Compassion fatigue has been a term that has been mentioned a lot recently. Compassion fatigue is “the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events”(1). Put more simply, it can be emotionally and mentally draining to perform work, like librarianship, that requires the constant care of others in difficult situations. While helping people is a major motivating factor that I hear from library staff about why they got into the profession and why they love it so much (including myself) the experience of compassion fatigue can quickly lead to personal burnout and health problems.
A good way to combat this is to engage in self-care techniques and by practicing a healthy work-life balance. However, being able to strike that emotional balance of being immersed and devoted to our work and taking time to relax and center ourselves can be tricky. In all of these discussions about self-care in the workplace, it’s also important to examine what responsibility a manager or supervisor has in preventing or assisting with the compassion fatigue of their staff. It’s important to recognize staff as being imperfect humans that may need support and having the insight and connection to staff as a means to acknowledge emotional, mental, or physical exhaustion can assist in creating a productive and welcoming work environment. As managers, in addition to making sure the library is operating properly it is also necessary to make sure the people helping to operate the library are ok as well.
As a manager there are simple things that can be done to support the well-being of staff members including:
- Open dialogue — whether through one-on-one meetings, discussing issues besides progress on work projects, or checking-in with employees after difficult encounters with patrons — providing an open dialogue will make it easier for some staff to express challenges.
- Space for staff to decompress — I realize space is limited in some libraries but just having a quiet room or calming/meditative activities in the breakroom for individuals to engage with can make a huge difference in a stressful workday.
- Training on compassion fatigue awareness — inviting outside organizations or health professionals to provide staff with tools to deal with difficult work situations, feel more confident, and continue to learn.
Librarians are dedicated people, giving them the opportunity to combat stress and practice self-care takes away some of the guilt and worry that employees may have about stepping away from the work and taking care of their own needs.
What role do you think managers have in promoting and encouraging self-care and work/life balance for their staff? What resources or activities have you seen or experienced that encourage self-care for library staff?
Veronica Leigh Milliner is the Public Library/Community Engagement Librarian at the National Network of Libraries of Medicine – Middle Atlantic Region, in Pittsburgh, PA. She is a member of the ALSC’s Managing Children’s Services Committee.