The Burnout Crisis in Historic Preservation

By Raina Regan posted 21 days ago

  

Over the past few months, we’ve witnessed athletes Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka spark worldwide conversations about the importance of mental health— demonstrating that prioritizing mental health in our lives and work should be valued instead of stigmatized and shamed. Now is the time to normalize conversations about the specific stressors that affect our mental, emotional, and physical well-being while working in historic preservation.

The historic preservation field needs its own reckoning about mental health. Fundamentally, the mental health of our workers is inherently tied to the success of our institutions, organizations, and, more broadly, the preservation movement. We must confront those stressors that perpetuate burnout and mental health conditions in our workforce, necessitating organizational-level interventions to nurture the individual well-being of preservation practitioners.

Mental Health is Physical Health

According to the American Psychological Association, work is the most significant stressor in the United States. Chronic work stress leading to mental illness or burnout can also lead to physical effects on employees. As defined by Ruth C. White in Everyday Stress Relief, stress “is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” When a person has long-term (chronic) stress, continued activation of the body’s hormonal stress response causes wear and tear on the body. Physical symptoms of stress can include exhaustion, headaches, trouble sleeping, and muscle tension, while emotional symptoms of stress can include anxiety, panic attacks, and depression.

A view of a series of homes in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
Research has proven that physical activity is a key component in completing the stress cycle and can help in burnout prevention. Adding a short walk during your lunch hour or taking a meeting as a walking phone call can help add these stress managing tools in your workday. Mount Pleasant neighborhood, Washington, DC. | Photo by Raina Regan.

What are the chronic stressors in the historic preservation field? While by no means a comprehensive list, a few common themes affecting practitioners include:

  • Multiple hat syndrome, including chronically overworked and over capacity professionals;
  • Negative public perception around preservation particularly when engaging in public hearings and regulatory roles, where property owners do not see the value of historic preservation;
  • The incremental and long-term nature of preservation projects, which can sometimes end in failure;
  • Low compensation and benefits for full- and part-time preservation staff; and
  • Job precarity, through contract, grant-funded, or part-time positions, which also include limited opportunities for advancement.

Colleagues from historically marginalized populations will often experience additional stressors, due to discrimination they face or the impact of intergenerational trauma. Additionally, we’re collectively experiencing the physical, mental, and emotional effects of the long-term stress of the pandemic. The pandemic is escalating a mental health crisis across the United States, and we need to address how the historic preservation field contributes to the stress, burnout, anxiety, and other mental health conditions of its paid staff and volunteers. 

Burnout Requires Professional-Level Interventions

Psychology Today defines burnout as “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress. Though it’s most often caused by problems at work, it can also appear in other areas of life, such as parenting, caretaking, or romantic relationships.” Burnout as a health condition was identified by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who pinpointed three key symptoms: emotional exhaustion, alienation from (work-related) activities, and a decreased sense of accomplishment.

Preservation professionals are one of the most important assets to the broader preservation movement, as our passion can help build support while using our training and expertise to solve complex preservation challenges. The underlying stressors of our work will often go unaddressed as we use this passion to sustain us. At some point, our physical bodies will let us know that the stress has become too much, and we’ll start to experience the symptoms of burnout. Perhaps it creeps in slowly or comes on suddenly, but you’ll notice feeling more exhausted as you become more frustrated and negative about work. As managers or leaders, how do you react when an employee says they are feeling burned out? As an employee, how do you react when you are feeling burnout symptoms?

Preservation faces a burnout crisis unless we modernize our expectations, particularly around compensation, capacity, and work-life balance. The faster we acknowledge the root causes of burnout within our organizations and broader profession, we can shift to implementing solutions to improve our professional well-being. Ignoring these stressors won’t make them go away, nor will it help make our field more relevant or build public support.

Ceiling at the Cincinnati Union Terminal which is a series of orange, yellow and white bands gleaming over the American flag.
Rest is proven to be a critical component in burnout recovery. Preservation employers should encourage employees to take paid vacations and time off to help prevent burnout. As preservationists, we often visit historic places during our vacation, such as the author’s recent trip to Cincinnati to see the restored Cincinnati Union Terminal, a National Treasure. | Photo by Raina Regan.

Compensation

Because of our commitment and passion for preservation many emerging—and experienced—preservationists will accept low-paying positions in the interest of being employed in our field. There’s a growing understanding about the harm of low compensation for preservation professionals. Salaries must also reflect the growing cost of entry to the field, particularly the burden of student loans carried by Millennial and Gen Z preservation professionals. This results in undue stress on affected individuals, particularly if they’re consistently worried about paying their bills each month. With the increased cost of housing and health care along with inflation, our salaries must reflect the rising cost of living.

Pay equity is a critical part of employee recruitment and retention. Organizational transparency with employees is critical—it’s never too late to fill the wage gap or develop a plan to address pay inequity. There is a living wage calculator that estimates the required minimum income standards adjusted based on location, but this should only be utilized as a starting point—this does not include student loan payments, which are all too common in preservation.

We need to have conversations about employment precarity, particularly the long-term effects of contract- or grant-funded positions, which may not come with paid leave, health insurance, or retirement benefits. Full-time, permanent roles in lieu of contract or term positions will increase the capacity of our field, while improving the mental well-being of professionals.

Addressing Overwork Through Work-Life Balance

You might be experiencing overwork if you’ve ever felt like you are doing multiple jobs, taking on more responsibilities, or working consistently well above a 40-hour work week. Individuals that are constantly feeling overwhelmed by their to-do list will often work more hours to compensate, increasing and perpetuating the stress of their work. Encouraging and facilitating overwork by not addressing the capacity of individual positions or the organization will lead to burnout. If a position or organization has high employee turnover, that might be one indicator of chronic overwork and burnout that needs to be addressed. Preservation employers need to have serious conversations about capacity building—which may include scaling back programs, prioritizing funding to hire additional full-time staff, or other measures that can help alleviate the overwork environment.

Overworked preservation professionals are getting burned out, and in some cases, leaving the field entirely. In Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, Anne Helen Petersen argues that Millennials in particular have internalized the rhetoric “Do what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life” as a mechanism for overwork that leads to burnout. According to Petersen:

“This equation is, in itself, premised on a work-life integration poised for burnout: What you love becomes your work; your work becomes what you love. There is little delineation of the day (on the clock and off) or the self (work self versus “actual” self). There is just one long Möbius strip of a person pouring their entire self into a ‘loveable’ job, with the expectation that doing so will bring both happiness and financial stability.”

While we may love our work as preservation professionals, equally as important is having the time to cultivate other passions that are not intrinsically tied to employment. Work-life balance involves having time outside of work to dedicate to other activities that give us nourishment and joy, allowing us to complete the stress cycle and decompress from work. If we’re bogged down with overwork, we won’t have the space or energy to dedicate to these critical activities.

Boundary setting is a critical tool we can use to address overwork, cultivate work-life balance, and combat burnout. Consider what causes you the most stress at work—how can you set meaningful boundaries to lessen their impact on your daily life? For example, can you set boundaries around your schedule, taking on new responsibilities, or unplugging during vacations or breaks? If you are a manager or leader, consider initiating a conversation with your staff around what boundaries they value, and consider adopting them as an organization-wide practice. Consider reframing expectations around the workweek: Work with employees to prioritize their responsibilities, implement flexible schedules, or seek funding for additional support.

Conclusion

According to organizational researcher Leah Weiss, there are four organizational-level strategies to create a burnout shield: examining managerial behavior, upholding fairness and transparency, the role of health intrapreneurs (leaders in building sustainable workplaces), and focusing on team resilience. Weiss further notes:

“We are in the right moment of history to make major changes to what we expect from organizations, even as COVID-19 is redefining the barriers of the home and work. We have massive, irrefutable data that catalogues the downside of ignoring workplace health, including the organizational costs and the ensuing human misery.”

Addressing the stress that comes from external factors can only be achieved through widescale efforts to shift public opinion on preservation’s relevance. However, building an inclusive preservation practice requires us to value the individual well-being of our professionals. Preservation professionals who are adequately compensated and achieve meaningful work while having work-life balance will be more resilient and stronger advocates. Now is the time for the preservation field to reflect on what changes can be implemented today to improve the mental health of its practitioners.

Raina Regan is the author and creator of Uplifting Preservation, a monthly newsletter of uplifting ideas on how to cultivate mentally healthy preservation workplaces informed by research from experts in psychology, business, and management.


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