Search Museum Next

Combatting burnout in the museum sector

The term “burnout” isn’t a new one but it certainly feels like it’s a word that’s been on everyone’s lips for the last 12 months. As if the fast-paced “always on” modern lifestyle didn’t leave us all feeling highly strung enough, the onset of the pandemic has escalated the issue dramatically. Study after study now suggests that large portions of society are existing in a state of feeling run down, overworked, stressed and emotionally drained.

The term “burnout” was first coined in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger but there is little doubt that it is in the 21st century that the word has really embedded itself in public consciousness. Because of the uncertainty and chaos caused by the pandemic, many of us have been left feeling under strain and overburdened. It’s an affliction that has impacted workers across a range of industries – and the museum sector certainly has not been exempt from this.

Today’s culture runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with constant connectivity and a pervasive FOMO (fear of missing out) making us all feel like we need to go, go, go, when our minds really could do with some time to dial down and rest. Within the museum space, burnout can be a sign of overwork or challenging work conditions. However, mechanisms and systems can be put in place to ease this and support museum workers in their role.

Let’s take a closer look.

Identifying burnout

Anyone, at any level or step on the career ladder, can experience burnout. The wellbeing of museum workers is essential to the health of the museum itself, meaning that identifying burnout among museum staff is a vital component of building on success.

Some of the key signs of burnout include exhaustion (both physical and emotional), isolation and irritability. People with burnout are also more likely to experience escape fantasies about running away or travelling alone. They may turn to alcohol or other substances as a form of escapism.

When originally defining burnout, psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North outlined 12 phases of this stress-related syndrome:

  1. Excessive drive and ambition
  2. Pushing yourself to work harder
  3. Neglecting your own needs like sleep, exercise and eating well
  4. Displacement of conflict – blaming your boss or job role for your exhaustion
  5. Having no time for non-work related commitments like family and friends
  6. Denial of your circumstances, and blaming others for your low mood
  7. Withdrawal from social activities and hobbies
  8. Experiencing behavioural changes such as becoming more aggressive
  9. Depersonalisation, and feeling detached from your life
  10. Inner emptiness and anxiety
  11. Depression
  12. Mental or physical collapse

Prioritising wellbeing in museums

Research from the University of Washington expresses that, in order to recover from feeling burnt out, the identifying cause and nature of the burnout must be identified. The study found that the primary causes of burnout were a lack of control over workplace environments, schedules and assignments, unclear job expectations, dysfunctional workplace dynamics, monotony, high workload, a lack of social support and a poor work–life balance.

When these situations occur for museum workers, it can undermine the very purpose of an institution. After all, what is a museum if not a place to engage, inspire, intrigue and a place to escape the pressures of life. It is for this very reason that healthcare professionals often choose to prescribe museum visits as a form of treatment for mental health concerns like loneliness.

The museum environment is thought to improve health and wellbeing in a number of ways, outlined by the collaborative research project Museums, Health and Wellbeing. These include positive social interactions, calming experiences, learning opportunities, self-esteem boosts, positive distractions and increased opportunities.

So why might museum workers experience burnout, and what can be done to help them?

Tackling burnout in the museum sector

It is first worth asserting that museums as places for recreation and enjoyment are experienced differently when they are places of work. There is no getting the way from the fact that employment places demands on an individual that can be taxing, no matter what the environment or surroundings. After all, a 5-star holiday resort may be relaxing and therapeutic for a tourist but behind the scenes the hotel manager is still under pressure to deliver.

It is also essential to understand that many of the stressors that can impact museum staff, such as displacement, dysfunction and a lack of social support, have been exacerbated over the past two years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This makes addressing the root causes of burnout in museums all the more essential – beginning with any systemic issues within the venue’s usual protocol. Revising policies and procedures can help to improve workplace culture and create safe and accessible spaces.

It may also require setting clear and reasonable expectations when it comes to workplace assignments, establishing appropriate metrics of success, and making work environments as comfortable and inviting as possible by first communicating with staff about their workplace needs.

Giving staff the opportunity to ask for help safely and without judgement is paramount to effectively dealing with museum burnout. By catering to the needs of museum staff, venues themselves can flourish with a more peaceful, passionate and inviting landscape.

Find out more about the health and wellbeing issues currently impacting museums at the upcoming Museums, Health and Wellbeing Summit, running 31st January – 2nd February 2022.


Related Content

Centring cultural change: how to ensure that anti-racist engagement goes deeper within the museum sector

Elma Glasgow, founder of Elma Glasgow Consulting, is a national award-winning engagement consultant, storyteller, and communications expert. She shares her expertise in influencing positive change...

York museum transforms empty shop window into 24-hour museum

JORVIK Viking Centre has turned a former bookstore in the heart of the historic city of York into a 24-hour museum display offering daytime and...

Hello Future: Manchester Museum’s redevelopment – becoming ‘the museum our city needs’

At the end of last month Manchester Museum closed its doors until October 2022 to put the finishing touches to its £13.5m Hello Future project,...

Subscribe to the latest museum thinking

Fresh ideas from museums around the globe in your inbox each week