2016 marks my second decade in our profession, so after 21 years as a librarian, I am un-officially proclaiming myself “mid-career.” Inevitably, there is the pause for: “And now what?” This question has plagued me for a while. Mid-career is certainly a time to reflect upon “How I got here.” Mid-career is also a potentially dangerous time for professional burnout, and I decided to address the topic in this issue’s column.dd
Try as I might to deny it, I must admit that I am struggling against burnout. I wouldn’t define myself as wholly burned out, but I am definitely not as refreshed or passionate as I was when I started in the 90s or even a few years ago.
Burnout is well researched. Thousands of books and articles have been published, and this definition from Malakh-Pines and Aronson (1988, p. 11) sums it up nicely:
People experience burnout as a gradual erosion of their spirit and zest as a result of the daily struggles and chronic stresses that are typical in everyday life and work – too many pressures, conflicts, demands, and too few emotional rewards, acknowledgements, and successes.
I find these words applicable to me because I hold myself to a high standard so as to be impacting, useful, and even to “make a difference.” At the end of the day, can I truly look at myself in the mirror and believe that I achieved any of these things?
And if I can’t, what can I do to strengthen my skills, broaden my experiences, and regain my enthusiasm? After some research and personal reflection, I have determined a few tips and would like to offer these to you:
- Forgive yourself. Feeling burned out is perfectly normal! I carried a lot of guilt about my feelings for far too long. This guilt got in the way of any progress. Once I acknowledged and accepted that I was experiencing burnout, I was able to make a game plan.
- Seek new opportunities. I recognize the challenges that this may pose. All employees have specific job duties and responsibilities from which we cannot stray, but perhaps there are opportunities to gain skills on a new software application or new hardware that could be beneficial for our work. Webinars abound and many are free to individuals at subscribing institutions from websites such as Library Journal and WebJunction. Check out: https://www.webjunction.org/ and http://lj.libraryjournal.com/category/webcasts/
- Seek new tasks. Again, I recognize there may be challenges. However, in libraries, there are always new and different responsibilities and activities. For example, I have asked my supervisor about undertaking a new activity to broaden my skills and refresh my enthusiasm. As part of my request, I have proposed the benefit for both the Library and myself. After all, what better way to re-energize than by learning something new that will also benefit the Library?
- Seek a mentor. When I first found myself struggling against burnout, I was very surprised to find out that I was not the only one feeling this way. Librarians are born nurturers. We help patrons; we help each other. Thus, a colleague may have advice to offer and suggestions for how they individually triumphed over burnout.
- Set priorities. Too many deadlines fueling your burnout? Certainly, we are subject to organizational rules, practices, guidelines, and policies. However, there is a pecking order for any activity or responsibility. I start each day with my “To do” list. I organize my priorities by what must be completed first. I set goals as to what I wish to accomplish by when, but in doing so, I overestimate the time it will take me. That way, when I am in the middle of a project or task and the phone rings or a colleague or my boss stops by, I have some built-in flexibility to help prevent the crush of a deadline.
- Take time for yourself. Many, if not most, of our days are spent attending to the needs and responsibilities that serve others. As stated above, librarians are nurturers, but periodically, the scales get tipped too far and feelings of being overwhelmed swoop in. Sometimes when I feel most vulnerable to succumbing to burnout and stress, I take a walk away from my desk. If circumstances dictate that you are unable to leave your work space at the moment, make a mental promise to get some fresh air during your scheduled break or lunch time. A brief walk away from the scene can be very therapeutic.
While there is no magic answer or quick remedy to resolving burnout, there are some strategies to make things feel more manageable. We each have to find what works best for us individually. Acknowledging and accepting that we have these feelings will help galvanize us to actionable steps. Whether it is your third year or third decade, I hope those of you struggling with burnout find solace in knowing that you are not alone and that a few first steps, such as those outlined above, might just make a difference.
Malakh-Pines, A., & Aronson, E. (1988). Career burnout: Causes and cures. New York, NY: Free Press.