Staff are paying the price of funding cuts

A Museums Journal survey lays bare how museum employees are struggling with work-related stress. Geraldine Kendall reports
Profile image for Geraldine Kendall Adams
Geraldine Kendall Adams
Last month Museums Journal (MJ) ran what was intended to be a small online survey on how museum employees are being affected by cuts in funding.

Workplace stress and low morale are issues that are often raised anecdotally when MJ explores other sector issues, but although much has been done to assess the impact of austerity on museums, collections and the public, there is less evidence on the effect that the financial climate – which has brought redundancies, pay cuts, strikes and job insecurity – is having on the welfare of employees themselves.

The response to the questionnaire was unprecedented: it attracted 669 respondents, the highest number yet to complete any survey run on the Museums Association website.

Responses came from staff at every stage of their career, from trainee to leadership level, and from all museum types. Local authority and national museum staff were most strongly represented, each accounting for around one-third of the total, with one-fifth based at independent museums.

Human cost

The results of the survey offer a revealing insight into the human cost of austerity measures. An overwhelming majority of respondents, 84%, report that funding cuts have increased general levels of stress at their workplace. Just over half cite funding pressures as a major factor behind stress at work and a similar proportion say organisational restructuring is a big factor. Meanwhile, 45% say lack of job security is a key source of stress.

The survey demonstrates the high cost of stress to organisations in terms of lost days and productivity: 42% of staff say they have taken at least one day off sick due to stress and 72% say stress is having a negative impact on the quality of their work.

The survey also reveals the additional strain employees are facing in trying to maintain services in the face of falling staff numbers and diminishing resources – a massive 85% of respondents say they have seen an increase in their workload or working hours, without there being a corresponding change in their salary or job title.

More than two-thirds of all respondents say greater demands are being placed on them by management, while 50% say they have taken on more work because other roles have been made redundant. In addition, 44% say they feel obliged to do more to justify their position because of worries about job security. Others say that the pressure to meet income targets and bid for grants have added enormously to their workload.

The commitment of staff is apparent, however, with 64% saying they have taken on more work to maintain standards with fewer resources, and 56% saying they have done so because they care about their organisation.

The survey also makes clear that many respondents feel their organisation is not doing enough to mitigate stress, with 48% of respondents believing that they do not have a good support network.

What causes you most stress at work?

Poor management

Alongside spending cuts, bad practice in the workplace is also a big issue. More than two-thirds of respondents cite poor management as a major cause of stress, and others describe how bullying behaviour has worsened in the financial climate.

“[Management] don’t know how to handle bullying, especially with these cuts,” says one employee at a national museum site.

“You can’t see it, you can’t smell it, but it’s there.”

He describes how the dismissive response of his line manager when he tried to report a colleague’s bullying behaviour has left him even more demoralised.

“People are not aware of the impact,” he says. “If I had my arm in a sling people would see it, but you can’t see inside someone’s head.”

Stress is dependent as much on an individual’s personality and ability to cope as it is on external influences – as a number of respondents point out, some people thrive under pressure. But the overall results reveal that funding cuts are having a serious impact on many staff, affecting both their physical and mental health.

Worryingly, the survey also indicates that many museums are not fulfilling the duty of care they owe their employees, and some are making a bad situation worse through bad practice.

So what can be done to protect the wellbeing of staff and improve workplace culture, especially at a time of shrinking resources?

Fostering wellbeing

The good news is that many of the measures that can be put in place – such as allowing more flexible working hours and listening to staff – are not financially onerous, says Hilary Jennings, one of the founding members of the Happy Museum project, which aims to encourage museums to foster wellbeing and sustainability in their communities. This has funded several initiatives that take a holistic, organisation-wide approach to wellbeing.

Feelings of powerlessness and loss of agency can be a major factor in workplace stress. One project at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Ayrshire aimed to empower staff by encouraging “active citizenship”, whereby people were given a platform to bring their personal passions – and concerns – into the museum.

“It’s not just about mitigating stress – active citizenship can have a positive effect,” says Jennings. “If you get the whole of a person, you get so much more of their skills and strengths.”

Another museum has established a “happy tracker” system that asks staff to rate how they are feeling on an ongoing basis, rather than the once-a-year, tick-box approach to wellbeing found in many organisations.

Preventative measures to safeguard wellbeing are best, says Jennings, but even if the workplace culture has already turned toxic it’s not too late. A Happy Museum initiative at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol aimed to ease serious tensions that had arisen between disparate groups connected to the academy, including Friends, staff and board members – a situation exacerbated by the organisation’s critical financial situation.

The academy held an “open spaces” day to bring the warring factions together in an environment of reconciliation, encouraging them to focus on their one shared goal – the future success of the organisation.

A case study published afterwards described the results as “astonishing”; the project brought staff turnover to a near standstill, and the happier, more confident working atmosphere helped increase charitable donations to the organisation by 30%.

“Companies that promote good wellbeing reap rewards, in terms of boosting staff productivity, morale and retention, and reducing sickness absence,” says Emma Mamo, the head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind.

Echoing this belief, a report published last month by the New Economic Foundation put forward a set of proposals for businesses to put wellbeing at the heart of their business models.

Taking responsibility

Fostering staff wellbeing is not just a top-down measure, there are steps individuals can take to manage their own stress before it becomes intolerable.

“Acknowledge what your stress signals are,” says Tamsin Russell, a freelance heritage consultant and practising psychologist. “If you identify them you can deal with them more clearly and put a controlling strategy in place to help you cope.”

But as the survey reveals, many museum staff already feel demoralised and overworked – and there is only so much that can be done to mitigate the situation while funding cuts continue.

Under pressure

‘With so much change required it is inevitable there is going to be a high level of stress. More effective mechanisms for managing change in organisations might lead to less stress’

Leadership level employee, national museum

‘The pressure to make money with no training, resources, or strong leadership is laughable. I regularly go home and cry as I just can’t see things improving’

Entry/junior level employee, local authority museum

There are no longer enough staff to do all the work we have historically done... The additional stress this causes means we are all frazzled and short-tempered, so colleagues I once worked well with have become difficult to deal with’

Mid-career level employee, national museum

‘Chasing unsuitable funding and doing funded projects without adequate back-fill and recognition of the time that project management takes is a major problem. Funders need to take responsibility as well as employers’

Senior level employee, local authority museum

For advice on managing stress and improving workplace wellbeing, see

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.