Have you ever experienced stress and burnout in the workplace? These can take a huge toll on all of us, yet we don’t often take the time to work on ways to overcome this. On this show Amanda Moore, Library Stress and Management Consultant, shares ways we can beat burnout. It’s an important topic that I hope everyone in libraries will tune in for. Enjoy the show!
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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 experienced stress and burnout in the workplace? These can take a huge toll on all of us, yet we don’t often take the time to work on ways to overcome this. On today’s show, Amanda Moore, Library and Stress Management Consultant, shares ways we can beat burnout. It’s an important topic that I hope everyone in libraries will tune in for. Enjoy the show!
Amanda, welcome to the show.
Thank you. It’s great to be with you today.
Question #1: Well, it’s wonderful to have you here with me today talking about beating burnout. As we start, why is it important for those of us in libraries to be thinking about this issue? 01:20
I think simply this—stress and burnout are problems in our libraries and in our communities. Stress is really omnipresent in our nation. Burnout is a serious national problem. It’s a public health issue. It’s a personal health issue. We operate in organizations and communities that are under stress. We live in a time of social disruption and rapid cultural change.
The developments we are experiencing lately may be as revolutionary as the invention of the printing press. That was a technology that changed how we approached daily life and organizational leadership.
It’s a stressful time in which to live. As a former academic library director, I pushed myself some place beyond burnout and spent quite a lot of time on medical leave. Since then it really has become my personal mission to help librarians, like myself, learn to operate with the stressors we have in our lives so we can avoid burnout, and so that we can flourish, rather than to languish.
Question #2: And as you say, individually and collectively, stress and burnout take a huge toll on Americans. Can you help us understand why this is happening? 02:30
Sure, I’d be happy to. I think the answer is partially physiological and partially social. Let’s define some terms first off. Stressors are what activates the stress response in our bodies. They can be anything that we see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or imagine that can harm us. Stress is a neurological and a physiological shift that happens in our bodies when we encounter a threat.
It’s an evolutionarily adaptive response that helps us cope with stressors—such a thing as being chased by a lion, or dealing with a dangerous library patron. When our brain notices the lion it activates the stress response. Our heart beats a little faster. Our blood pressure increases. We breathe more quickly. Our muscles tense and we become less sensitive to pain. We’re vigilant, and our senses are heightened. Our entire body and mind change in response to the perceived threat.
Burnout is simply chronic stress that’s unaddressed. It’s a state of emotional and physical exhaustion that results in feelings of futility and loss of personal identity. So, it’s tough stuff. Physiologically, when we are confronted by a lion our heart beats faster. Our blood pressure increases, etc. This allows us to run away. However, when we’re confronted by a threatening library patron all the same physiological and mental changes happen, but we can’t really run. We deal with the threat and then we return to our desk in the library and we sit. And, we might also complain to others in the library.
We’re not getting aerobic exercise, or resting, and we’re really not changing our mindset. These are the central ingredients to reducing our bodies stress response. It cuts adrenaline and other stress hormones. So, the stress builds in our body over time. And that really is the physiological answer.
The social answer is really more observational than rooted in science. I was sitting in the surgery center waiting for a friend’s surgery and I noticed that everyone sitting in the waiting room had a high degree of anxiety. Television screens were everywhere. Those of us in the waiting room were being inundated with loud and very graphic coverage of a recent terrorist attack.
So, let me backtrack a little bit. An idea that was helpful to me when I was recovering from burnout was this—there are two primary energies in the world and those are fear, and love. So simply stated, love heals and fear damages.
So, if you want to be resilient in the face of stress and avoid burnout then focus on love and compassion. This is something we learn, too, in the world of heart rate variability, biofeedback, or neural biofeedback. We learn it from science, so to speak.
To be in our healthiest place, physically, we keep our hearts and minds focused on love and compassion. And, it works. Socially we’re inundated by fear a lot of the time, whether it be news coverage in the surgery center, or over a library break conversation. As we observe the world around us, we will see that so much really is about fear, and so little is about love. But, we can change this narrative. So, let’s do that.
Question #3: What are some stressors that those of us in libraries face in the workplace? 05:34
You know, I once read that library directors have a very high rate of burnout. This probably isn’t surprising, although we think of it as a serene place to work. But, we spend our days dealing with budgetary uncertainty, personnel problems, problem patrons, difficult board members. And, managing in a no man’s land between administrative dictates and the well-being of staff and patrons.
These are significant stressors. The Mayo Clinic lists some common factors of job burnout as lack of control, dysfunctional workplace dynamics, extremes of activity, lack of social support and work/life imbalance. Library leaders sometimes find themselves in these difficult and arid places. Needless to say, the pandemic has created a lot more fear and uncertainty for us. This can contribute to more stress for us in our daily lives.
I did a Library Lit search back in March and found 265 hits for burnout and 1,401 for stress. So, these are problems that we experience individually and collectively in our libraries. And, they’re problems that we’ve been helping our patrons address during the pandemic, too.
Question #4: I’m guessing that even though you’re citing directors having high levels of burnout, this can happen throughout our libraries, is that right? 06:48
Yeah, definitely. In fact, I think it’s something that librarians on the front lines struggle with, and it’s something library staff really struggles with on a regular basis. It’s a difficult time in which to work. It’s a difficult time to be serving the public. We have a population around us, communities around us, that are anxious. And frankly, you now, this is something that we can do something about. But, being around people who are anxious can make us anxious. The fact that we’re anxious about dealing with anxious people can make us anxious. So, that can become a difficult pattern to be in. And that’s really why it’s so important that we deal with stress and burnout.
Question #5: So, you alluded to the pandemic. How has the pandemic affected all of this? 07:33
I think it just works to create a lot more anxiety in society. As I mentioned the literature search a while back, some of the words that I found in the literature pertaining to the pandemic were very telling. I went through and I pulled out common words that I was finding over and over again. They are words like low morale, hate and intolerance, social unrest, exhaustion. And, these are words from 2020—fear of working with the public, virus, funding cuts, COVID’s economic impact, pandemic anxiety, fear of infecting families, sanitizing protocols, social distancing, uncertainty, furloughs and layoffs. And, so forth and so on—emergency response, safety, zoom bombing, fake news. So, all of those—and these are very stressful sorts of words to be articulating and to be hearing.
But, you know, I also found some very positive words out there, too. Something like remote services is a bit neutral, but online storytimes, online reference services, self-care for librarians, caring resources with communities, sharing mental health resources, meeting community’s needs, building community through library resources, educating the public, engaging the public, partnering with local creative artists, and so forth.
So, it’s a stressful time, but it is also a time when innovation is possible. So, I think the library world is being changed by the pandemic, it’s creating stress. It’s also creating an opportunity for innovation for us.
Question #6: Wow, it’s powerful just to hear those words, you know, we did go through all of that. It’s incredible. So, what are some strategies for dealing with stress, and trauma to help avoid burnout? 09:06
Actually I have what I call, Amanda’s List for Preventing Burnout. These are some of the approaches that I’ve collected from a variety of sources that work really well for me. In my post-burnout stage, I should say that I really have to be very strategic and intentional about mediating stress in my own life.
Here’s my list: address conflicts and concerns with others directly, and do it quickly; be aware of my own negative thoughts, and welcome them as a teacher—really don’t fight them, but welcome them, let them go, and invite in thoughts of care and gratitude; practice compassion. Exercise at least twenty minutes a day. Take breaks at work. Be intentional about nature time. Nature is very healing and being outside can be very nice. Remembering to breathe, you know, if you have a stressful situation just take a deep breath [sound of breathing] and that can be so helpful. Spending time with pets, engaging in positive social interaction with people we care about, with friends. Affection. I practice what I call the twenty-second hug every day. It’s really very nice. Spiritual connection, which might be meditation, prayer, walking, Tai chi—something along those lines.
Of course, as a librarian, reading what feeds us, and enriches us, and inspires us is very important. And then, finding a creative outlet, whatever that might happen to be. For me that’s gardening. I really enjoy it. It’s very relaxing. And practicing gratitude, I think that’s something that Mr. Rogers taught us. For me, when I was a young girl, remembering to practice gratitude can really do a lot in alleviating the stress in our lives. So, that would be my list.
Question #7: Those all sound very healing, my goodness, thank you for sharing those. Can you share with us some mindsets that help transcend negative emotional states? 11:01
Sure. I’ll share two. One I mentioned already, that’s to adopt an attitude of compassion. Feel compassion. This doesn’t mean that you have to be nice to a problem patron, you might still call the police on them, but feel compassion rather than anger toward that person. Anger eats us alive. Sometimes I find that I have trouble getting to compassion so here’s what works for me—if I’m angry then I ask myself, What is sad about this situation? Because, there’s usually sadness behind that anger. And in that sadness I recognize a feeling of concern about the well-being of the other. Compassion literally means with passion. So, my formula is this—I work on transmuting anger into sadness, and then sadness into love, and that really helps me a lot. So, an attitude of compassion.
Secondly, Harvard Sociologist, Carol Dewitt writes about a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. The growth mindset increases our resilience against stress. A person with a growth mindset creates a powerful passion for learning, a passion for stretching oneself and sticking to it. And, that’s really the hallmark of the growth mindset. So, to sum it up, think compassion and think growth and those are two mindsets that really help us be resilient in the face of stress.
Question #8: So, what are some simple practices that we can use to increase feelings of empowerment, and positive engagement? 12:27
Okay, absolutely. Before we get to empowerment and positive engagement let’s focus on getting rid of the stress. One thing that can be very helpful—if you observe swans when they are stressed they flap their wings. And, then they’re done with it. They let the stress go. So, we can literally, you know, flap our wings. If you’re feeling stressed about something, flap your arms and let it go. It might not be something you want to do in the middle of the library, but go hide in a private place and flap your arms and it’s amazingly cathartic. So, it’s something to try.
In terms of empowerment and positive engagement, I find what’s called the heart walk very effective. You focus on something that brings you feelings of love or joy. For me it’s thinking about my little West Highland Terrier on her hind legs dancing, every so happily. So, I think about that and then put those hands over my heart and focus on holding that feeling of love and joy. Or, you might focus on a feeling of gratitude that comes to you. And just simply stoke that feeling in your heart for a couple of minutes, focusing on love, or joy, or gratitude. Sit with that for a couple of minutes and just feel it, experience it. That’s the heart walk.
Another strategy that I tend to use is breathing compassion. What I do is visualize breathing in the compassion of the world through my nose and breathing out compassion to the world through my heart. So, breathing in compassion through the nose, breathing out compassion to others through my heart. I try to do this for about ten minutes at a time.
If a person is in a really good place they might breathe in the suffering of the world, or the suffering of their difficult patrons, and then breathe out love on the world, or breathe out love on that problem patron. So, this becomes a means of transforming negative situations positively in our minds and hearts.
Another strategy I find very helpful is the inner smile. So, focus on smiling on the inside, just starting with the chest, thinking of a smile and letting that smile radiate out from every cell in your body and just feel the smile throughout your body. It’s a nice visualization approach that can be very helpful in getting us to a positive place in our minds and in our bodies—a very calm and happy state.
Question #9: Those sound so positive, I can almost see your little terrier dancing [laughing] in my mind. Is there anything else you would like to share? 14:51
I do have one other thing I’d like to share. Neural scientists know that evolutionarily the human brain has a negativity bias. So, we are much more likely to remember negative events, to think negatively, to ruminate, and interpret events negatively. This has been helpful to us in terms of our own survival as a species, however, we live in a high stress culture, and burnout is common. And, the secret to a healthy existence for us is no longer rooted in negativity, not in the culture in which we find ourselves, anyway. So, think positively, feel joy, remember events with gratitude, and care about the well-being of others.
I read a neural science article recently regarding stress, suggesting that we have traditionally taught that talking through our problems is helpful, however, brain research suggests that there are two keys to healing stress and focusing on our problems actually isn’t one of them. One is fostering positive thoughts, and the other is feeling love and compassion towards one’s self and toward others.
On a tangent, theGreater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley shares a monthly happiness calendar. The Happiness Calendar offers many good ideas that we librarians could share with our communities. So, it’s something that we could use to generate positivity in our communities. That’s something to try.
Question #10: Do you have any other favorite management or leadership books, and resources, and why? 16:17
I think one of my favorite leadership books would be Edwin Friedman’s, A Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. It was published by Seabury in 2007. In addition to being a librarian, I’m also a clergyperson and a chaplain. Friedman was a rabbi and an expert at Family Systems Theory. I have found Family Systems Theory incredibly helpful in leadership. Rabbi Freedman taught clergypeople to analyze good dynamics and to intervene for healthy functioning in congregations and communities. A Failure of Nerve offers a really amazing and seemingly accurate analysis of the unhealthy, or toxic group dynamics that are so prevalent in American society right now.
Anything I’ve ever learned about congregational leadership or servant leadership, which are my areas of doctoral studies have been totally applicable to library leadership so, I have found the work of Friedman to be especially helpful.
I’d just like to share a favorite quote from Failure of Nerve, and its this: A major criterion for judging the anxiety level of any society is the loss of its capacity to be playful. So, I think that’s something to think about, the importance of playfulness in reducing the anxiety in society around us.
Another book that I’ve liked a lot that’s not a leadership book, per se, but it’s very helpful and relevant to today’s topic. It’s a book called, Burnout, the Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nogoski. So, that’s Ballantine, 2019. It’s very helpful in thinking about how to stop the stress cycle—how to get out of stress. So, I highly recommend that. I think it’s important for you know, frankly everybody in a library is a leader, no matter where you are in the organization, but it’s really helpful for library leaders at all levels to be able to recognize and address stress, and it has a workbook that goes with it, as well.
Question #11: Those sound fantastic, thank you. Amanda, in closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally?
Oh, I love libraries. To me, libraries mean stronger, better communities. Libraries, really, are amongst the few places in society where we still work together, positively, to ensure the well-being of the whole. We librarians collaborate, and cooperate to share resources— to promote critical thought, democratic engagement, and the proliferation of ideas and culture.
I keep a quote by poet Rita Dove on my desk. And, I’m sure you’ve seen this quote, but it is, The library is an arena of possibility, opening both a window into the soul, and a door onto the world.
And you know, libraries are that—in relationship to both the whole and the world. As I mentioned, the compassionate mindset makes us more resilient to stress. Neural scientists at the University of Wisconsin Center or Healthy Minds have demonstrated that thinking about compassion actually makes us more compassionate. As librarians, we’re able to work together to build more compassionate communities through our mindset, through our collections, and through our programming. In doing this, we can calm our communities, heal toxic dynamics, and help our communities flourish, while also reducing our own stress.
I think we librarians play a critical role in the preservation and growth of knowledge, culture, and democratic ideals. And, that is really the task for us as library leaders, and it’s a challenging, but transformative task, and one that I’m very excited about.
Amanda, this feels like a very important topic, and I’m just so grateful that you’ve taken your personal experience and turned it into real applications that all of us can use to help beat burnout. So, thank you for being on the show with me today.
It’s been a pleasure. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.
Me, too, thank you.
You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into LibraryLeadershipPodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to have monthly updates delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.
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