Is Your Flame Burning Out?

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

One of my favorite things about starting Nave Strategies is the opportunity to stay abreast of what is happening in the arts world. There is so much good work happening in the arts right now. Artists and administrators are innovating new ways to connect with their communities and to present their art. There is experimentation happening and pleasant surprises as a result. To quote Plato, “Necessity is the mother of invention."

Burning match

All this innovation can come at a cost, however. I’ve noticed an increase in burn-out among arts managers (yes, even more than normal). Many of you are working with reduced staffs, reduced salaries, shifting revenue streams, and an uncertain performance schedule. Working from home, where your office is just a few steps away, has probably not helped matters either. The lines between work and personal space are often blurred in the arts field, but the shifts amidst this pandemic can erase the lines completely.

This is not an issue exclusive to the arts world, of course. In 2019, the World Health Organization recognized burn-out as an occupational phenomenon. As defined in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases:

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and

  • reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life."

I’m concerned the arts may be heading toward a wave of retirements, job changes, and career shifts.
"Low Battery" by andeecollard is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

My observation over the past 27 years is that sustained burn-out over several months often leads to attrition. That is not good news for the arts as we enter the seventh month of the pandemic with (at least) several more months to go. I’m concerned the arts may be heading toward a wave of retirements, job changes, and career shifts.

While this may be good news for search firms and interim managers, it will be disruptive to our institutions at a time that need stability and future thinking. Searching for a new executive takes time, focus, and money. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) estimates the average replacement cost of a salaried employee to be six to nine months’ salary. Other studies have estimated this figure to be as much as twice the employee’s annual salary, especially for executive level employees.

When we put this finding in the perspective of arts administration, the turnover costs to an organization are well beyond financial. Arts organizations will need our experience, institutional knowledge, and leadership as audiences and visitors return.

So what do we, as arts administrators, do about this changing reality? Psychology Today has an excellent article that lists 10 strategies to fight job burn-out. Many of the strategies focus on self-care – Cardio exercise, taking a walk, practicing yoga, and mindful breathing are four self-care examples. Another strategy mentioned in the article suggests to “[t]alk about your situation with people that you trust. Talking with a trusted supervisor or mentor to explore options on how to modify work demands or achieve better work-life balance can be helpful.”

The recommendation for a “trusted supervisor or mentor” is personally relatable. I’m currently working with several arts managers in the role of outside advisor. I provide a fresh perspective to address difficult issues, help keep an eye on the total picture, and free up bandwidth for other priorities. Plus, investing in a trusted advisor is a fraction of the cost of leadership turnover. This is an investment most organizations are eager to make.

If you are starting to feel the signs of burn-out and are ready to take steps to lead with greater strength, don’t delay. It’s time to seek a “trusted advisor.” If you desire a partner who has lived in your shoes, email me at I would welcome the opportunity to listen and share my thoughts with you.

Take care of yourself and take care of each other. The arts are counting on all of us.

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