Mental wellness and conservation work

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Yayoi Kusama #2. Flickr/Richard (2012). Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

By Cynthia Schwarz

It is an expected part of the conservator’s role to take part in ongoing health and safety trainings: safe handling of laboratory chemicals and equipment, the safe use of scaffolding, and radiation risks to name a few. Less well understood, and rarely discussed, are the risks and responsibilities that come with mental health and workplace wellness.

This results in a lack of awareness of the prevalence of mental illness and how to address it as an organization, manager, or individual. This information gap is additionally harmful as psychosocial hazards at work are correlated with adverse physical health outcomes such as cardiovascular events.

In fact, in the museum field, discussion of mental illness is often relegated to the affliction that led to Vincent Van Gogh’s self-mutilation and institutionalization; Edvard Munch’s images of terror; or the suicides of the likes of Kay Sage, Mark Rothko, or RB Kitaj. These tragic images of mental illness, rather than sparking effective discussion, can actually be marginalizing and unintentionally stigmatizing for those of us who are reckoning with how to live productive lives with mental illness. Contemporary artists like Kim Noble, Yayoi Kusama, and Tracey Emin give us another view of what living with mental illness means, one that is productive and engaging, though no less challenging for the individual living with the illness. This paper will look at the prevalence and stigma of mental illness in the workplace, contributing workplace factors, and finally intervention strategies at an organizational, managerial, and individual level.

Though there is no conservation field-wide survey on mental wellness, two recent AIC surveys, as discussed below, can inform us about mental health and stressors in the field, and the World Health Organization’s 2022 Mental Health Report gives well-researched data for the general population. The Equity and Inclusion Committee of the American Institute of Conservation recently released the results of a disability survey that provides some useful data. Of the 558 global respondents, 29% identify as having a disability. Of those 29%, 20.3% report having a psychological condition. This is likely an undercount; according to the World Health Organization (WHO), globally about one in eight people live with a mental disorder, and suicide accounts for more than one in 100 deaths worldwide. We also find compelling data on the state of the field in the 2020 AIC Covid pulse surveys, lead-authored by Sara Reidell. The most pertinent part of this data showed that an average of 24.3% of our colleagues were not confident that they had the sufficient wellness benefits and resources they needed to get through pandemic-related challenges. Whether dealing with the unique stresses that are imposed on conservation professionals, navigating a mental illness, struggling with a substance use disorder, or reaching out to a colleague in crisis, we as conservators must recognize just how common each of these conditions are to our field and seek out the tools to manage them as they arise. Many in conservation may not feel prepared to offer or receive the support needed to face this challenge. Our most important assets—our colleagues—deserve the sensitivity, care, and patience we bring to the treatment of museum objects to be transferred to their own conditions, which should be allowed to exist without stigma.

In both its forms, as public stigma and self-stigma, stigma adds an additional challenge to those struggling with their mental health. Furthermore, stigma is not consistent across cultures; the WHO finds it is more prevalent in Western cultures. Stigma can be challenged through protest, education, and, importantly, through contact. When we have peer relationships with those who have a mental illness, common stigma-based stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are diminished. This is one reason why it is important to be aware of the prevalence of mental illness around us, especially considering it is often invisible. According to the AIC disability survey, 22% of respondents with a disability fear they will be seen as less capable if they disclose their disability. In most countries, mental disorders are the leading cause of workplace absences. Study results suggest that stigma around mental illness can silence sufferers, making it difficult to seek treatment.

It is important to emphasize that mental wellness is directly affected by the work environment. Depression and anxiety can arise from such risk factors as imbalanced job design, occupational uncertainty, and lack of value and respect in the workplace (see figure below). In my January 2022 article on mental wellness in AIC News (Volume 47[1]) I cited the following stressors that can lead to mental strain, and here I place them within this model:

· Being the “no” person at the museum (role stress)
· Assessing whether an irreplaceable object is able to travel across the world (role stress)
· Performing delicate treatments, increasingly under the watchful eye of the public (role stress, job demands)
· Engaging in the competitive world of publishing (role stress, workplace conflict)
· Working with traumatizing or difficult collections (role stress, job demands)
· Living on an insubstantial and/or unfair wage (effort-reward imbalance)
· Being the only person of color in a workplace (relational justice)
· Microaggressions as well as overt bigotry (workplace conflict/ bullying)
· Frequent relocations away from support systems (occupational social support, temporary employment status)
· Insecure work assignments (temporary employment status)
· Juggling a full workload along with volunteer and outreach engagements (job demands, effort-reward imbalance)
· Taking on management roles without proper training (role stress, occupational social support)

The WHO’s recently updated Guidelines for Mental Health at Work makes recommendations at three levels: organizational interventions, manager training, and individual interventions. On the organizational level, reasonable accommodations must be made for individuals with mental health challenges. In some countries, the employing organization may also be responsible for providing basic health care including mental health care. In our professional community, organizations like IIC have developed core documents including the Code of Conduct that encourages organization-wide wellness.

On the managerial level, managers should be given adequate training to recognize, engage with, and support team members dealing with mental health issues while not substituting for proper mental health care. Conservation managers in large institutions often delegate mental health care to human resource departments and workplace resources. However, we have only to look at the AIC code of ethics to receive clear guidance on how to reframe our thinking around mental health in the field, stepping in to take on a more active role in shaping workplaces into safe, affirming, and healthy spaces: The conservation professional shall practice in a manner that minimizes personal risks and hazards to co-workers, the public, and the environment.

How are we looking out for our co-workers? Dr. Bob Rohrbaugh, professor of psychiatry and deputy dean for professionalism and research at The Yale School of Medicine, was consulted on workplace wellness for this article. He describes workplace wellness as helping people to thrive rather than burnout. He also acknowledges that in conservation, much like in academic settings, staff may be juggling their roles as a worker, an educator, a scholar, and one doing community service. How can we create a culture of wellness in conservation? One aspect falls upon leadership to ensure that resources are provided for their team should they need access. But working towards a staff that is thriving also involves removing barriers to success and access. Leaders might also need to keep an eye on their workplace culture, nurturing a professional environment where people treat their colleagues with respect. Finally, the WHO recognizes that individual workers benefit from mental wellness training to help their colleagues who may be struggling. Dr. Rohrbaugh points out that there is an important role for every member of a community in workplace wellness. Going out of your way to thank a colleague or praise them for a job well done builds a community of support. Having a friend at work can be invaluable in your wellness, so much so that some organizations have formalized “buddy systems” established for the purpose of mental wellness. Everyone in a workplace has a role to play in keeping an eye out for colleagues who may be struggling and would benefit from professional help.

In 2022, and now in 2023, many of our colleagues were engaged in labor organizing and can now influence not only the individual and managerial aspects of this work but can also put pressure on organizations for favorable working conditions. Help is available for you if you are struggling with mental health.


Cynthia Schwarz is senior associate conservator of paintings at the Yale University Art Gallery where she has worked since 2008. She specializes in the treatment and study of modern and contemporary artworks. She studied painting at Rhode Island School of Design and painting conservation at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. 

(Read the full article in the February-March 2023 "News in Conservation" Issue 94, p. 10-14)

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It is an expected part of the conservator’s role to take part in ongoing health and safety trainings: safe handling of laboratory chemicals and equipment, the safe use of scaffolding, and radiation risks to name a few. Less well understood, and rarely discussed, are the risks and responsibilities that come with mental health and workplace wellness.
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