Library Burnout: Causes, Symptoms, Solutions

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, defines “burnout” as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation, usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” But I didn’t need to tell you that. Chances are, you have developed your own definition of burnout, which tends to be high among those who work in helping professions like  library science. See the end of this article for a questionnaire you can take to determine if you are headed for burnout.

Symptoms of Burnout

Dawn Rosenberg McKay, a career planning expert who ran a job information center at a large public library for five years, has identified several symptoms of burnout:

  • fatigue
  • irritability
  • crying jags
  • anxiety attacks
  • loss of appetite
  • weight gain due to lack of exercise or overeating in reaction to stress
  • teeth grinding
  • insomnia
  • nightmares
  • increased drug, alcohol or tobacco use
  • forgetfulness
  • low productivity
  • inability to concentrate

According to Tim and Zahra Baird, two librarians writing in, burnout may also manifest the following symptoms:

  • increased absenteeism
  • frequent tardiness
  • poor job performance
  • bad attitude, including rudeness to patrons and co-workers

Needless to say, the last four will not go over well with your employer and co-workers. But before we judge, let’s consider why burnout happens to library workers. The end of this article will focus on what employers, as well as employees, can do to help staff avoid burnout.

Causes of Burnout

Baird and Baird say that “the very nature of library work predisposes us to burnout. A normal workday can be described as a continuous round of interruptions.” Certainly that’s true for those who serve patrons directly. Baird and Baird cite other causes of library burnout:

  • budget pressures (especially in the current recession)
  • heavy workloads
  • an overload of clerical duties
  • the need to respond quickly to reference questions
  • difficult patrons
  • technology-related problems
  • little input into collection decisions
  • few opportunities for advancement

Each type of library brings its own pressures. Academic librarians may feel pressure to achieve tenure. Law librarians may feel incredibly stressed as they serve demanding professionals who are themselves under a lot of pressure. Julia Huprich, in her article Library Worklife article “Burnout in Academic Libraries” (2007), says technical services staff, who work behind the scenes in acquisition and cataloging, may feel underappreciated by librarians who serve the public.

What To Do about Burnout?

In her article on burnout, McKay says that “if allowed to progress, burnout can result in depression, anxiety and physical illness.” After an extended period, she says, “burnout can cause physical and mental breakdowns, which include suicide, stroke or heart attack.”

Ironically, McKay says, burnout can lead to your being fired after you have damaged your health to keep your job. “You work your tail off to avoid losing your job. You burn yourself out and you’re unable to do your job well, if it [sic] all. Then you lose your job.”

Burnout is also an issue for employers. It may be more widespread than they think and employees are expensive to replace. Judith Siess, author of Time Management, Planning and Prioritization for Librarians says “it’s important to try to prevent burnout, because it is rarely confined to one worker” (2002, 102)

Here are some tips for employers and employees to prevent burnout before it becomes serious.

Strategies for Employees

  • Use your vacation time, lunch breaks, etc. Get away from the job when you can.
  • Know your limitations. Don’t be a perfectionist.
  • Go home on time. Don’t stay late.
  • Don’t take work home with you. Set realistic limits and keep to them.
  • Identify activities that help you relax and make time for them. Take a class, exercise, develop a new hobby. (Employers—if you offer tuition reimbursement, make sure your employees know about it.)Beware of “preparing to live syndrome” (PtLs). Valerie Railey, writing for the AALL Spectrum, a publication of the American Association of Law Libraries, says workers who suffer from PtLS envision “a future point at which all will come together” instead of focusing on non-work related goals now (2008, 41).
  • Develop a network of supportive family and friends. You are entitled to a life outside of your job.
  • Ask for new job duties. Maybe a lateral move (to a new boss, new duties, new co-workers) would help your situation.
  • Consider a job change. Is it a case of “right profession, wrong organization”? Or is a career change in order?

Strategies for Employers

Many of these ideas come from Julia Huprich (2007), and Janette Caputo, author of Stress and Burnout in Library Service (1991).

  • Have a properly developed new employee orientation program. Caputo says that traditional orientation programs, which immerse the new employee in a round of introductions and training sessions, may leave the employee feeling like a failure because he or she cannot absorb it all. Instead, Caputo suggests alternating actual tasks with orientation sessions. She says it is important for managers to realistically assess what the new employee can absorb and to understand the level of expertise needed for various assignments (1991, 134–135).
  • Provide learning opportunities.Caputo refers to these as “opportunities to grow” (1991, 143). Offering the chance to learn new skills tells employees that you value them and want to invest in their futures. Many will be happy to participate if they think it will broaden their marketable skills and lead to advancement. Also, participating in training can be a great way to meet new people, either from their own organization or other libraries. This, too, makes employees feel more valued and can help forestall burnout.
  • Provide opportunities for participatory management. Huprich says “enabling employees to make decisions about their surroundings can help keep them engaged in the workplace” (1991, 2). Caputo says “the more influence professionals feel that they have over decisions related directly to their work, the less likely they are to experience burnout” (1991, 143).
  • Modify jobs if possible.Caputo says that this involves getting to know your employees and what they like or dislike. For example, she says, if one librarian loves to work with the elderly but “cringes” each time a teenager approaches the reference desk, then perhaps this librarian could be assigned to work with the genealogical collection (1991, 137). Of course, job duties cannot always be tailored to individual tastes. But an observant boss may find that job modification or job rotation (see below) can help keep an employee happy without costing a lot of money.
  • Use job rotation to distribute the most stressful assignments. Employees may greatly appreciate a work rotation that equitably distributes unpopular tasks, such as a particularly heavy reference shift or equipment service calls. Caputo also says employees may greatly appreciate a work rotation that gives them uninterrupted time to develop proposals or do other staff-level writing (1991, 137).
  • Be an advocate for your staff. Of course, this adds to a manager’s workload, but staff appreciate a supervisor who goes to bat for them. Securing resources and recognition for the organization and heading off unreasonable demands and other stressors will boost morale and possibly pay off in reduced employee turnover.

Below are more sources of information on employee burnout, including some of those cited in this article. An inventory that you can take to determine if you are at risk of burnout is also included.

  • Arden, John B. 2002. Surviving Job Stress: How to Overcome Workday Pressures. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press.
  • Baird, Tim and Zahra M. 2005. Running on empty: dealing with burnout in the library setting.
  • Caputo, Jeanette S. 1991. Stress and Burnout in Library Service. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1991), p. 134–135.
  • Huprich, Julia. 2007. Burnout in Academic Libraries. Library Worklife: October.
  • Maslach, Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter. 1997. The Truth about Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do about It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  • Railey, Valerie A. 2008. Burnout in the Workplace. AALL Spectrum Sept/Oct 2008: 41
  • Siess, Judith A. 2002. Time Management, Planning and Prioritization for Librarians. Oxford, England:  Scarecrow Press, Inc. [Chapter 3, “Dealing With Job Stress,” may be particularly useful]

Are You on the Road to Burnout?

Try this burnout inventory—see how you fare.

Works Cited