What an honor it is to be here featured on Museum Drip. As someone outside of the museum world, it feels a bit like sitting at the cool kids’ table. I’m not positive how I got here, I hope you like me, and please don’t ask me to name my favorite artist because they are probably SO mainstream.
My name is Diana Fuller-Dupont, and I’m the daily self-care strategies coach behind Watered Grass LLC. I’ve also been a school psychologist for the past 8 years. I got the invite to be here from Kate thanks to a decades long friendship that started in geometry class, but I promise I have more to offer than just behind the scenes knowledge of the woman behind the Drip. Let me start by explaining how I got here in your browser.
Museums, public education, and mental health have a decent list in their Venn Diagram overlap. I’ve especially related to the content here on Museum Drip regarding representation, ethics, and workspace dynamics as those are the backbones of both of my careers— mental health is nothing without representation, ethics, and a supportive environment. As a fellow worker in a public space, you can add to that overlap the experience of figuring out how to create safe and accessible spaces and services during the different stages of the pandemic. While I may need you to explain your role to me in the museum world, we can definitely keep the conversation flowing based on trying to keep up with CDC guidelines alone.
One of the topics that has come up frequently in my never ending text chat with Kate has been workplace mental health. It’s not something that’s discussed much in education prior to entering the work world, and internship experiences with it really depend on your supervisor’s willingness to get real with you; but since March of 2020, it has become even more complex to navigate. Our brains were asked to reinvent the wheel repeatedly when it came to our careers and home lives; and despite many workplaces now being “business as usual”, the effects are still there. Personally, I’ve noticed the signs of burnout more than ever before in my career due to those ever-changing demands and new problems to solve. Decision fatigue, exhaustion, brain fog, word finding issues… all of these side effects impact not just how we show up in our career performance, but in our personal lives as well. When your job is a publicly facing entity, that can be even more difficult; we’re not just here for our own performance, but for a receiving audience. Whether a museum, a school, a corporation, or a small business, discussing mental health care practices in the workspace is important. So, let’s talk about it.
Also in that center of the Venn diagram is how I prefer to approach these topics. Much like previous Drip posts, I like to bring humor to the conversation. It’s one of my strongest coping skills long cultivated over my lifetime- and that coping strategy helps me to bounce back and find positivity when things go sideways. I also like to provide collaborative solutions, rather than simply listing all that is wrong. If I were just to complain about the powers that be and what they do not provide, it only fuels those divisions in our workspaces that are contributing to the general burnout many are feeling. We can’t approach these topics with black-and-white thinking, because there are a lot of good intentions behind the things that are being done—but just like adjusting to social distancing, new challenges require new approaches.
What we’re currently doing
Through a mix of in-person conversations, research, and Instagram polls, I’ve been digging into what the current practices are around workplace mental health—particularly honing in on careers that have some element of service to others. Again with the Venn diagram (we love a good visual), it seems like there’s some kind of administrator guidebook where several of the same ideas keep showing up, regardless of whether you’re at a museum, school, corporate office, or any other coworking space. Even more interesting, is that there are some mixed reviews on these different strategies for stress management. I wonder if you’ve encountered any of the following:
- Food: Be it the donut breakfast, pizza party, or catered lunch, this was by far the top submission for ways that workspaces try to show appreciation and improve morale.
- Pros: There is nothing wrong with food as an approach; it gives an “acts of service” love language vibe and helps meet a common human need. Plus, it adds a little excitement to the typical workday. Nothing breaks up the monotony of a Wednesday like an ice cream truck pulling up!
- Cons: While filling our bellies, this approach doesn’t do much to take away the stressors leading to burnout. Food provides dopamine, and that helps us to balance out stress in the temporary. Once the cupcakes have been polished off, the stress returns if nothing else has been done to change things.
- Dress down: Remember when jeans were considered a treat? If you work in a space that expects business casual to business formal, the opportunity to dress it down can be enticing.
- Pros: One less thing to worry about! If you’ve found a pair of denim you love (another passionate topic for another time), it can bring a little cozy energy to be able to dress down for a day. A little brag about working in an elementary school: pajama days are not only available but encouraged.
- Cons: This treat may not have the same spark as it used to. Remember when we were stuck at home for several months, and realized that we could do our jobs just as well in sweatpants? Like the food option, this also does not do anything to address the actual stressors weighing down employees. I envy the role where the biggest complaint is having to wear blazers.
- Adding fun to the workplace: All work and no play leaves us without energy and creativity. Realizing this, lots of workplaces have tried to infuse different elements of fun into the work week. From a classic happy hour, to theme days, to the new and trendy work game rooms, these solutions try to bring a playful note to balance out stress.
- Pros: Fun brings an opportunity for genuine connection with coworkers. Seeing each other beyond our roles—even if it’s as foosball competitors—builds our empathy for our coworkers and builds comfort that allows collaborative work to come with more ease and grace. Plus, it can be fun to see our coworkers in another context— those themed days can let a lot of personality out!
- Cons: Like many of the other items on this list, these fun additions don’t tackle major obstacles to workplace happiness, like unsustainable workloads. I’ve spoken to friends from corporate land whose workplaces have those massage chairs and game rooms that you see on television; they report rarely using them because there’s no time in the work day to do it. Fun takes time, and time is one of the most valuable and limited resources.
- Workplace wellness programs: What these programs look like varies. Examples include a steps competition, yoga classes on site, meditation spaces, or membership to wellness apps paid for by your job. The premise is the same: your job is giving you access and encouragement to engage in wellness practices, on the company dime.
- Pros: The accessibility of this is great–in theory. Most of the activities that are encouraged (ex: yoga, meditation, walking) do have research-backed benefits when it comes to our mental health. For some, bringing these into our offices can eliminate the extra step of driving to a gym or studio after work hours.
- Cons: Effective workplace wellness is not just about the choices of individual employees; and suggesting that it’s strictly in our hands can feel a bit like gaslighting or shaming. While adding meditation or a lunch walk can be nice, it does not address the fact that many of us are finding our job demands to be simply too much to manage. You cannot meditate your way into fitting 60 hours of work into a 40 hour work week. Not only that, but some of these programs are antiquated and dangerous—such as work weight loss competitions (yep, they still exist.)
- Performative praise: Positive feedback is important for our mental health! While some of us do better than others when it comes to accepting a compliment, being seen and appreciated is a major building block to stress resiliency.
- Pros: If it is genuine and specific, praise can be really restorative when it comes to stress. It helps us to feel appreciated for our contributions, which can fuel the tank to keep us going when those contributions took a lot of our mental or physical energy. Check out the research by Gallup for the proof!
- Cons: Generalized thank-you’s are not as effective. Further, forced gratitude can have the same icky and frustrating feeling of a forced apology. I once heard of a workspace that assigned employees a coworker to write a thank-you card to (administration exempt), which carries the same energy as assigned project partners. I know we’re both doing this because we are forced, so let’s get this over with.
In most cases, these workplace wellness strategies do not come from a malicious place. These strategies can be positive if executed ethically and respectfully- even if your job brought them in to make employees more productive. However, there is an important ingredient missing from each of them: addressing the root of the stress. Trying to repair the stress symptoms without removing the trigger is bandaiding— you’ll never stop the bleed that way. In our capitalistic world the most celebrated employees tend to be those that go above and beyond—which then sets the precedent that overworking is the bar. This does nothing to reduce burnout, and in a world where there are more jobs available than people who want to take them, it’s important to shift the conversation to sustainability. Let’s talk about what else workplaces can consider to support a more practical work-life balance .
What employees want
The tricky part about these stress-reducing solutions is that they are not as concrete as the popular options already in place. Many of them would require big conversation and gradual shifts over time— and these conversations are not always easy to bring up, depending on the power dynamics at the museum or workspace you call home. Luckily, there have been some great examples of these shifts during the past year or so that we can learn from and individualize to our own work needs. Here’s what we want:
- To be heard: Higher-ups aren’t totally oblivious to the stress of their employees—in fact, that’s why a lot of the free meals/spirit days/ yoga classes exist. Employers are seeing the mass exodus from the work force, or smaller signs of burnout like people taking more sick days, making more mistakes, or frankly getting less done. The disconnect that leaves employers scrambling is that the powers that be might choose a solution to the stress without polling the very people they are trying to help. The easiest way to give employees what they want: ask them. Ask what employees need to feel successful, and actively listen to their responses. While I love a good catered lunch as much as the next person, that isn’t what’s going to help me show up as the best version of myself at work. As employees we can be understanding that hiring more people or reducing work hours is not a simple change, but having the conversations helps us to feel like our input is valuable. This year I felt a weight come off of my shoulders when a very vulnerable administrator listened to what was stressing me out, made the shifts in the workload that they could, and acknowledged that I must be frustrated that there wasn’t more that could be done to make demands more reasonable. Being in the mental health side of things, I’ve helped put together many a survey about happiness and satisfaction, so it’s important to note that there will always be flippant responses that take the form of venting rather than solution-oriented feedback; but many of us are already sitting on ideas that could make an impact on how we feel at work.
- Flexibility: The pandemic took a lot out of us. While there aren’t always lessons to learn in tragedies, it was eye-opening to see how flexible workplaces could truly be when forced to be. As public spaces with specific hours, museums (and schools) don’t have as much flexibility as other workspaces; however, we can still think smarter instead of harder. Predefined work hours and contracts must be acknowledged as an element to the conversation, but having discussions about how we can be more accommodating to people’s needs in the workspace is important. Just because “it’s always the way we’ve done it” doesn’t mean that it’s the most effective practice. Discussing where, how, and when we work can give more employees a voice while also increasing productivity. Having these discussions and finding flexibility when we can helps everyone to have fair access to the work environment, regardless of needs. If the job requirements are getting met (and met ethically and responsibly), do we have to control the process? To figure out what flexibility would be beneficial, refer to point one: ask the employees.
- Acknowledgment & Appreciation: Remember above when I mentioned performative praise? Let’s talk about the real deal. We each have our own specialties in our workspaces; we rarely know or see 100% of our coworker’s responsibilities, and vice versa. Sometimes plates get piled too high because we haven’t stopped to notice that a particular plate is already full. This is especially true in workplaces where labor happens in the brain and not always as a physical product. Add in the separation of the past few social-distancing years, and our workloads may feel unnoticed all the while we’re being crushed underneath the weight. Taking the time to inventory what is being asked in our individual roles is important, and sometimes that means quantifying the hard to quantify. By creating a list of the different projects we’re managing or recording how our time is spent on our various responsibilities we can create more fair and manageable workloads. Then, in an ideal world, we pay people appropriately for that time. But in both the museum and education world, that’s a much more global and complicated discussion. I bet Museum Drip can provide some great insight on that.
What we can do for ourselves now?
These solutions take not only time, but a willing and collaborative administrative group to navigate these new waters. In the meanwhile, we can still do small, powerful acts to take care of ourselves so that we can advocate for the things we deserve. Self-care isn’t just bubble baths and facemasks. It’s self-preservation so that we can work for change. Here are some things to consider doing for yourself if you’re feeling those signs of burnout:
- Meet your basic needs: Food, sleep, moving your body–we are complicated houseplants with emotions, and if you don’t do the bare minimum to care for yourself, you’ll end up like a dried-out fern. We cannot control how our workspace supports us, but we can control how we choose to support ourselves. This gives us the mental and physical energy to advocate for more supportive workloads, or to seek a job that will give that environment to us.
- Connect with coworkers: The past few years have been especially isolating at work, even for those of us with public-facing jobs. As we did our best to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, interactions often happened electronically, or if in-person they were as brief as possible. One of the leading contributors to job burnout is the feeling that people are only talking to you if they need something. Reach out to coworkers in whatever boundary feels best to you. If you’re not a “how are the kids?” kind of person, even giving a genuine compliment related to work can make a big difference in that workplace relationship. We need to bring humanity back to coworker relationships.
- Create defined boundaries: Museums serve the public, but that does not mean that your cup must run dry every day to be effective. While there are lots of workplace dynamics that can affect how much we work, there are some personal choices that can help us achieve better balance between being an employee and a person with a life. Create rituals or practices that help you to transition from work to home life and bring in opportunity for genuine rest so that you can recharge your batteries. If that’s something you need some advice on, there are lots of resources on my website.
- Make time for fun: Even if it’s just 5 minutes of a hobby, making time for joy helps us to remember that we are more than just the roles we serve for others. You have worked hard for your career, and that’s something to celebrate! But you are also much more than just a job. Schedule regular time to do things you love, just because you love them. Your brain will thank you for it.
All of this is to say that navigating the world of mental health at work is not as simple as slapping a few pizzas on the table on a Friday. It takes communicating our needs, validating each other’s experiences, and a willingness to take baby steps together as a team. Especially in jobs like museums where we are working to give and teach each day, there is even more of a need to prioritize workplace wellness in meaningful ways. We all know the saying about pouring from an empty cup, or the grass being greenest where you water it (get it?)
If you’ve had some particularly successful adjustments at work to address staff burnout, we’d love to hear it! Reach out to Museum Drip or myself—the DMs are always open at @wateredgrass. If you want to start with caring for yourself, that’s my jam. If you’re looking for self-care resources like courses, coaching, or events hop onto my email list! Just like this list, I love creating and compiling resources for real people. Take care of yourself, you deserve it.