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Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Signed off

I got signed off for work stress from my museum job, and I want to talk about it. To be entirely honest, one of the strongest feelings I’ve been wrestling with throughout this whole process is embarrassment. What will my colleagues think of me? How would my friends react? Could this hurt my projects at work? Could it hurt my chances for jobs in the future? But I was inspired by the Museums Wellness Network (@museum_wellness) to talk about it for anyone else who might be feeling like I do.

I think it’s fair to say that the heritage sector is characterized by over work. We hustle to get our first jobs – slaving away at unpaid internships and balancing uni, part-time jobs, family, friends, and money woes. We work on short term contracts where we sometimes get very little reprieve from job hunting. We compete for low paid jobs. We do more with less. And through it all, we care so deeply about our work and doing the best we can – whether its delivering an exhibition, an event, an education programme, a conservation project, or a visitor experience. I’ve heard through the grapevine stories of colleagues signed off work for stress, but it’s not something I think we talk about openly enough.

Some of the most hard working and resilient people I know work in museums and the arts – people who run small museums with a staff of 2, or put on blockbuster exhibitions in the face of restructures and budget cuts. To be honest, many of us love to be busy! Even working overnight at an install can be fun and totally worth it to share our work with others. There is however a huge different between being busy at work and coping with work stress.

I think it is essential to define what we (or rather what the Health and Safety Executive) mean by work stress. Firstly, let’s start by what it’s not – work stress is not life stress. Life stress includes things like breaking up with someone, losing a loved one, moving, financial troubles, family troubles – you see what I mean. These things are very stressful but they aren't work stress, which means taking time off work may not be the answer. The HSE has identified 6 areas for Management Standards which are meant to tackle specifically work correlated stress: Demands, Control, Support, Relationships, Role, and Change. Work stress is often caused by: 
  • Being unable to cope with the level of demands placed upon you
  • Being unable to control your work (how much and when you do it)
  • Receiving inadequate support from your management structure or organisation
  • Experiencing negative, toxic, bullying or harassing behaviours in the workplace
  • Being unclear on your role within the organization or having a role which is conflicting or overlapping
  • Dealing with uncertainty and change

Does any of that sound familiar? If so – you might be stressed at work. If you are interested you can try the NHS’s handy workplace stress assessment.

I don’t want to go into the ins and outs of my own work place and the situations which have resulted in my current position. But I can say that I was experiencing many of the challenges listed above for a sustained period and I was doing all the things you should to manage my stress levels. I ate well, I exercised, I slept. I talked to my friends, I talked to my family, I had meetings at work about my concerns. And in the end I was able to manage my work stress for about a year. However, in the end I could no longer sleep because every dream was about a work meeting, an exhibition, a stressful interaction. I was distant from my friends, I was irritable with my family. It was time to change something and get some help.

If like me you didn’t know who to talk to – what the process was or what you could even do when feeling so overwhelmed, the answer is HR and your GP. They are your allies in this process and they know what to do to help. Your line manager as well – depending on the relationship you have with them – or what about the person above them? Is there is someone in a leadership position you think you can talk to?  Seek them out, ask for what you need.

So what have I been doing in my time off? Sounds great right? Actually for someone like me who is so used to be being busy, it’s kind of unbearable. I’ve had to make myself a schedule of productive and positive things to do each day – clean my room, see a friend, go to the gym, see a film, draw, write a blog. And to be honest, I have been sleeping a lot! Or trying to anyway. But my guilt follows me – I feel bad for letting colleagues down and what I’m missing. I am anything but zen like – but trying to look after myself the best I can.

I am worried about returning to work. I’m worried things won’t change, and I’m worried about how people will see me. Will they walk on egg-shells around me? Will I be excluded from meetings? But you know what – anyone who knows me knows I’m as tough as nails. I did a PhD, worked and planned my wedding at the same time. But you can’t control how people think about you or what they might say. What you can do is know how to look after yourself and how to work with your HR team to make sure your workplace is safe and supportive for you.

Work stress is a serious danger to your health and safety and those around you. I hope it is something that maybe we can talk about a bit more in our community. I fear a trend of doing more with less is saddling too many museum people with unrealistic workloads. We need inspiring leaders, realistic goals, clear instructions and robust support systems! I’d be happy to share my experience or if you want to talk about yours – just slide on into our @curiositytweet DMs.


  1. I work as Front of House in a busy London Museum. It is getting more and more difficult. I am stressed.

    1. Hope you are doing ok. If you are feeling stressed please do seek help! There are lots of options available to you, including you HR teams, occupation health and your GP. xx

  2. I enjoyed your clarity of expression and definition of terms. I know nothing about a museum working environment but much of what you said rings true about an education environment with which I am more familiar.

    There is so much in our consciousness about developing mindfulness and resilience these days, and such qualities are valuable of course but environment is a factor too. if someone holds your head underwater you eventually drown no matter how mindful or resilient you are.

    We live in a toxic world where 'work' has become the means for social control and profit for the few, at the expense of the very many. Eventually, we need a change in how we want to live as societies and how we can relate more wisely to 'wanting stuff'and willingness to being controlled by the dysfunctional.