The Pandemic’s Impact on Museum Workers’ Mental Health

It has been over a year since the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a global pandemic, but another health crisis has been silently brewing. Experts are beginning to grasp the virus’s devastating effects on our collective mental well-being, particularly for communities disproportionately impacted — essential workers, low-income populations, and people of color among them.

In the museum field, workers experienced sweeping job loss, salary cuts, and burnout that exacerbated the pandemic’s stressors. A new survey by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) finds that the sector’s workers have suffered “a grave toll on their mental health and wellbeing,” rating the impact at an average of 6.6 out of 10. Though many institutions remained shuttered during peaks in virus cases, half of museum staff reported a heavier workload.

Unsurprisingly, independent consultants, contractors, and freelancers — often hired as educators and other key roles in museums — bore the brunt of financial insecurity. More than half had contracts canceled or indefinitely postponed, struggled to find work, and lost over 50% of their pre-pandemic income on average.

Similarly, nearly two-thirds of part-time staff said they lost a median of $8,000 due to reduced salaries, benefits, or hours. Compared to their full-time colleagues, this group of workers faces greater instability: they are more likely to live paycheck to paycheck and less likely to have enough disposable income to save or spend on leisure.

The survey’s findings also reveal the role of gender and race in these workers’ experiences of pandemic-related mental health factors. Museum staff who identify as women were more likely to report an increase in workload and adverse effects on their schedules, salary, and mental health, and BIPOC respondents experienced more financial stress and fewer financial resources than their white counterparts.

AAM collected 2,666 responses, 87% of which came from people whose primary employment pre-pandemic was as paid full-time or part-time museum staff. The remaining responses came from independent consultants, volunteers, students, and retirees. Of the survey respondents, 23% were furloughed or laid off at some point.

In more uplifting news, the findings also point to an inspiring wave of solidarity and empathy among museum workers: when asked to rate the various issues affecting them, respondents’ greatest shared concerns were for their colleagues’ well-being. (Closely followed by workload, a lack of community and isolation, and health and safety upon returning to in-person work.)

AAM’s report is accompanied by a website offering resources for mental health, career management, and self-care, as well as recommendations for employers on supporting their staff.

“As our field begins recovering from the pandemic, we hope that museums as employers embody these same values and vigilance by crafting equitable responses, practicing empathetic leadership, and taking actions that support the people who make museums possible,” AAM said in a statement.

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