The Burnout Dilemma

The Burnout Dilemma

4 min read

Is burnout in the museum field something particular to the sector, or just another expression of the rotten Matrix? And which do we tackle first?

Writing about workplace and profession burnout is everywhere. Each day seems to bring more articles and tweets from another great colleague leaving the museum field. This, from Lori Byrd-McDevitt, might have been written for people in museum social media, but it fits just about everyone in our civilization except the 1%:

Employers need to take the impetus to help social media managers avoid burnout. This is especially true in museums where one individual might be juggling multiple jobs in one or may be the central point of content for many departments. I’m done with articles telling me what I should do to avoid burnout. Start writing articles sharing what they should do to help prevent it, and increase my emotional wellbeing to boot.

I'm one of those scribes who have written about burnout in the form of exhaustion from change on many levels. As Lori points out, advice can internalize the problems and solutions when the issues are structural and societal. This is one of the major criticisms of programs to combat implicit bias: digestible 3-afternoon-class and 45-minute-video chunks become boxes we check off on a self-improvement list.

A Lego™ piece man with a stressed expression sitting at a desk.
The desk of the damned. (Photo: Image by www_slon_pics from Pixabay)

Museums in the US as workplaces live at a paradoxical edge. They are legacy-driven in practice but with pockets of innovation and community concern. Huge fundraising sums for new wings and endowed positions exist alongside, in an alternate dimension, meager and unequal staff salaries. To cynical museum workers, progressive organizational terminology might as well be nonsensical signals from alien civilizations.

So are we in the cultural sector supposed to celebrate our specialness or claim common cause with the large body of capitalism's victims?

Is Burnout an "Ism"?

Books and articles about wellbeing can be useful. (I have a list of articles from this blog related to workplace burnout below.) Burnout, however, fails as a critique on the level of raising the visibility of museum-sector salaries in all their paucity and inequality.

Workism is a term gaining some traction (check out articles here, here, here, here, and a thoughtful counterpoint here). The question which follows is, if working too hard has become a hallmark of our modern economy, then what are we to do? Calling for a more thoughtful approach by seeking meaning, rather than happiness and freedom from shitty work, still internalizes the problem if it focuses on the individual worker.

Interesting research (paywall) shows that workplace meaning is an internal experience but that meaninglessness is imposed upon workers. Hence the adage that people quit bosses, not jobs. The authors cite five qualities of workplace meaning—self-transcendent, poignant, episodic, reflective, personal—and seven "deadly sins" by which leaders create meaninglessness:

  1. Disconnect people from their values
  2. Take your employees for granted
  3. Give people pointless work to do
  4. Treat people unfairly
  5. Override people’s better judgment [this aligns with what I hear a lot, allowing a lack of accountability]
  6. Disconnect people from supportive relationships
  7. Put people at risk of physical or emotional harm

The positive qualities are internal states but the sins are actions. (Not to miss out on lists, I mentioned five scarcities imposed from above in my recent post on Inbox Zero.) Many religions wouldn't have thrived if sins were so easy to solve. (A lot of guns and steel didn't hurt, either.)

The UN's World Health Organization claims that burnout is real but calls it a syndrome, an "occupational phenomenon," rather than a medical condition. There are burnout deniers and those who accuse deniers of gaslighting. Harvard Business Review considers burnout real enough to constantly devote articles to the topic (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

In the museum field—like many others—long hours and low wages are treated as dues for the perfectionists who seem to gravitate there. Creative tension is lauded as a chaotic engine of how great work gets done. Overwork, and the ability to assign it, is a sign of power. Whose obligation is it to change this corrupting currency?  

Perhaps we are looking at burnout the wrong way. The debate over whether burnout is a medical condition would be better framed as whether burnout is a symptom of a complex system. If workplaces were viewed through the lens of biology, as ecosystems, we might get closer to a solution. Enforced busyness is a sign of a system gone wrong.

The same Lego™ figure from earlier now surrounded by Star Wars™ stormtroopers.
This is the burned-out worker you're looking for. (Photo: Image by www_slon_pics from Pixabay)

Too many of our discussions nibble at the edges—we talk about how we have too many meetings, bad to-do lists, overstuffed personal agendas, or too much email. I used to say I preferred email to meetings or phone calls because I could keep working, but in fact I was avoiding bad, back-to-back, performative meetings. The phone calls I dodged were often in response to badly-worded emails on my part. Quick, stand-up chats are now my favorite problem-solving forum, and I'm looking to see how we can move past looking for software solutions to teamwork problems.

Changing deep workplace dynamics calls for a commitment to agency, often through multi-disciplinary, self-organized (and evolving) teams. Becoming workplace Bodhisattvas, committed to the enlightenment of others, is a practice which takes daily effort over years. Social media and bingeing content denies people the opportunity to recharge after a long day of work, and that is just as much by design as the long days of work themselves.

So we have to smash The Matrix?

Yes. Half-measures not only put the onus for effective change on the individual but also monetizes that change. Stand up for a system which doesn't baseline overwork as the standard.

(Main image credit: Image by succo from Pixabay)

Here are some past posts from this blog directly or indirectly addressing burnout:

I work on a bit of everything in museum content. I find human solutions to tech problems. I geek out on workflow. No, really. I learn and teach and write everything down.