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Questions and Suggestions from the Blackbaud Self-care Webinar

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

On Wednesday, August 8, over 300 museum professionals joined CFM director Elizabeth Merritt and Seema Rao, principal of Brilliant Idea Studio, to explore self-care in the museum workplace. The presentation, hosted by Blackbaud and building on CFM’s TrendsWatch 2019, touched on ways that museum workers can design their own self-care practices, how museums can support selfcare, and how museums can reform their organizational practices in ways that reduce the need for self-care.  Readers can access a recording of the event here. (This will look like a registration page, but when you “register” it will redirect you to the session recording.) In today’s post, Seema and Elizabeth answer some of the questions during the webinar, and share suggestions contributed by participants. [Note, some questions have been edited in the interests of privacy.]


Q: How to do you recommend combating guilt over self-care? Sometimes when I engage in self-care and take a break, I feel guilt that I am not actively doing something or being productive, especially when I have projects that need to be completed or while job searching. (And a similar question) I often feel that if I’m not stressed, I’m not trying/working hard enough. Do others feel guilty at their job if they aren’t stressed?

(Seema) In some museum work places, the culture of stress is tied to perceived effort, as you mention. But effort and efficacy are not the same. Being busy or even spending volumes of time on something aren’t equivalent to doing something well. It can be hard to move against the tide about this, but try to focus your own thought away from seeing ‘being stressed” as equivalent to “trying”. I’d encourage you to try to remember work is a marathon. People who sprint too early in a marathon rarely succeed. See your de-stressing efforts as a form of improving your work.

(Elizabeth) Women are particularly prone to feeling guilty about taking time to care for themselves, perhaps because it feels at odds with societal expectations of women as caregivers. To combat that guilt, the authors of this article from PsychCentral—”How to Stop Feeling Guilty about Practicing Self-Care”—suggest reminding yourself that practicing self-care helps you to help others more effectively. Rachel Cole writes, “Self-centered women are their own compass. Their own north-stars. They navigate these choppy waters as an eye in the storm. This is why we so often take refuge in their work, words, and presence.”

Q: Do you know any museums that have implemented telecommuting successfully?

(Elizabeth) Unfortunately, we don’t have any museum telecommuting policies in the Alliance sample documents library, but now that you’ve asked, we are on the hunt. Meanwhile, you might take a look at this blog post on museum telecommuting Liz Filardi wrote while she worked at the Met.

And if you are looking for data to support a telecommuting policy, take a look at this compilation of research from Global Workplace Analytics. Sample facts: 72% of employers say telework has a high impact on employee retention, over two-thirds of employers report increased productivity among telecommuters, and telecommuting programs reduce unscheduled absences by 63%.

Also, if you put some of these policies in place, let us know. We’d love to share.

Q: Do you know of any resources for DEAI trainings? Any webinars or groups that can come to your museum to do in-person training?

(Elizabeth) As far as groups that do in-person trainings, the Alliance is working with deepSEE, Interculturalist, and The Winters Group for trainings. Several of our DEAI fellows are also consultants (Cecile Shellman, Azuka MuMin, Aiko Bethea, Makeba Clay). See also this book about DEAI work from Sara Taylor (of deepSEE), Filter Shift: How Effective People See the World, that the Alliance is giving to all the Facing Change museum board members as a tool during the program.

Q: I work in a museum that has a [conservative religious] governing board. I am a bisexual cis woman. My director and I sat down and talked about how they could help me reconcile my identity as an out woman with having to be “closeted” in the workplace.  Is there a way to still be myself and figure out the right boundaries without losing my job? 

First, love and support to you for coping with a stressful situation. It’s great that you’ve opened a dialog with your director about this issue. For help with this question, we reached out to Anna Woten, Chairperson of the AAM LGBTQ+ Alliance. Anna writes:

“This is a very tricky situation that we actually see a lot within the museum field: 46% of LGBTQIA+ people are closeted at work, which is only slightly better than 10 years ago. For transgender people, this number goes up to 77%. The updated 2019 version of the LGBTQ+ Alliance’s Welcoming Guidelines and the Toolkit for Trans Inclusion (both can be found here) include sections discussing similar situations. That would be a great place to start. You might also want to reach out the LGBTQ+ Alliance directly (, for help figuring out what’s best for your particular situation. For example, even if you can’t be out at work, you may be able to participate in the professional network in some way that allows you to be professionally connected and yet keeps you safe. Many of our Task Force for Trans Inclusion members do this because they are stealth, meaning they have already transitioned but nobody at their place of employment knows they are transgender.”

(We also note that the Human Rights Campaign hosts a list of resources for LGBTQ employees. Perhaps something there would be helpful.)

Q: How do you combat the feeling of needing to do work while at home (projects)?   

(Elizabeth) I like this advice from Kat Boogard on The Everygirl. Short version: accept you’re not going to be perfect 100% of the time; recognize your limitations; create a schedule, including the time at which you will “unplug” from work each night; communicate clearly with colleagues about your boundaries; enlist others in the process of holding yourself to these boundaries; and remember that whatever schedule you create will need to change over time.

(Seema) The work-life balance is individual, both in terms of our personalities, but also our types of work. So many of us do this work because it is also our hobby.  For example, when I taught studio classes, ages ago, I often did projects at home, because I wanted my children involved. Other times, I enjoyed doing research at night. It was work, but something I also see as part of my life. I try to assess when I find work at home detrimental to life at home. At that point, I make choices, like saying no to work or no to meetings. I’ve been lucky enough to be in work situations where I have flexibility, and I have always encouraged it of my staff. But, I know not all of us have that option. If you are in a more rigid situation, then I think you do need to put down more rigid boundaries between work and life. Sanity and wellness need to prevail. So look at the situation you are in, and what makes you feel best, then plan accordingly.

Q: Would you share some resources about the business costs of lack of self-care?

(Elizabeth) Here’s a great article in the Harvard Business Review on the cost to employers of employee burnout, a staggering $125 to $190 billion a year in healthcare spending. Research suggests that burnout can be responsible for up to 50 percent of turnover, and the Work Institute’s 2017 Retention Report estimates it costs as much as 33% of a worker’s annual salary to replace that person if they leave. And for evidence linking self-care to a reduction in burnout, see this study on US medical students and this thesis on mental health professionals.

Also note that the (for-profit) Do Friday project has built a business around a compelling pitch on the importance of employee happiness as a Key Performance Indicator.

Q: Do you have any suggestions to deal with the financial strain of working in the museum field when money is tight in the organization, but the salary is barely sufficient for a living wage?

(Elizabeth) On a practical note, check to see if your museum offers an employee assistance program—it’s often bundled with a life insurance program. These programs typically provide (confidential) counseling on a number of issues, including financial management.

Tactically, you can use MIT’s Living Wage Calculator to help make the case for a pay rate that enables employees to cover the cost of living (including adequate food, childcare, health insurance, housing, transportation, and other basic necessities) in your geographic area.

Psychologically, it may help to remind yourself that you have choices. Try listing the non-monetary rewards you get from your museum job—doing what you love, autonomy, the environment—and assign a dollar value to those intangibles. Is the total, together with your salary, adequate compensation for your time? Or would you feel better pursuing a job that is more financially and/or personally rewarding? Museum professionals tend to be highly educated and museum experience results in a host of transferable skills such as project management, communications, and design. Your training and experience may position you to compete for well-paid jobs in other fields.

And note that budgeting for self-care may be a financially sound decision, as stress can cause people to make poor financial choices.

Q: Has anyone done a study about stress compared across size of museums vs job function(s)/responsibilities vs. years in field vs. type of museum to see what factors could relate to stress levels?                                   

A: Not that we know of. But that sounds like a great topic for a museum studies thesis!

Q: What are your thoughts on lunchtime activities?  Does it take away from break time, and suggest the activity isn’t important enough for work time?  Or does it emphasize the informality?  We’re having more and more “brown bag training” sessions along with lunch walks, etc. and I’m concerned about the encroachment.

(Seema) This is a great question, and a hard one. As a manager, I’ve become very aware of this challenge. I don’t schedule essential training during lunch. I want people to have flexibility to do what they need during lunch. That said, some museums don’t have enough time in the day to schedule such meetings. If those brown bags are essential for your work, and as such you are taking them at lunch without pay, I would invite you to talk to your HR about your concerns. That said, I think collective lunch can be an important way to grow social connections between staff. Grabbing a lunch with a colleague is a great way to improve your quality of life at work. Just know yourself, and how much social interaction is best for you, so that you don’t burn out.

Q: What advice would you give for those of us that are members of a leadership team, but have an executive director who doesn’t make time for conversations like this?

(Seema) Many directors delegate staff concerns to their executive team. I would encourage leaders to frame their discussions about wellness and self-care as part of their other work running a successful team. Your curators cannot mount quality exhibitions if they are overwhelmed. Your educators will run more successful engagement programs if they are not emotionally raw. Connect your output, and the eventual improvement in operations, with any wellness efforts you are planning. Directors are running organizations, so if your efforts make the organization run better, they will be interested.

Q: How would you recommend people in non-management positions advocate for the importance of self-care to management/administration?     

(Seema) This is a challenging question. Wellness should be the work of the leaders for their staff, but it doesn’t often happen. The staff then is forced to advocate for themselves, often finding themselves in an emotionally detrimental position to ask for self-care. The whole things is a bit wonky. What is the solution? You might start by discussing your feelings with your colleagues. If you find a groundswell in the staff, together you could talk to your leaders or HR. Collective action can decrease personal risk or stress.

(Elizabeth) You can also download a copy of TrendsWatch 2019 and share it with members of your leadership team. Perhaps the fact that the American Alliance of Museums has identified self-care as an issue worthy of museums’ attention will help jumpstart a conversation!

Q: We are reviving our Wellness Team at our museum and wondered if there were any guidelines or suggestions that someone may have?

(Seema) I am just starting to think about this as well. I don’t have resources, but I can share my philosophy. Wellness is not a one-size-fits-all. Each museum staff has its own culture born of the particular challenges of their own work. Listen to your staff to hear their needs and work with them to create your wellness program. Offer them transparency about your process and motivations. Be thoughtful about scheduling so that you don’t add stress while trying to offer wellness. And invite plenty of opportunities for feedback. Make sure the staff knows this is not just cosmetic. Let them know this is a long-term effort to transform your work place. People know when something feels half-hearted. Show them how much you care about these efforts.

(Elizabeth) I tagged this article from Forbes early in my self-care research. It offers ten suggestions for potential wellness practices in the workplace. (The most unusual is hosting a comedy event in the office.) More recently I came across this list from the HR services company RISE, highlighting ten example of what they think are really good wellness programs. But as Seema says, wellness is contextual—fit-test these ideas to your culture before you wade in.

Q: How do you talk to your leadership team about creating a culture that recognizes that work is not 24/7 and that that is not and should not be an expectation?

(Seema) I’m a big fan of articulating norms. While structure seems antithetical to flexibility, I think of good organizations like skyscrapers, amazingly high functioning because of their steel structure. Try to find a time you can work with leadership to discuss this issue. If you’re not on leadership consider encouraging this behavior in your own department. Once it works in your department, you can ask your leader to make it organization wide.    

Q: How do we ensure our workplace will put some of these methods in place?

(Seema) Many of these efforts become successful when there is a critical mass or zeitgeist around an idea. The importance of staff wellness isn’t something one museum is doing. It’s a huge topic across the field. Take this moment, where so many people are discussing this, as a chance to encourage your decision-makers to stay current. After all, peer pressure isn’t always bad. Also, I want to remind every individual that their personal wellness is the most important aspect of this. If ensuring wellness is part of your workplace increases your stress, you should probably either back off for a bit or find a cohort to help you. You are the most important part of this equation; keep yourself well above all else.

As is true in any class, the collective experience of participants in the webinar far exceeded that of the instructors! Here are some of the suggestions and examples shared by participants:

“My organization hosts a monthly event intended to gather employees across departments for a social hour. Every department claims a month to host the rest of the staff and volunteers. These are themed often and I find myself looking forward to these monthly events because I make it a goal to meet a new person since we are such a large organization. The budget to do this came from a longtime volunteer who left money in his will to fund this social time and more importantly to acknowledge each other.”

“I’m in the education department which often has younger and more open-minded employees in touch with more modern terminology. We’re undergoing gender pronoun and sensitivity training and I would like for this training to be spread to the larger museum. It’s a start at least!”

“I don’t know how successful it’s been as I’m sure how to measure the success, but at my job we started an Employees Activities Committee (EAC) where staff member volunteer to plan staff events like bake sales where the proceeds go to a local charity, a Bake Off challenge with a small prize, group visits to other local museums, and staff happy hours.”

“We used to have a big problem with workplace culture, so when the new president came in, that was one of his major tasks. One of the best things we have is that every Friday morning he or the chief curator picks up donuts and makes a big batch of coffee and all staff is invited to just hang out in the lobby and talk from 8:30-9:30 am. Perfect way to kick off a Friday and break down barriers between departments/co-workers.”

“Personal self-care: leaving work on time, not checking email after work hours, reading books not related to work, acupuncture, nature, actively avoiding talking about work when outside of work.”

“This is very simple, but my coworkers and I occasionally go on little food adventures on our breaks at least once a week. We do live in NYC which makes delicious bakeries more accessible! If they’re not walkable for some of you, perhaps having a treat hour might work better.”

“We just did an attitude assessment test and discussed it at our all staff meeting. Then talked about what we all need to do to make our work environment positive. Personal responsibility rather than blame game; coming from solution. We also shared ways we could decrease stress on the job and personal. For FT staff we have an Employee Assistance Program that offers 8 free sessions with a counselor. We are also not taking anything new on and are using a guide to assess why we are doing what we are doing.”

“I’ve just started looking into the Science of Happiness at Work – a project of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. They have a free online EdX course that looks promising for museum administrators and HR professionals. For individuals, they also have a podcast called the Science of Happiness.”

“I work at a museum inside a park with public gardens and we have found it is relaxing to walk in the gardens without nametags or logos, but if you are wearing your work shirt people will stop and ask garden questions we can’t answer… which adds to stress!”

“I try and organize a craft get together (it normally happens just once a year). But it’s a nice way for us to sit together in the library and just do something that is not work.”                   

“I work at Newfields (formerly known as the Indianapolis Museum of Art) in Indy and we are encouraged to explore the galleries or the gardens (we have a 152-acre campus) during the day when we need a break. Since I started my job here I take a daily walk through the gardens when it’s nice out or walk through a gallery and it has helped so much! My stress has been so much more manageable since I joined Newfields compared to my previous place of employment.”

And one of our favorite suggestions (for museums where this is practical):

Therapy dogs!!!!!”

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1 Comment

  1. Sadly, I missed the 8 August event & am very appreciative of this access to the Q&A as well as to the webinar recording. Thank you!

    In my view, self-care is necessary–but sadly not sufficient–for solving the problems of museum work culture.

    How do we address the CAUSES rather than simply dealing with the SYMPTOMS of the problems in the museum culture of unresourced expectations -> overwork -> stress -> burnout -> drop out?

    Is museum management by constantly attempting to “do more with less” & the above outcome pattern not one of the primary causes of museum worker distress that needs to be addressed as a high priority?
    Thanks for thinking about this.

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