As librarians, how many times do we tell people what we do and have them say, “Oh, that’s nice. It must be so relaxing?” While it may be cliché, I bet we’ve all heard this a time or two. The truth is that library work can take its toll. On this show, I talk with Jenn Carson, Director of the LP Fisher Public Library in Woodstock, New Brunswick, Canada.
She is a yoga teacher, a positional therapist, and the author of Yoga and Meditation at the Library: A Practical Guide for Librarians . She’s also the creator of YogaintheLibrary.com. Whether you are knotted up over work, personal issues, or politics this show teaches how we can take care of ourselves and unwind.
This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast, where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.
As librarians, how many times do we tell people what we do and have them say, Oh, that’s nice, it must be so relaxing. While it may be cliche I bet we’ve all heard this a time or two. The truth is that library work can take its toll.
On this show I talk with Jen Carson, Director of the LP Fisher Public Library in Woodstock, New Brunswick, Canada. She’s a yoga teacher, a positional therapist, and the author of Yoga and Meditation at the Library: A Practical Guide for Librarians. She’s also the creator of yogaintheLibrary.com. Whether you’re knotted up over work, personal issues, or politics this show teaches how we can take care of ourselves and unwind. Give it a listen, you’ll feel better. Enjoy the show.
Welcome to the show, Jen
Thanks for having me.
Question #1: It’s great to have you here. As we all know library work, while to the casual outside observer, may seem relaxing it actually can take a toll in terms of stress. So, let’s start talking about why it is important to be having this discussion about taking care of us. 01:23
Absolutely. I’m a library director and also someone who’s worked in libraries for over ten years. I understand intimately how the workplace is set up to exhaust us. We are in a caregiving environment and people don’t necessarily always recognize that.
Other caregiving environments such as nursing homes and hospitals, or paramedics, and first responders—you can see there’s been a really sharp uptick of PTSD and compassion fatigue, and all sorts of illnesses and issues happening with those professions. But we don’t often look at libraries in the same way. But we’re often dealing with some of the same issues of people experiencing homelessness, mental health issues, physical disabilities and issues. Some of our patrons are under extreme amounts of stress. And unfortunately come into the library and take that out on us.
Just the nature of our roles in that we’re always giving and helping people and we don’t often have respite from that. A lot of librarians, and library staff get into the profession because they are caregiving by nature and they want to help people. So we already have a propensity in our personalities to give, give, give. And, we get exhausted.
Our systems aren’t set up to necessarily support us. Libraries are very good at collecting metrics on circulation statistics, program numbers, and things like that. But we’re not necessarily paying close attention to how burnt out and exhausted our staff are.
So, it’s really important for me to talk honestly with other library workers about how not only are we hard on ourselves and have things that we can do to take care of ourselves, but I also want to express that all of the responsibility is not ours. Some of the systems, and the way that our libraries are set up and run can negatively contribute to our working environments as well. The burden of care, and health, and wellness doesn’t just sit on our shoulders. For those of us, like myself, that sit in an administrative position, or a leadership position we have a responsibility to give our staff the places and times to be able to take care of themselves.
Question #2: Such good points, and as a yoga instructor and a positional therapist, as well as a library director you have a unique outlook on this. Will you share with us your vision for self-care for you and your staff? 03:59
I don’t have a hardcore, strategic plan on how I insert health and wellness into my specific library because we work on a greater branch work plan and a larger provincial plan. Because our library is part of a sixty-four branch system we have to follow the mandates from our entire province. Now that’s said, we do have services that are offered provincially such as, we have an employee assistance program that provides opportunities for free counseling up to a certain number of sessions for our staff for a variety of reasons. We have a generous medical leave policy so staff can take time off when they’re ill. We also have a family leave plan so if you need to take a day off to care for someone at your home who you’re responsible for, be it a child or another dependent, you can take time off for that.
So, I’m very lucky to work in a system that does have some wellness ideas in place already on how to support staff.
Question #3: That really does provide a comprehensive perspective. What are the things that may contribute to lack of wellbeing in these positions? I know you mentioned seven things in your work. What are these? 05:20
I want to talk about hard things. It’s not something that we talk a lot about in libraries. We may talk about, There’s that guy that keeps throwing his used tissues on the floor. Or, We’ve got the guy who’s the yeller, or the woman who always takes the books and puts them in the wrong place. We have those sorts of stories of frustrating patrons or the delivery guy who’s annoying or, whatever.
But, I’m talking about really hard things. For example one of them that can be contributing to how you’re feeling about your workplace and to the burnout you may be experiencing is interpersonal issues at work. If you have a bad real relationship with one of the people or maybe multiple people that you work with, either with your supervisor or your colleague, and you’re not doing anything to address that, that will weigh so heavy on you day in and day out.
Or maybe you have tried to address it. You’ve gone to your supervisor and they’re not being supportive or they feel like their hands are tied. Or you’ve gone to your union rep, or HR and you feel like it’s not moving anywhere. You feel stuck.
Recognizing how that can really contribute to your anxiety, and depression, and issues that are going on at work—you wake up in the morning and you notice you feel this heaviness in your chest, or you’re feeling really anxious about going to work, and you’re not quite sure why. Or, you’re procrastinating, it’s taking you a really long time to get ready. Or maybe you’re being a perfectionist. You’ve got to get your lipstick just so, or your outfit is not quite right and you change it three times.
You engage in these behaviors day in and day out and not quite sure why you’re doing this. Then you beat yourself up about it and you’re like, Ahh, I’m such a procrastinator, or I just can’t get my stuff together, what’s wrong with me? I keep being anxious at work, why am I doing this? But then if you look at your schedule maybe you’re really like this on the days you have to work on the circulation desk with that person you don’t like. Or maybe it always happens to be the day you have a one-on-one meeting with your supervisor. Your anxiety or depression is ratcheted right up.
Being aware of those interpersonal issues and thinking about how you can address them, this is where talking to a good therapist, talking to someone from HR, talking to your supervisor directly, or talking to the colleague themselves that your struggling with, or even having a friend over for tea and talking to them about what’s going on at work, having some sort of outlet for that so you’re not bottling it all up and turning it in against yourself.
Then on the opposite side of that coin. We also have interpersonal issues that happen at home. So, it’s really hard to come in and give your best at work if you’ve just had a fight with your husband or wife that morning before you left the house, or if your cat is sick, or your mother-in-law is dying, or your child’s being bullied at school, and you’re worried about them all day. It is really important to number one—be aware of those issues that are affecting you in your life because we’re more than just our jobs, right? Our jobs are important to us and we care about them, but there’s also so many other things that are happening in our world. Being aware of all those, and also doing the steps we need to do to deal with them if we can.
Sometimes things are just beyond our control, but realizing that maybe we’re coping badly with the things that are happening in our life. So maybe we have these external stressors and then maybe we’re drinking more than we normally would. We’re going to bed later because we’re up drinking. Then we’re really tired in the morning and we’re having a hard time getting up for work. Then we’re late and we’re getting in trouble. And it just becomes this chain reaction.
Have a really honest conversation with yourself about how things that are going on in your life are affecting your work and not just blaming everything on work. Also, see that there’s other things in a larger picture that’s happening.
If you have a good working relationship with your supervisor or your staff members at work you don’t have to disclose everything, but you can say, I’m really struggling right now. I’m having a hard time with something that’s going on at home, and this is making me really cranky, and I’m sorry. Or, I’m going to be late handing this report in because I’m having a really hard time focusing.
If you can reach out to a therapist, an occupational therapist to try and help you with some of that stuff, that’s a really good lifesaver as well. Maybe it means taking a bit of time off to deal with whatever’s going on at home, if that’s available to you. I know it’s not for everybody. Think about how all of those things affect what’s happening at work as well.
Also some of us struggle with mental health crises, or ongoing mental health issues. So again, you don’t need to disclose those at work. But if you work in a safe environment where you can, that’s really the best thing to make sure everybody’s on board so they know when you’re having a bad day or a bad week, or a bad month, or why you may need to have modifications in your work environment. It’s not because you’re just whining or trying to get away with something. You have a legitimate medical issue.
People often don’t see mental health struggles as real legitimate issues, but they are. They’re just as important, and need to be taken just as seriously as someone who has fibromyalgia, or diabetes, or a heart condition, or anything like that—advocating for yourself.
Also, keeping in mind that some of your colleagues may be struggling with mental health issues or interpersonal issues at home. Try to have compassion for them as well, knowing that you don’t know the whole story, right? We only see the mask that everybody wears at work. You don’t always know what’s going on behind the surface. Try to have a little compassion, while still maintaining good boundaries.
The fourth thing would be climate anxiety and natural disasters. This is just becoming worse and worse. Now we’re seeing everything with the coronavirus spreading and peoples’ fears about that. We see it in our patrons, looking for information about climate issues and what’s going on in the news. Also, libraries become like emergency shelters during national disasters, other things that are going on. That can really add a sense of anxiety to our lives and you might not even be aware of it.
Just noticing how you feel after you watch the news, or read the news on your phone. Making sure to give yourself a break from that. Then of course there’s physical illness and disability. If you’re struggling with some physical issues, perhaps you have chronic pain and sitting at a desk all day, or carrying books in the stacks is really hurting. It’s hard to be a lovely person when you’re in pain. It’s just very, very difficult.
Or, if you’re struggling with a disability and you feel like no one understands or hears you. Or, they think that you’re trying to take advantage of the system or get away with things because of your disability. Again, that can really contribute to how you feel at work.
Something else is financial worries, if you feel like you’re in a constant state of losing your job, that you don’t have job security. So many people in this country suffer with housing insecurity. I know librarians who sleep on people’s couches. Library staff that have had to live in their cars because we are so grossly underpaid. Our libraries in many ways are underfunded. We don’t get enough permanent employment. I know some people who have to work multiple jobs.
Things are not too bad here in Canada, it’s pretty stable, but from what I’ve read and talked to people at conferences, things in the states, depending on where you are, can be very rough for people.
Perhaps you have other things in your life that’s going on, that’s contributing to financial worries. Talking with a financial advisor, or getting help for that can also help clear up some of the stress that may be spilling over into the work environment.
Then lastly, we get overwhelmed with other caregiving responsibilities, right? Most of us are very caring people and we tend to take on, take on, take on so much. Not just at work but then we also have children at home, or perhaps aging parents, or perhaps a sibling that’s ill that we’re taking care of, or friends. Being big-hearted people we often give, and give, and give until there’s nothing of us left. That can also contribute to feeling burnt out, because if you’re giving 110 percent of yourself all of the time and then your boss asks you to do one more program and you just snap because, I just can’t. I just can’t, there’s none of me left. They may not see that because they don’t know how you’re feeling overwhelmed.
That bar is different for everybody. Some people can spin twelve plates at the same time, and they feel fine and they’re not overwhelmed by it. For other people it might be two. They can handle two things at once and they get completely overwhelmed. That’s not a difference in ability or worth. It’s a difference in personality and how we handle things. One is not better than the other.
Also not feeling shame. If you’re the kind of person who really needs to do one thing at a time because if not, you feel overwhelmed or too unfocused—and not feeling like you’re a bad person because of that. You’re a good person if you can only look after yourself or one person at a time, and not feel like you’re failing as a human being.
So, those are just seven hard things that we need to take a look at that are contributing to maybe how we’re feeling at work, as well.
Question #4: These are important and they have implications for both the individual and the organization. What are the benefits of addressing these things, and how as leaders can we help our teams engage in this? 15:19
I think that one of those most important things here is communication. For myself, I have an open door policy with my staff. They can come and talk to me about whatever. Sometimes it might be as little as they feel like they’re tattling, but they just need to come and tell me that one of the other staff members took two breaks today, and it really pissed them off, you know [laughs]. It might be really nothing but they just bottled up and they’re angry about it and they just need to come vent.
That’s okay. That’s what I’m here for, and I will address it, and I will talk to the other person and remind them about our break policy. They feel like they’ve been listened to and that I’ve done something about it.
There might be bigger issues, too. They might need to talk about something that’s going on in their lives, or health struggles that they’re dealing with. I need them to know that I’m a safe place and also that I’m not going to disclose that information to anyone, unless they’re at risk of hurting themselves or someone else in which I’m legally bound to talk about that.
For example, they are suffering with a condition and there’s something that I can do to help with it. Maybe they have fibromyalgia and it really hurts for them to stand at the desk all day. Well, can I get a setup so they can sit? Can I get them a standing mat that’s full of that jelly stuff so they can stand on that? Is there a way I can schedule the circulation schedule so they have shorter shifts so they’re not working for an hour, or two hours at a time. Maybe they’re working in thirty minute increments.
So, staff members know you’re a safe person to come talk to, and you’re listening and you’re going to do the best that you can within your operational requirements. We also have to make sure people understand we still have a library to run, and that sometimes the policies are above our heads and we have to go through the proper channels for things. Often if you work in government things take a lot of time.
Just having that ability to communicate with your staff, also realizing that not everyone communicates the same way. I often say that every behavior communicates a need. Not everyone is good at communicating verbally.
I’m a very verbal person. I’m a writer. I write emails, or I talk in person when I’m upset about something. But not everyone feels comfortable doing that. Just being able to be very observant of your staff and noticing when their behavior has changed, and asking yourself, What is that behavior signifying? What need are they trying to express that they’re not expressing verbally.
Maybe someone who is always on time suddenly starts to be late everyday. What’s going on in their life that’s getting them to be late? So rather than approaching it from a disciplinary standpoint of, Hey, you have to stop being late, you’re bad—sort of thing. Instead, bring them into my office and say, Hey, I notice the last couple of weeks you’ve been late in the morning, is something going on at home that’s preventing you from getting here on time? Is there anything I can help with? Do we need to move your schedule around? What’s going on? But approaching it from an interested, compassionate standpoint of that you’re just gathering information because you want to help them be good at their jobs, really takes that defense mechanism down significantly.
Suzuki Roshi has this great story where he talks about the best way to take care of livestock is to build really good fences and then just let cows be cows. I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way. I mean it with your staff, or anyone in your life. I try to practice that sort of theory, I build a good structure, we have a good routine, we have a good working order, but then I just let my staff be themselves. I let them make their own mistakes and then we talk about the mistakes after they happen. But I don’t hand-hold them and I don’t micromanage them.
I have some people on staff who are much more interested in lots of detail and want lots of direction, and I give them that because they’ve asked for it and that’s what they want. Other people would like a more standoffish approach. They just want to do their own thing, and then they want me to come and tell them afterwards if I had any feedback.
Knowing your staff well, knowing how they work—and just letting them do that, letting them be the cows in the pasture and just having strong fences. The worst thing you can do is try and really control, or micromanage your staff right down to the nth degree. That will never work. Humans will revolt at any point in time when they feel like they’re being caged in.
The opposite approach is just ignoring them totally. Then they feel like you’re apathetic and you don’t care about them. That is also a negative in my experience. So, trying to find that middle way of quietly observing them, offering direction when they seem like they need it, or want it, but also letting them be themselves and do their jobs in the way that is best for them is what has worked for me. I don’t know if that would work for everyone else but it has certainly worked for me.
Question #5: I think it’s so great that you do this. As we already mentioned, you are a yoga instructor, you’re a positional therapist. You have a number of physical activities that you help people walk through to decompress and also get rid of stress. Can you walk us through a couple of those activities? 20:44
Yes, absolutely. We’ll do a little minute of meditation or mindfulness right now. I’m assuming you’re sitting. Wherever you’re sitting right now try and have your feet planted on the floor if you can. You’re just going to place your hands in your lap. I want you to take one hand and place it on your belly. Okay? Try not to have judgements about your belly [laughs], just put your hand on your belly and be like, Okay, hi, belly. Then I want you to take a nice big inhale and exhale, and inhale and exhale. So as we’re doing that, the belly should be going out, and then as we exhale the belly should be coming in. So, as we inhale the belly goes out. And, as we exhale the belly comes in.
So we’re dropping the breath down into the lower lobes of our lungs. Inhale, belly goes out. Exhale, belly comes in. You have five lobes in your lungs. You have two on your left side to make room for your heart, and three on your right side. When we drop our breath down into our belly like that, what happens is that we turn on our rest and digest cycle. We get flooded with good hormones like oxytocin, the cuddle hormone. And dopamine the feel good hormone. And our digestive cycle turns on so you might hear tummy grumbling.
It turns off the flight or fight system. The one that tells you your body thinks you’re being chased by a polar bear, but maybe you’re just in a meeting, or you’re just waiting in line at the grocery store. When we breathe in the top part of our chest that’s what our body thinks. It doesn’t know, right? Our reptilian brain just thinks we’re in trouble.
So we want to drop our breath down into the lower lobes of our lungs and breathe down in our belly. Inhale, belly goes out. Exhale, belly comes in. When we try to consciously breathe like that it will lower our blood pressure and it calms it down.
Setting a little reminder on your phone, or putting a little sticky note on your desktop, or whatever, just to remind you to breathe, or belly breathe. Remind yourself to do that. You can do it anywhere, driving a car, waiting in line, in a meeting, on the phone, typing up an Excel document, whatever. You can practice that belly breathing.
If you watch children when they’re running around—their little Buddha bellies hanging out, their little bellies stick out because that’s how you’re supposed to breathe with your belly. Your diaphragm is supposed to move back and forth. If you watch someone sleeping, this is kind of creepy, but if you have a partner, or child next to you while they’re sleeping, you watch—their belly will go up and down because that’s how we naturally breathe in a relaxed state.
So, if you feel yourself tense, drop the breath down into the belly and breathe down in there. Do it for as long as you can remember and if you forget that’s okay you can just do it again when you look at your sticky note that says, Belly breathe. That’s the most powerful thing that you can do. When we focus on our breath our mind will eventually calm down and we get into a state where we feel safe.
I feel better already.
Question #6: Any others you want to share real quick? 23:50
I have all kinds on my website and on YouTube. I have all kinds of free handouts and things. One of them that’s up there, if you go into the website at Jencarson.com and look under resources there’s a handout called, De-Stress at Your Desk. You can print those out. They’re in French and in English. You can share them with whoever you want. I have permission from my publishers to share them.
There’s one exercise on there called The Six Essential Movements of the Spine. You want to make sure your spine—you have cerebral spinal fluid that runs up and down your dura, your spinal sheath. You want to keep that fluid moving all the time, all day.
You want to be able to twist your body side to side. Look to the right and look over your right shoulder. Don’t crank your neck, just look behind you. Then twist your whole body to the left and look behind you. Then I want you to lean to the right. So, just lean your torso over itself so your quelle muscle in the back is getting compressed. Then you’re going to lean to the left. Take a nice big breath. Then you sit back up.
Then I want you to look up towards the ceiling, not a lot, don’t hurt your neck, just a little back bend. Then you’re going to lean all the way forward right over to your feet. Don’t whack your head on a desk. Make sure you move so you’re not going to hit your head. Lay your chest right on your thighs, and just hang over there. Take a nice big breath.
Then you’re just slowly going to roll up, like a robot rebooting, one vertebrae at a time. Then roll your shoulders back. Roll them back as if you’re rolling them back into place. We never roll them forward, we do enough forward bending. Roll those back.
Then you can even take your shoulders and scrunch by your ears and drop them down. Scrunch them up by your ears and drop them down, and maybe do it one more time. Scrunch, scrunch, scrunch, scrunch, scrunch, for some reason I have to scrunch my face up when I do this, too. Like I just ate a lemon, it’s all scrunchy, and relax. That’s so nice for your body to have that chance to move around.
You can sneak those movements in like meetings or sitting a long time in your commute, or at your desk. Just make sure you’re moving your spine around.
Oh, my goodness. That’s marvelous, Jenn. Incredible. And we can do these throughout our day.
Yes, of course.
Question #7: Is there anything else you’d like to add? 26:11
There’s so much on the website, and it’s free that I would just personally, think that if you wanted to go onto my website, jenncarson.com, yogainthelibrary.com, everything’s on there, so many different handouts, and yoga videos and all kinds of stuff that you can do.
Rather than me yammering away, which I can do excessively, you can just look them up. Lots of people like visual cues, and they’re all there, and they’re all free, and you’re welcome to them.
Question #8: Thank you. I know we’re all going to do that. Do you have a favorite book or resource you’d like to share, and why? 26:46
Oh, my favorite leadership book is kind of unconventional but I’m sort of an unconventional leader myself. It’s called, The Answer to How, is Yes. by Peter Block. He posits that when we’re trying to build big projects or trying to get stuff done everybody always comes to you with these sorts of questions. Okay, we’re going to implement this new program, or policy at the library. Well, how are we going to do it? What’s going to happen, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. How’s this all going to get done? Who’s going to be in charge.? We sort of bombard ourselves with all of these anxious, anxiety-provoking questions.
The basic thesis of the book is, yes. The answer to how you’re going to get stuff done is, yes. You make a commitment that you’re going to do it and then all the pieces fall into place as you figure that out. But the first and most important thing is that you commit to the people involved. You commit to the project. You commit to the vision of it. Then if you fail and it doesn’t work out it’s okay, because you learned something.
Also that the joy and the value in it is the committing to it. That’s sort of how I approach work and how I approach many things in my life. I’m a like, Yeah kind of person. Like my staff will come to me with an idea and I may have a yes, but like, Oh, yes you can do that, but we don’t have the budget to pay for all the materials, let’s see if we can find some funding. Or, Yes, you can do that, but that’s not a good night for it. Let’s see if we can find another day in the schedule that is not so busy.
So, I may have some modifications that need to be made and that’s understandable. But, my basic way to approach leadership is always with an enthusiastic, yes. Because when people feel empowered in their jobs and they feel like they have both the authority and the responsibility to do things, you wouldn’t believe how much work you will get out of people. They are interested and they’re engaged in what they’re doing. When you give them permission to care about their jobs and to feel that they’re contributing to their jobs it makes everyone happier at work.
When you fail, things sometimes blow up. Then can you sit back and you look back and say, Okay, why didn’t that work? Why did nobody show up, maybe that wasn’t a good time of day to offer it. Or, maybe our marketing wasn’t that good for that. Or, whatever. But, you learn from it and then you try again.
Trying to approach anything in libraries from the position that you know, We have to do it perfectly the first time, and we’re never going to make any mistakes is ludicrous, we’re human beings and we’re just riddled with flaws and inconsistencies, and hypocrisies. Fooling ourselves into thinking anything else is just silly. I really like his approach and he details that in that book. So, the Answer to How is Yes, by Peter Block.
Question #9: That sounds like a great approach and a great book. In closing, what does being a librarian mean to you, personally? 29:45
I really believe in the missions of libraries. The library was a place that I spent a lot of time as a child. My mom was a huge reader and she would take me to the library. I was a sort of lonely only child. Books were like an entire world to me. The library was like this amazing place that was just filled with all of these free books. And, I could just read as many of them as I wanted. It could fill my hours when I didn’t have any siblings or friends to play with but I had these imaginary worlds that I could enter.
Then I started writing stories as a child and creating imaginary worlds in my own head. It was just such a safe place. It was such a welcoming place in a world that sometimes seemed really chaotic as a child. The library was orderly and calm and welcoming, and loving, and everybody was welcome there.
When I grew up, even in school, I was the kid that hung out in the library. I wasn’t necessarily a very cool kid, and I hung out in the library. Again, it filled that void for me of having a community because I had the community of kids there and the librarian. I felt connected. I always got along better with adults than I did with other kids.
So, when I grew up libraries just seemed like a natural fit for me because I loved everything they stood for. I couldn’t imagine not spending a lot of time in them even if I had had a completely different job, I would still have been at my local public library all the time with my own kids just because it is such a good place to hang out. That’s what being a librarian means to me. It means being able to offer your community a support network and a place where they can be themselves and find information, or just hang out and know that they’re safe.
That is great. It has been so fantastic having you on this show today. Thank you for talking to us about this and for encouraging us to take care of ourselves and libraries.
You’re more than welcome.
You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Adriane Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at https://libraryleadershippodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your email inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.