy both organizationally and individually.
Don’t get me wrong. Even paranoids have enemies. As the country emerges from the pandemic and the concurrent economic downturn, many museums and heritage organizations, opening their doors for the first time, have more than enough PTSD to go around. And, if we’re to believe AAM’s studies, one in three of them will find themselves working through the myriad state regulations in order to close rather than grow. But one of COVID’s counter-intuitive blessings is that it’s given all of us a hinge moment, a fork in the road, an opportunity to ditch what didn’t work and start again differently.
Do you work in an organization where scarcity is the love language? How has it affected you? And by that I don’t mean are you underpaid or under-benefited? That’s another blog post. What I mean is has that culture started to affect you as a person? Have you developed a kind of “Don’t worry about me, if I fall, I fall” philosophy? How’s that working for you? When you read yet another piece about self care, do you secretly think, “Well, that’s not for us. We simply have too much on our plate?”
And yet who among us doesn’t benefit from a good night’s sleep, regular exercise, good nutrition, close friends, great music, laughter, you name it, all the things that refresh, recharge and sustain us. And sustaining us–leaders and their museum, archive and heritage teams–is key to building organizations better able to respond, rebuild, and change now we’ve arrived at the post-COVID fork in the road. So if you’re a leader of a museum or leading a museum team or program, consider the following:
- Do away with running on empty and acknowledge the importance of time spent on self: Spend five minutes in a staff meeting and ask everyone to report one thing they’ve done that counts as self-care.
- Are you and your team drinking enough? No, not the after work kind, the hydration kind. Sounds dumb, but adults often don’t drink enough. Hydration affects mood, memory and attention. Many sites have closed water fountains because of COVID. Sitting down for a meeting? Provide water.
- Vacation: Make it happen. No need to reiterate that it’s been a difficult and challenging year. For many Summer 2020 was either spent worrying in Zoom meetings or trying (and failing) to open or reopen. Americans are among the most overworked people in the world. If your organization offers paid vacation, make sure you (and your team)take what’s coming to them.
- Don’t forget to mentor or just engage with colleagues. Research shows that helping others, being empathetic, engaging in active listening as opposed to quick fixes, helps you as well.
- Take a moment: It’s almost summer. Go outside. As masks come off, plenty of folks are still experiencing COVID anxiety. Having a walking meeting or meeting outside may do your team a world of good.
- Don’t forget about you. It’s easy for leaders to model behavior they don’t actually follow themselves–to ask after their team’s well being, to empathize, to advocate for personal time, to make sure they leave in time for the final soccer game, kindergarten graduation, whatever, but harder to advocate for themselves. Try not to leave yourself out. There’s no virtue in a leader who’s chronically tired and emotionally drained.
Staying at work for 12-hour days is not a guarantee of productivity. Sometimes we just need to press pause. We all contribute–to our relationships, workplaces, and families–and to be good contributors we need to care for ourselves. That means making time to stop. A colleague, who’s a busy parent to three small humans, told me one of her new practices is rather than saying “Oh crap, I need to clean the bathroom,” she now sets her timer for 15 minutes, and does as much cleaning as she can before the timer goes off. That can work for self care too. Take 15 minutes and do what you need to do even if it’s nothing. You’ll be better for it, and maybe you’ll start to break the facade of self-sacrifice at your organization.
Be well, stay safe.