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TL v58n2 The Wonder Woman Syndrome
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Tennessee Libraries 

Volume 58 Number 2



The Wonder Woman Syndrome:
Burnout in Libraries



Kathy Campbell
Reference and Instruction Librarian
East Tennessee State University

Co-presenter: Marie F. Jones

Program Abstract: Are you trying to be all things to all people? Is Grey's Anatomy on TV past your bedtime? Burnout is a real problem librarians face. Find out ways to avoid burnout in this informative and fun session.

I came of age in the 1970s when women were told they could "Have it all."  Commercials for products such as Enjoli perfume told us that we could "Bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan, and never let you forget you're a man" (YouTube).  Meanwhile Helen Gurley Brown told us in her book that we could have love, success, sex, and money (even if we began with nothing).  Virginia Haussegger sums it up:
Unlike many of our pre-war and baby boomer mothers, we could 'have it all':
a solid education; tertiary degrees; an impressive career path; a great job; a top
salary; an equal and loving partnership; happy, well-adjusted children and a
balanced family life.  Yes, all that was ours for the taking, the doing, the making.
We just had to work out how the hell to fit it all in, and make it work.  For the most
part, we can't, but that doesn't stop us from trying.  After all, we're trained to be
'achievers and succeeders', 'doers', not 'quitters' (Haussegger 5).

And do you know what?  After thirty years of trying to have it all, I've discovered that not only do I not have it all, but I'm tired too. Although it's been awhile since I've seen advertisements claiming that women can have it all, I can’t escape an image I grew up with that epitomizes that concept—Wonder Woman.  She seems to have it all, and she never appears to be tired.

Wonder Woman burst on the scene in December 1941 and has been continually published since her inception.  Princess Diana, the daughter of a very strong and successful mother who is queen of the Amazons, fights crime not only on her own, but also as a member of the Justice League.  She is also courted over time by Steve Trevor.  My question is how does she find the time to be a dutiful daughter, fight crime, and still look beautiful for Steve?  I don't think it's the lasso of truth, so it must be…her magic bullet-deflecting bracelets.

Librarians wear a number of different hats—we're spouses, parents, children, co-workers, and friends as well as librarians.  We develop and manage collections, answer reference questions, oversee budgets, deal with personnel issues, work with volunteer boards of directors, juggle schedules, serve on committees, write articles, and attend conferences.  I could go on, but you get the idea—we're busy people.  Our lists of obligations seem to grow longer each year.  If we're going to survive, I suggest we arm ourselves with burnout-deflecting bracelets.  The purpose of this article is to give you these bracelets, but first let's consider who in general is at risk for burnout.  Then let’s think about its causes and symptoms.

Who is at Risk

It should come as no surprise that people who try to be all things to all people are prime candidates for burnout, but they are not the only ones.  Other candidates include people who identify so strongly with their work that they do not appear to have a life apart from it. They come to work early, leave late; and their idea of a vacation is a work-related conference. People in the helping professions also tend to suffer burnout. Whereas the term helping professions usually refers to social work, counseling, and psychology, it may also apply to librarians who identify with the idea that at the core of their work “is a relational process, a one-way helping relationship that serves as an incubator for the client's development”  (Skovholt 82).  A final category for burnout includes people with monotonous jobs.   Let’s face it, we all know that there are a number of library tasks that are monotonous (think shelving books or shelf reading).  And, to be truthful, the longer we hold a position, the less challenging and exciting it can become.

Causes of Burnout

Now, what about the causes of burnout?  One of the biggest is unclear job expectations.  When a library lacks formal job descriptions, people sometimes have to create their own in order to perform well.  While some people are comfortable doing this, others are left wondering what to do with their day.  Library workers with vague job descriptions don’t know whether they are doing the job that they were hired to do.  Hard economic times can also lead to unclear job expectations, especially when librarians have to take over tasks that were once someone else's responsibility.  Unclear job expectations can also lead to stress that can leave the librarian wondering whether others appreciate or are aware of their contribution to the library. 

Another related cause is the lack of control over decisions affecting one’s job.  If the library has a top-heavy bureaucracy that provides others very little say in the decision-making process, a highly motivated, creative person can feel inhibited.  The same is true if the library’s management is complacent or unwilling to try new ideas.   A librarian who expects to be autonomous or heavily involved in the decision-making process but is denied the opportunity may experience frustration that can lead to burnout.

Another potential cause of burnout is dealing with the public.  If we are honest, we have to admit that it is not always easy to deal with the public.  Some library patrons have unrealistic expectations, like the students who want us to do their research or the patrons who wonder why a small public library does not buy 20 copies of the latest Danielle Steel book so they will not have to wait weeks (or months) to read it.  Other people, who are lonely and come to the library mainly to visit with the staff and patrons, are insatiable in their needs.  Unfortunately, every library has a few patrons who are hard to please or are rude.  It can be a struggle to remain polite and interested when you really want to go to your office, close the door, and work.

There are also causes of burnout relating to management.  Managers have to juggle schedules and job duties so desks are covered and tasks completed while trying to keep their employees happy—it’s enough to make the most stalwart person feel burned out.  Supervisors can also be a source of burnout.  If a supervisor is burned out, everyone in the library suffers and becomes prone to burnout.  It is almost impossible to stay upbeat and enthusiastic if the supervisor is indifferent or negative about trying new ideas or lax about maintaining standards.  Eventually everyone is prone to feel indifferent and resigned.

One more factor that relates to burnout is the mindset of librarians.  Librarians who are very idealistic tend to burnout more quickly than librarians who are more nearly realistic.  Sadly, new librarians often fall into this group.  It’s important to realize that we cannot single-handedly create a perfect library, that we cannot make everyone into a reader-for-life, and that we cannot convince every government body to fund the library at the optimum level.  Perfectionists, like idealists, are another group of librarians who can burnout quickly because they tend to want to do everything themselves and have trouble delegating even menial tasks.  They can also become frustrated when faced with limited resources or time.  Perfectionists have to realize that there comes a time when they cannot do more with less.  We do the best we can, and then we have to let it go.  People who tend to over commit and those who lack a personal support system are also more prone to becoming burned out.

Symptoms of Burnout

Burnout can manifest in both psychological and behavioral symptoms.  It is common for victims of burnout to experience any number of feelings including anger, anxiety, apathy, boredom, depression, despair, discouragement, disillusionment, dissatisfaction, fear, frustration, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, irritability, pessimism, resentment, and suspicion.  Librarians who are burned out may also begin to doubt their abilities.  Burnout can also have neuropsychological consequences including reductions in attention span and/or problem-solving ability.

As librarians burn out, they may develop any number of behaviors that will negatively affect their relationships with their co-workers and patrons.  Some of these symptoms include defensiveness, unwillingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions, and increasing levels of criticism and cynicism.  Any effect of burnout—decreased efficiency, increased mistakes, lowered standards, tardiness, and absenteeism—creates more work for the rest of the staff and puts pressure on everyone else to take up the slack. Can stress and conflict be far behind? 

As part of their administrative duties, many librarians deal with situations that require them on occasion to bend or even ignore the rules.  Librarians who suffer from burnout may have reduced problem-solving abilities so they tend to go strictly "by the book."  This inflexibility can lead to resentment from both co-workers and patrons.  As librarians develop more of these behavioral patterns, they may eventually begin to isolate themselves from their colleagues, and this isolation can be one of the worst symptoms of burnout.

Librarians who are burned out may also experience increased physical effects, ranging from mild to serious ones.  People who are experiencing burnout may sleep too much or too little.  They can also have problems maintaining a healthy weight.  Frequent bouts of colds or flu can be a common problem for people experiencing burnout.  Serious physical effects requiring medical treatment such as high blood pressure and heart attacks can also be symptoms of burnout. 

Many times co-workers will notice changes in an individual and suspect burnout before the individual notices anything different.  If you think that you are a candidate for burnout, ask yourself the following questions—the answers may indicate symptoms of burnout:

  • Are you becoming more cynical, critical, and sarcastic at work?
  • Are you losing the ability to feel joy?
  • Are you dragging to work and having trouble getting started?
  • Are you more irritable and less patient with co-workers or library patrons?
  • Are you feeling that there are insurmountable barriers at work?
  • Are you lacking the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Are you no longer feeling satisfaction from your achievements?
  • Are you having a hard time laughing at yourself?
  • Are you tired of co-workers asking if you're okay (Job Burnout)?

It is important to realize that while individuals in the early stages of burnout can help themselves, burnout can reach a stage where sufferers are beyond helping themselves.  In such cases, it is imperative for those individuals to seek professional counseling, especially if they are indulging in risky behaviors such as abusing drugs or alcohol.   Burnout is a serious condition, and severe cases can lead even to suicide.

The Magic Bracelets

There are many negative things about our jobs that we cannot change.  Magic bracelets are those steps that you can take to change your job or behavior and thus avoid burnout.  When it appears that you are unsuccessfully trying to be all things to all people, it may be time for you to talk to your supervisor about clarifying your job description so it becomes more manageable.  It is not fair to you or to the person who will eventually take over your job in the future if the only way you can manage your job is to take work home regularly.  If you’re bored with certain tasks that you've been doing for years, you may want either to ask your supervisor for some new job duties or to trade duties with a colleague.  For example, it might be refreshing to stop counting circulation statistics and try your hand at scheduling librarians for the reference desk.

One of the most important things a person can do to avoid burnout is to learn how to say "No!"  Anyone who has been around young children knows that one of the first words that children understand is "no."  As we get older, many of us forget how to say that simple two-letter word.  My recommendation for people who do not remember how to say "no" is to spend time with a toddler.  Not only will you remember "no," but you will remember the proper emphatic tone to use when saying it.  While we’re discussing communication, remember to practice healthy communication.  If something is bothering you, deal with it.  Do not hold things inside until they boil over and you say things that you may regret, especially to people who have nothing to do with whatever is bothering you. 

Another great way to avoid burnout is to have a support system.  While it important to talk with family and friends who will be empathetic regarding your problems, it is necessary to have a support group of professional people who understand the demands and stresses of your job.  While a spouse, who works outdoors, or your mother, who has always been a stay-at-home mom/housewife, may try to be understanding, only another person who deals with the same job may really understand how stressful it can be.

People who eat lunch at their desks and never take a break could be heading for burnout.  While everyone experiences those days where they grab lunch from a vending machine and eat at their desks, it is a good idea that on most days you leave your work area and take your full lunch break.  Eating a healthy lunch with colleagues can be relaxing as well as an opportunity to support each other.  It’s also a good idea to take a break every once and a while and use it to socialize, do a few stretches, or step outside for some fresh air.  You’ll be amazed to find that often you will return to your desk refreshed and ready to work.

We spend a great deal of time at work, and while we really don’t have a lot to say about our work environment, there are a few things we can do to combat burnout.  Whether you have a big spacious office or a small cubicle, you can personalize your work space.
Displaying posters, photographs, a piece of pottery, or your children’s art can individualize your office space or make it feel homey.  And what could be more natural in a librarian’s office than several favorite books that you can peruse when you need a break?  You can also make your office area more relaxed by adding a table or floor lamp (fluorescent lighting is great for working, but stressful).  Plants and tapestry wall hangings not only make offices beautiful but serve as a buffer for white noise (the low level noise generated by machines and people),   When choosing furnishings and decorations for your office, remember that blue, green, and pastel colors are more soothing and relaxing than bright primary colors (Caputo 122-123).

What about things you can do outside of work that can relieve the symptoms of burnout?  Start by taking time off.  People who are burned out tend to use all of their sick leave time, but they have a hard time justifying the use of their vacation time (Caputo 119). The truth of the matter is that nobody can do your job like you—some people can’t do it as well as you, others can do it as well, and some can do it better—so use your annual leave.  Put aside time to exercise.  Regular exercise not only helps you to relax, but can also help you manage weight and chronic diseases, strengthen your heart and lungs, and sleep better too!  To avoid becoming bored with your exercises, choose those that you enjoy.

While it is important to take care of your physical needs, do not neglect your spiritual ones.  Think of prayer and meditation as “good nutrition for the soul” (Moore).  Many people find a great sense of relief when they put their troubles in the hands of a higher power.  Meditation can also help to clear your mind and relax.  Yoga, for example, not only improves flexibility and muscle tone, but it also reduces stress and leaves practitioners feeling calm and invigorated.

Other steps you can take to avoid burnout are to find a hobby and/or be a volunteer.  While you may not always have a say in selecting your job responsibilities, you do have control over selecting hobbies or volunteer services.  Participating in hobbies or volunteer opportunities allows you to learn and develop new skills.  You will not only meet new people, but also develop closer ties with your community.  Many people experience a sense of accomplishment and contentment in using their creativity to develop their interests and to help others.

You are now armed with burnout deflecting bracelets.  It's okay to admit that you can't do it all and you can't have it all.  Take care of your physical, mental, and spiritual health.  And as one of my favorite colleagues would say, "Remember; nobody dies in a bibliographic emergency.”

Works Cited 

  • Brown, Helen Gurley. Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money, Even if You’re Starting with Nothing. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.
    Caputo, Janette S. Stress and Burnout in Library Service. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1991.
    Haussegger, Virginia. Wonder Woman: The Myth of 'Having It All'. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2005.
    "Job burnout: Know the signs and symptoms -" 6/26/2008 .
    Moore, Holly. "10 Proven Antidotes for Workplace Burnout" Vibrant Life  6/26/2008 .
    "Preventing Burnout: Signs, Symptoms, and Strategies to Avoid it." 4/22/2008 .
    Skovholt, Thomas M. "The Cycle of Caring: A Model of Expertise in the Helping Professions." Journal of Mental Health Counseling 27.1 (2005): 82-93. General OneFile. Gale. East Tennessee State Univ Library. 9 July 2008 
    "YouTube - Retro Enjoli commercial." 6/26/2008 .

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