An art project from the Arteffact programme at Conwy Archives

How can museums support staff wellbeing as sector looks towards reopening?

Sam Jenkins and Anne Sharman, 08.06.2020
Advice for employers and employees from the Museum Wellness Network
Now that Covid-19 lockdown restrictions are starting to ease across the UK, many museums are trying to balance the business need of re-opening with the obligation to keep all staff, volunteers and visitors safe.

Alongside these high-level operation conversations, other questions are being asked by staff on the ground.

Is it possible to minimise the risk of infection when some scientists are advising that coronavirus isn’t going anywhere? Will we have a job to go back to once this is all over?

Are projects and exhibitions going to be cancelled or so dramatically changed that the work done thus far is irrelevant? How can I even get into work in a socially-distant way if I have to use public transport?

Employers across all sectors must be mindful that their teams are going to be anxious about these issues and more. Furloughed colleagues returning to work may face anxiety to ‘catch up’, but also pressure to prove their value in case redundancies are looming in a financially-hit sector.

Colleagues who have been working while juggling childcare risk burnout, not to mention the anxiety surrounding their children’s’ return to nursery or school. And people with underlying or pre-existing physical and mental conditions may need additional support in the coming months.

As we begin to think about what a post-lockdown museum visit may look like we must think about the experience, fears, and knowledge base or our teams. We must use their expertise to make our work spaces safe.

Here are some of the things we recommend:

  • Check in with colleagues, employees, and volunteers. See how they are doing, and ask what they are worried about. You can only help if you know what the worries are.

  • Check that the people responsible for HR are resourced and trained to deal with the additional support people may need in the coming months. Have conversations and make decisions about what this support may mean – more flexible working? Being able to work from home? Mental health first aid?

  • Ask front-of-house colleagues what they need to feel safe. They will know the pinch points of the building, visitor routes and, most importantly, visitor behaviour. Listen to what they have to say and show you are listening. If you can’t enact some of the changes, let them know why.

  • Use people’s expertise. Ask exhibition leads how interpretation or layouts may need to be changed, and check with collections colleagues how they think collections can be safeguarded when they may not be able to physically get to the site.  

  • Remember, and make sure your staff know, that everything is weird at the moment. Productivity is likely to be down compared to how you judged it before the pandemic, because we are collectively experiencing a traumatic event. And that’s not likely to change once we open our doors again. Our markers for productivity and progress are different now, and this has to be borne in mind.

  • Make sure the workplace culture focuses on wellbeing. This needs to be the end of ‘presenteeism’ in the sector. Coming into work if you are sick is now very dangerous, regularly working longer hours than contracted and failing to take it back is damaging to your mental and physical health and we all need to try and be as healthy as possible right now. Check in and make sure your staff know this and what their priorities should be if they’re regularly finding they have too much work to complete in contracted hours.

  • Communicate! Tell your colleagues what you are thinking and planning, whether they’re working from home, on site, or furloughed. A lack of communication makes people feel alienated and forgotten, and in the lead up to reopening it will make people feel more anxious if they don’t know what the plans are.

Whether you're an employer or an employee, if you are worried about these issues then we encourage you to be open with your sector colleagues in the UK and internationally – and, if relevant, your line managers or board.

At the Museum Wellness Network we want people to feel that they are never alone. Your employer may have a crisis or assistance line you can use to talk to someone, or other mental health support such as mental health first aiders.

There are also non-museum resources you can make use of during this difficult time:

Now more than ever we need a supportive, collaborative museum sector. Keep talking and keep safe.

Sam Jenkins and Anne Sharman run the Museum Wellness Network (@Museum_Wellness)


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09.06.2020, 08:45
"Are projects and exhibitions going to be cancelled or so dramatically changed that the work done thus far is irrelevant?"

The above is a huge concern. I worry so much about this I sometimes can't sleep at night, and I'm not alone among my colleagues. Vast amounts of work put in, pre-lockdown, towards exhibitions which now may not happen, or if they do, we don't know when, and they may get few visitors, making it hardly worth going ahead. Do we bite the bullet and pull these shows, postpone them, change them to some kind of an online format? Who makes this decision, when and how?

There is no easy answer. We will just have to gamble. If the decision is postponed too long there may be no time to put the exhibition together anyway, when neither conservators nor designers can get onto site and don't know when they will be able to do so.

One very unhappy curator

09.06.2020, 15:18
Hi, I can completely understand particularly for the amount of work to produce an exhibition. However, there would be a way to connect with audiences via a digital platform or platforms to reach out to shielded people which is both inclusive and engaging based on the exhibition. This doesn't have to be expensive, happy to have a chat via With Best Wishes Becki
08.06.2020, 21:58
Surely there should be a reference to unions here? Unions are an essential way to organize and protect workers safety. My union Prospect has been responsive to my own enquiries. Not all museums recognize unions (though they should) but many unions will be an essential negotiator in helping protect people on their return to work and regardless of whether they work in a museum that recognizes their union all museum workers have a right to be a member of a union and through membership can access essential advice and protection.