73. Workplace Stress with Brenda Hough

Brenda Hough

Have you ever thought about how to improve workplace well-being for yourself, your team, and your organization? Many people believe that libraries are a mecca of peace and tranquility. While this may be true at times, for library employees there can be a great deal of stress and burnout while delivering library services. On this show, I speak with Brenda Hough, library consultant and instructor, about workplace well-being. She shares what contributes to well-being in the workplace, strategies for dealing with stress and burnout, how to take care of our own well-being at work, and how libraries can be good places to work organizationally. It’s an important and timely topic for all of us. 


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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.

Have you ever thought about how to improve workplace well-being for yourself, your team, and your organization? Many people believe that libraries are a mecca of peace and tranquility. And while this may be true at times, for library employees there can be a great deal of stress and burnout while delivering library services. 

On this show I speak with Brenda Hough, library consultant and instructor about workplace well-being. She shares with me what contributes to well-being in the workplace, strategies for dealing with stress and burnout, how to take care of our own well-being at work, and how libraries can be good places to work, organizationally. It’s an important and timely topic for all of us.  Enjoy the show!

Brenda, welcome to the show.

Brenda Hough:

Hi, there. I’m glad to be here. Thank you for inviting me.


Oh, my pleasure. I’m excited to talk to you today about workplace well-being. While the general population has this impression that all libraries are a calm refuge for life, and sometimes that is the case, the fact is that many library employees are under a great deal of stress. 

Question #1: What can you tell me about this, and why does workplace well-being matter in libraries? 02:03 

Brenda Hough:

That’s a good question, and a good place to start. I saw a photo on social media. I wish I could remember which library it was from, but it was a photo of their mission or vision statement. It had been professionally printed, turned into a sign—was hanging on a wall in the library. In this photo you can’t read what the sign says because taped over it is a hand-written sign that says, Making it up as we go along.

That sign has been on my mind a lot during the pandemic, kind of a sign of the times. Of course, incredibly stressful to be viewing with the level of uncertainty that we’ve been dealing with during the pandemic. But even pre-pandemic, as we look forward to the post-pandemic, we know working in a library is far from that image of a day filled with quiet reading. There’s such a divide between that, and the reality which in a pre-COVID world, is often busy, active—I think of times when 100’s of kids at a summer reading event… 

Library staff are also often being asked in many places to do more with less. So, fewer staff, with hiring freezes, budget reductions, and that leads to stress. Now with the pandemic, there can be more stress than ever. Change and uncertainty, well-being is just impacted for everyone right now. It’s a challenge. 


Question #2: It is. So, what contributes to feelings of well-being in the workplace? 03:50 

Brenda Hough:

I think there are different things, feeling safe, feeling valued. You feel like you’re at a position that’s a good fit for your skills and abilities. Do you feel like you’re learning and developing? 

Our brains like some variety. We like learning new things. So, if we can do that in our job it helps our sense of well-being. Also if we have autonomy, the freedom to do our work without someone watching over our shoulder. We can make decisions, and be creative sometimes. Those things help us feel a sense of well-being.

Then, purpose. Purpose is another important factor. Do we feel like we’re doing meaningful work? Do we feel like we’re contributing to something important? And, that’s something that has been a challenge during the pandemic. Normally working in a library has that built-in connection to purpose. We believe in the role of libraries, and being part of that contributes to a sense of well-being. But during the pandemic, we’re trying to figure out that sense of purpose. What’s our role? What should we be doing?

Then a final thing that I’ll mention related to work and our sense of well-being is relatedness, those relationships that we have at work. We certainly like the people with whom we work. Those things can help us have a sense of well-being at work. 

Your relationship with your boss is important, too. Do you feel like you can trust your boss? Do you feel trusted? Do you get regular feedback on your work? On one hand we like autonomy, and don’t want to feel like someone is watching over our shoulder, or micro-managing us. But on the other hand, we also need to know that we’re on track, and that we’re meeting expectations, and that our efforts are seen. So doing a job that we’re good at, doing work that has purpose, those are all things that contribute to our sense of well-being at work.


Question #3: I can definitely see how that would be so. So if it’s not going well, what are strategies for dealing with stress and burnout? 06:03 

Brenda Hough:

Stress is something that we’ve all experienced. But it’s the on-going, unmanaged stress that can have a really damaging impact on individuals, and on organizations too. Unmanaged stress—it can affect your health. It can lead to missing work. It can lead to employee turnover. So to a certain point, stress can help us perform. Think about a time when the library’s busy, you’re juggling a bunch of things. Sometimes when that’s happening you feel like you’re in the zone. You’re handling this. You’re handling that, and you’ve got it.

But it’s when it gets to be too much, and you start to feel unpleasant effects, like anxiety, anger, frustration. Sometimes the effect can be boredom, or procrastination. You might even start to sweat, or get a headache, or a stomachache. And at that point, it’s time to address the stress. So, what can you do to alleviate it?

I think there are things that we can do as an individual. And then there are things that can be done, or can be addressed organizationally too. As an individual, even just stepping away from, or pulling yourself out of a stressful situation, and focusing on getting into a better place. Doing that for even ten minutes can help. 

Take regular breaks at work. Step outside, if you can, during those breaks. Don’t do a working lunch. Actually give yourself a break. Use your vacation time. We need those things. 

Also, something we’re seeing more attention being paid to is mindfulness, being mindful. It’s about being aware of what’s going on with us and being thoughtful about it. So, instead of just going on auto-pilot and continuing on, even though you’re in a bad place, you’re really stressed out—mindfulness can help us become aware instead of feeling overwhelmed.

Just a little quick thing related to that—breathing is something that complements mindfulness. It helps you calm your thoughts, regulate your nervous system. So, breathing techniques—that’s the thing mental health professionals have been talking about and using for awhile. But they’re also being used by the military, by surgeons, and it’s about pulling yourself in through the moment and taking deep, slow breaths. Even finding a way to do this for just a few minutes can help.

There’s evidence that this kind of intentional, deep breathing can actually calm and regulate your nervous system. It can lower your blood pressure, give you an almost immediate sense of calm, and improve your mood.

The benefits go beyond that in-the-moment stress relief. It’s also good for—can help with anxiety, can help with panic disorder, can help with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression. It can treat insomnia, or help treat insomnia by helping you calm your nervous system at night before bed, and can help with pain management. So it’s a simple thing, but it can have a big impact.


Question #4: So, how can we take care of our own well-being at work? You mentioned a lot of things just now, but what else is there? 09:35 

Brenda Hough:

Yeah, so breathing techniques, of course, is just one thing. Not just powering through when we’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, but stepping away, even if it’s just for a few minutes. 

And as I mentioned—taking a lunch break, taking other breaks throughout the day. Getting outside the library during those breaks, if possible, using your vacation time. That’s something that can help us recharge. But I think we also need to recognize that our work well-being is interdependent with our overall well-being. Things like getting enough sleep, exercise, eating healthy foods, spending quality time with friends and family—taking care of our overall well-being will help with our work well-being. And then conversely, recognize that if things are not going well at work, if we’re not feeling that sense of well-being at work, that’s going to spill over and impact things like, maybe, our health or our relationships outside of work.


Question #5: Aside from the individual taking action for her, or his own health at work, how can libraries be good places to work, organizationally? 10:40 

Brenda Hough:

In part, being a good place to work is about recognizing that work well-being is not entirely independent from a person’s overall well-being. I think that’s why we’re seeing an increase in things like workplace wellness programs, walking buddies at work, that kind of thing. I had people in a recent session tell me that they were able to exercise on work time. So, their workplace was encouraging that. 

A good place to work recognizes that people are juggling different things with family, and their life outside of work. So, things like flexible scheduling can help. I think one of the best things that you can do for your organization to be a great place to work is to help people know that they are important and that they matter. Nurture their growth, and contribute to, and care about their overall well-being.

Organizations like this see more engagement and less turnover.  It can be felt by the library’s users too. If your staff feels a high level of well-being at work. That’s going to be apparent in all sorts of ways that will impact how your users feel too.


Good point. I think it can definitely be felt throughout the whole library, and the organization, and the people you serve, so I think it’s so important. 

Question #6: Is there anything else you’d like to share, Brenda? 12:21 

Brenda Hough:

I guess the only thing I would add about well-being is that it’s hard right now, during the pandemic. Maybe that’s stating the obvious, but our overall well-being is impacted by this in so many ways. I think we all just need to be patient, and supportive of one another. And patient and understanding with ourselves, too.


Question #7: Do you have a favorite management, or leadership book, and why?  12:46 

Brenda Hough:

That’s a good question. I think I would have to choose one of the books that Meg Wheatly, or Margaret Wheatly has written. Maybe one that’s called, Turning to One Another. So, the premise of the book is that through simple conversations, we can restore hope to the future.

She says that that’s how social change happens, is from people thinking and talking together in conversations. I think what you’re doing here with your podcast is an example of this. It’s getting people thinking, and talking, and sharing with one another, and that’s the book, Turing to One Another. It’s a short book. It has lots of quotes, it’s a fun read. I just love the premise behind it.


I am a big Margaret Wheatley fan. I’m so glad that you shared one of hers, because I think you’re the first guest that’s given us hers.

Brenda Hough:

It was hard to choose one. She has—I like all of them. They make me feel good. To read them makes me feel good.


Question #8: Me, too, she’s amazing. So, in closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally? 13:56 

Brenda Hough:

I think to me, libraries represent hope. These are, as I talked about, challenging times. I think we need hope. For me, so many of the things that the world needs in order for us to evolve, to be better, have the potential to be found in a library—connection, space to think, programs and resources for children, letting them be creative, following their interests. I think that people come to the library with their hopes, whether that’s hope for a new job, hope that they can figure out how to fix their car, hope that they can figure out a health issue that they’re having, hope that they can read a story that helps them escape for a while.

I think the reality of libraries can be messy and stressful, but I think that what keeps us going, and what fuels me personally, and professionally is believing that libraries can bring hope to people.


I love that message of hope. Thank you, Brenda. It has been wonderful having you on today. And this is such an important message, not only during the time of COVID, but all the time—workplace well-being in libraries. So, thank you.

Brenda Hough:

Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me on.

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 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.

We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership Podcast, or our sponsors.


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1 Comment

  1. Gemma Alexander

    This podcast was very interesting and informative.

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