Held Together by Humans: Museums and a Healthier Workplace

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.

Joan Baldwin


An Announcement Plus Women and Burnout

CIPHR Connect – https://www.flickr.com/photos/193749286@N04/51391533873/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=110070972, https://www.ciphr.com/

First, the announcement: In December this blog will be a decade old. As I’ve said more than a few times, it was started to support and augment the original publication of Leadership Matters. Later, when I worked for an epically bad leader, it helped me unpack workplace problems, and later still when I became an interim leader, it served as another type of sounding board. When I started this blog, I was literally alone. Yes, there were leadership blogs written for the business community, but there were few, if any, about the museum workplace. In fact, a decade or more ago, I would argue the field was actively engaged in NOT talking about working conditions.

Thankfully, that has changed. Today it’s a relief to share space with writers like Mike Murawski (Agents of Change,) Robert Weisberg (Museum Human,)and Paul Thistle from the country that’s friendly, foreign, familiar and near, and many more, including all those who confine their opinions to the Twitterverse, as well as organizations like Museum Hue, National Emerging Museum Professionals, and @changethemuseum. Together, I believe we all help change the culture of silence in the museum workplace. So with this good company, I’ve decided to take a tiny step back. Beginning February 14, Leadership Matters, will appear monthly on the second Monday of each month.

In keeping with my own pursuit of change–accepting, learning, growing–I realize there are other things I’d like to do on a weekend besides worrying my thoughts about museum leadership into a six-hundred word piece. So I’ll be here this week, next week, and then, going forward, monthly.

*******

And now to some thoughts on work. Long ago, in another lifetime, I was a ballet dancer. Like many girls I took daily classes while trying to decide whether I had the courage and talent to move from avid student to something more. Clearly I didn’t, but that’s not the point. Ballet dancers–at least female ones–are used to pushing themselves beyond what’s normal. They are the people choreographers make pieces “on” as opposed to “for.” Their teachers and choreographers push and push, and feet bleeding, muscles aching, they take it.

I thought about that this week when I realized I’d reached the proverbial wall. Shouldn’t I know better? Yes, but since the beginning of January I had said yes repeatedly, often to things outside my workplace lane, and the result? It was too much and my work was suffering. And let’s not even talk about work/life balance.

There is some kind of masochistic pride in overwork, and like many workplace behaviors, I believe it’s gendered. Women are used to “doing it all.” They are the finders, the doers, the schedulers, the nurse, and while I’m sure there are households where work is equitably shared, they are often cook, maid, and primary child, pet, and elder minder as well. Those same skills show up in the workplace, where no matter their job description, women fulfill roles as schedulers, planners, cleaner-uppers, and counselors, all while trying to preserve enough brain space for a few big thoughts.

Let me pause here to acknowledge my own position of privilege. I’m White, reasonably well-paid, my children are launched, and I have a solid benefit package. So my hitting the wall is a hang nail compared to what some women cope with. McKinsey’s January report on Burnout for Women in the Workplace reports that the rate of burnout between women and men has almost doubled since last year. The Report also says that despite their own increasing weariness, women take action more consistently than men to fight it, all while–at the corporate level, at least–delivering results, but at a great personal toll. It would be nice to know how these trends and behaviors play out in the museum world, but even with a workforce that’s 50.1-percent women, the field seems disinterested in spending money on knowing what its workforce thinks.

If you’re a woman and a woman leader, what can you do?

  • Keep talking. Speak with your colleagues–particularly women– your direct reports and those up the workplace food chain– about what you’re experiencing.
  • If you’re a leader, acknowledge women who do extra work, whether it’s workplace housekeeping, mentoring and counseling or logistics and planning.
  • Look at your HR policy. Policies aren’t one and done, they need to grow along with your team and your organization. If it’s been awhile, work on your HR policy.
  • Acknowledge how the current health crisis may propel your organization into a talent crisis, and what the costs might be.
  • Many museums want to diversify their workforces, but be alert to how being the only BIPOC woman can put a new hire in a space of otherness that as White on-boarders you never even thought about. Learn–which is a process, not something you get from reading an article–how to be an ally. Be a mentor, open doors, and explain the Byzantine rituals and culture of your organization.
  • When you lobby this month for your institution and museums in general, remember to mention how important societal supports are for working women, like maternity/paternity leave, childcare, and oh, how about the gender wage gap?

1.8 million women have left the workforce since the beginning of the pandemic. As far as I know, until the Bureau of Labor Statistics comes out with its 2021 numbers this spring, we won’t know how the museum world has been affected. But you might. You might be a woman or know a woman, who’s feeling like this world she struggled to enter has let her down, and she doesn’t have the best-job-ever any more. What can we do to change that?

Be well, be kind, and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


Trying to Plan in the Unsettling of COVID 2.0

John Fowler from Placitas, NM, USA – Chaotic Wave 2009, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64289851

I want to begin this post with a brief comment about this blog. It’s called Leadership Matters after my book with Anne Ackerson of the same name. If you’re a regular reader you know this blog isn’t only for people in leadership positions, nor is it written only for folks who believe in leader-modeled leadership. Instead, it is for humans who understand change begins with you, no matter where you are in the museum food chain or as Halla Tómasdóttir, former Icelandic presidential candidate put it, “”There’s a leader inside every single one of us, and our most important work in life is to release that leader.”

*******

Those of you who know me or who read this blog weekly, know I suffer from a bit of an organization streak. I love lists. The strikeout feature gives me chills. My love language is planning. I am happiest when it feels like the future is laid out, and might actually move according to plan.

In the workplace, these attributes sometimes win you kudos because you appear organized and forward thinking. In some cases that may be true. You finish the project on time. You come in under budget. You don’t drive your colleagues mad by changing your mind every few seconds and never having a plan. You are orderly. You may be this person or you may know this person. If so, you should have no trouble imagining what COVID has done to them, myself included, because COVID is the great unsettler.

I have two exhibits waiting in the wings. One which focuses on generosity and justice, with a nod to Darren Walker, and another explores the color blue as mood, hue or symbol through the work of 24 contemporary artists. Needless to say, COVID lurks in the background of both like a fault in the earth’s plates. From paint, to plexiglass, to gas prices, to the very presence of other humans–And what artist doesn’t want or expect an audience for their work?–to staffing, there’s literally nothing COVID hasn’t messed with. If you’re a planner, COVID redefines the word disruptive. You find yourself planning not just for one future, but for many. If this happens, I will do this, but if something else transpires, I need to do that.

The Generosity and Justice exhibit was supposed to follow our school community’s Martin Luther King Day activities. The day, traditionally one of no classes, dedicated to exploring the man, his mission, and Black culture as a whole, was derailed by a post-winter-break quarantine. Changing a date in the age of COVID means working around completely unreliable schedules because thanks to the Omicron variant, at any moment one or more staff could test positive while not feeling actually sick. So what do you do? You plan for all the possibilities you can imagine, and the future becomes not a path ahead, but a hydra headed beast.

I think we’re way past the age of the hero leader, the lone individual who works everything out in the sanctity of her office before sharing decisions with her staff. Successful museum leaders in the age of COVID are the ones who say “I help lead the blah de blah Museum,” not “I run the Blah de Blah.” In a world that’s continually changing no single human can master everything they need to know. They depend on a team to navigate the volatile nature of the pandemic world. So what does that mean for people like me who adore planning for the future, and really love having those plans work out? I think it means:

  • Living firmly in the present because no matter how much you want the future to comply with your wishes it likely won’t. I mean did we ever think there would be a time when our loved ones could be hospitalized and die without our being there?
  • Working to protect our teams so they feel safe.
  • Working with our teams, creating a variety of answers to every problem so we can pivot, maybe not happily, but easily, knowing there isn’t one path, but several.
  • Acknowledge our mistakes speedily and publicly to earn trust and thus increase colleague’s feelings of safety.

And for those, like me, who live for checking the box, living a little more in the present, with all its possibilities, might not be the worst thing.

Be well, get boostered, keep your colleagues safe, and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


Raising the Wellness Flag in 2022

By Jan Jacobsen – http://www.worldpeace.no/THE-WHITE-FLAG.htm, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3601988

We’re only a few days into the New Year and already it’s deja vu all over again. In fact, if I were cleverer this is the moment to cue the music and hear “COVID is Here to Stay,” to the tune written by George Gershwin and made famous by Tony Bennett and Diana Krall. I mean doesn’t it feel like….???

In time the Rockies may crumble
Gibraltar may tumble
They’re only made of clay
But COVID is here to stay.

It’s hard to believe this winter could be more difficult than the spring of 2020, but it may be. This week I read an NPR article quoting Gaurav Suri, a computational neuroscientist at San Francisco State University who studies how humans make decisions. Suri says humans are tuned to make decisions around stability, not surrounded by rapid-fire change. No kidding. And you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to know uncertainty makes us anxious. That, coupled with the real-life possibility of giving or getting the COVID virus, makes life super stressful.

How are museum and heritage organization leaders supposed to lead when everyone is constantly on edge? How can we keep work from becoming a relentless marathon of worry and anxiety as we spend days trying to do our jobs, often in new ways, while trying not to get or spread the virus? There are likely a million different answers to that question, but one might be to make 2022 a year for workplace wellness.

Not everyone can follow the Cincinnati Art Museum’s lead and press pause, but it is a great example of how an organization prioritizes staff health and wellness. It’s especially farsighted since it now appears many organizations will need to either reduce visitation or close entirely this month. CMA is closed from January 3-12 and staff is fully compensated. According to the article, the museum suggests employees “choose to reconnect with family or work in a food bank, this pause allows us to grow individually while we all grow collectively.” Awesome, right? Not only because it acknowledges what staff gave their community over the past 18 months, but because it says CMA prioritizes staff well being, not just as productive museum educators, exhibit designers or shop sales assistants, but as good-hearted humans.

Maybe you can’t institute an organizational wellness pause. Maybe no one would listen even if you suggested it. So…. what can you do instead? First, start with yourself. As a leader, do you model wellness and self care? Think about how hard it might be for staff to ask a leader (you) for time off when you arrive early, stay late, send after-work emails, and seem permanently stressed. So start by modeling personal self care coupled with some sharing and transparency.

Sharing doesn’t mean an exhaustive account your toddler’s gruesome stomach virus, you and your partner’s lack of sleep, or how food makes you vaguely nauseous, yet you still soldier on. Instead, it might mean saying “I have a sick child, an exhausted partner, and for the next two days I’ll be leaving early. Please let me know if you find yourself in a similar position.” And remind everyone that the rules from when they were in day care or kindergarten still apply: Even if you don’t have COVID, stay home for 24 hours after a fever or vomiting.

Think about taking meetings out of doors, while walking, if possible. Many of us work in beautiful places. Encourage your team to take 15 minutes a day to walk–inside or out–to change perspective or feel the sun on their face. Even walking to a favorite gallery or room in a heritage site and doing some slow looking can help break the relentless cycle of stress, more stress, crabbiness, repeat. If it helps, encourage staff to listen to music. Some organizations have a room for quiet study, where staff can retreat when they need uninterrupted me-time to re-focus and regenerate. And encourage staff to share anxiety-coping ideas with one another. For example, begin a meeting by asking everyone to share an app, a tool, a practice for stress relief that works for them. Supporting one another is increasingly important as the workplace fluctuates between home and office, causing the personal and professional to overlap in ways it didn’t prior to the pandemic.

I say this often, but if you lead an organization, as opposed to a team, when was the last time you looked at your HR policy? Sometimes small changes mean a lot. Does your policy offer personal time off (PTO) as opposed or in addition to sick time? Offering sick time as the only way NOT to come to work is different from providing personal time-off. PTO gives employees the agency to make their own decisions, something every adult needs. Granted paid sick time off is better than no time off, but why should an HR plan encourage employees to be less than truthful? And if it’s a choice between coming to work feeling stressed over leaving a sick family member or losing pay, what do you think employees do? They come to work stressed and quasi-sick. They aren’t their best selves, and they open the door to making others sick, not just with COVID, but with everyday viruses as well.

Whether you’re dealing with staff who are clinically ill, caring for others, or weary and stressed, you need some self-understanding. To return to neuroscience, remember what Brené Brown says about connection: “Shame is the fear of disconnection,” and we feel shame when we think we have to explain we’re not up to the task. Brown says we all feel that we’re not enough. We’re not thin enough, fit enough, smart enough, cool enough, and on and on. Yet people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they are worth it. Some how they learned vulnerability makes them beautiful and necessary. Brown reminds us we can’t treat others with compassion if we don’t treat ourselves compassionately. If you haven’t heard her Ted talk on vulnerability, start your New Year with that. Start with not being certain, start with being compassionate, start with being whole-hearted. It won’t end COVID, but it will help take your team through what promises to be another challenging year.

So…begin 2022 by making sure your HR policy provides a structure for empowerment on the part of your employees. If you’re into New year’s resolutions, make one about finding the courage to access the vulnerable part of you, and give it a little daylight. And then take that courage and compassion and pay it forward. Your colleagues, your team, your staff will thank you, and they will pay it forward too.

Be well. Stay safe. Get your booster. Wear your mask. Do good work, and despite the mess the world is in, or maybe because of the mess the world is in, I hope 2022 is a year full of creativity, kindness, and compassion for all of you.

Joan Baldwin