Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Preventing Librarian Burnout


Months back I read an interesting piece on Inside Higher Ed. "Can I Do the Same Thing Over and Over Again?" by John Warner (if you don't follow him on Twitter, you should - very thought-provoking) and it resonated, but I wasn't sure what to do with it.

That is, until now because I'm thinking about librarian burnout ("a psychological term that refers to long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in work."), so John's piece applies. I admit that I flirt with burnout from time to time, but have learned to recognize the signs of impending doom and have (mostly) managed to avoid it. But I know lots of people who can't avoid it, or don't know what to do when they see a pit opening up beneath them.

A small group of us have only just started talking about creating a space/place where librarians can turn for resources to combat burnout. We're not sure what shape it will take or how it will evolve, but we know we need something. So, to get the cliche ball rolling I thought I'd share a few things I do regularly to avoid burnout:
  • Get out of my building every day. Sometimes I do eat lunch at my desk since I've gotten in the habit of using my lunch hour to browse Tumblr or catch up on blogs, but regardless of whatever else is going on I get not just out of my office but out of the library. A walk to the bookstore for chocolate or around the outside of the building to get some sun or even just out to the front steps to have a different view for a minute or two. Making this routine is key to it helping, so when I say every day, I mean EVERY DAY.
  • Make time at least once a week to engage in some kind of professional development. I need to learn new things, need to. Even if it's just reading a blog post written by someone I admire or participating in one Twitter chat or another, I make space in my schedule. I do this on the clock, and encourage my staff to do it as well, but I know for some this might have to come during off hours.
  • Straighten my office every day. I have a teensy office, but I can still lose stuff in there if I'm not careful. Putting things away and neatening piles helps me notice things I need to do the next day. This process also serves as a mental transition between work and home. (I also have it decorated in ways that make the space more "mine" and recommend that, but I know personalization isn't always allowed in shared spaces.)
  • Meditate daily. There is so much science behind this cornerstone of my Buddhist practice that shows how much it can help. Even just being still and doing nothing - not listening to music or watching television or anything - has been shown to have amazing benefits.
The things that John Warner mentions are important to think about as well. Even if you are stuck doing the same thing day in day out, how can you let your love of the work and the ends it achieves help you when you are feeling the slog of it? What do you do to avoid burnout?

I know this piece is about ways to prevent burning out, but I'd also love to hear how people recover.


  1. i really like this post. going into my third school year as a librarian i can relate. i have big, gorgeous windows steps from my office (that i can see from my desk--what a luxury!) but i really need to get out of the building more. great post.

  2. I eat lunch in our break room nearly every day, but over the past year I realized the importance of getting out of the building. Now, my dinner break on my night shift night I treat myself to dinner at Panera or another local eatery.

  3. I try to find small projects that are different than my every day duties. I also volunteer on committees for YALSA and LITA. It gives me something different, but still library related to do. It also introduces me to other people who are as excited about libraries as I am.

  4. I would like to learn more about compassion burnout in particular. I work at a mental health hospital; in addition to clinicians and researchers we help clients, families, and the public. Many questions have some sort of heartbreak as context and it's hard not to feel compassion without engaging too fully (safety, privacy issues) or, well, just feeling really bad at the end of the day and beyond. Plus guilt that maybe you didn't do enough.

    I know from experience that this definitely isn't exclusive to hospital libraries. Would love to hear your thoughts. Coincidentally, a copy of "Overcoming Compassion Fatigue" is sitting on my desk but it's definitely meant more for health care providers.

  5. Thanks for this! I'm a tenure track librarian at a community college without any designated off-desk time. :-O I keep advocating it with my campus dean, but I'm the only librarian on duty M-F until 5. We JUST got evening help in April. I was pretty miserable this past spring term, but what kept me going was having lunch with the student services office staff pretty regularly. As the only full-time faculty member in my discipline, I was also feeling very isolated at an already isolated "satellite" campus (it's actually a full-service campus, but we're tiny). I also found that if I focus on achieving one small goal a week, it helped boost my morale. Even something as simple as cleaning out a drawer of old pamphlets or weeding five books helped because I got to see some kind of visual outcome. A lot of what I have been working on is changing the library culture, which is slow.

  6. I wanted to commend you on this post. While I am no librarian, I am very grateful for the work you do (for school AND for reading for pleasure, I rely heavily on you) and mental health and its effect on physical health is a topic close to my heart. I can only second the recommendation for meditation. It's definitely a skill that should be taught to anyone who works in a stressful environment. Scratch that, it should be taught to everyone if they are open to it.