In September, I had the opportunity to attend Utah Library Association’s Annual Fall Workshop. During the keynote speech, given by Rebekah Cummings, a librarian at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library, I found myself with tears streaming down my face. At one point during her talk she asked us to turn to our neighbor and state three things that inspire us. I struggled to come up with a single answer. The only reason why that I could come up with is the idea that I am simply burnt out.
Google “burnout” and about 324,000,000 results show up. In any number of these articles on prevention and what to do about burnout, one of the very first solutions that is provided is self-care. In her article, “Feeling the Burnout,” Jennifer A. Dixon (2022) quotes Veronda Pitchford, assistant director at the California library consortium Califa Group, in stating that, “it is ‘important to move the conversation past self-care’” (para. 26). While self-care is important, “it falls short of combating the intense burnout” (Dixon, 2022) that librarians are experiencing. As I did more research into burnout among librarians, I realized how important Cummings’s keynote was on “setting healthy boundaries and how to say yes and no with intention” (Cummings, 2022) and how it applies to combating burnout.
What is burnout? In the article, “Library Burnout: It’s Common and Okay to Admit!,” Sarah McHone-Chase (2020) refers to burnout as “being a very particular type of stress that causes the sufferer to feel physically and emotionally drained and unable to perform at work at the same rate that they had been able to in the past…burnout is literally feeling stretched thin” (para. 3). Some symptoms of burnout include becoming more emotional (this explains the crying during a keynote address), feeling cynical or pessimistic about work, being drained or depleted of energy, and a general lack of enthusiasm for work or other activities.
It’s no secret that the pandemic increased the possibility of burnout among librarians. There is “no single factor [that] created the current burnout issues for librarians” (Dixon, 2022). Dixon notes that even before the pandemic, “libraries have been a refuge and support for their communities” (2022); this has only increased within the last two years. In her talk, Cummings noted that librarians are “wired for yes” (Cummings, 2022). As a service-oriented profession, we tend to believe that we need to be everything for everyone. Saying yes is in our nature. But at what cost? The Mayo Clinic cites that job burnout is not only a “state of physical and emotional exhaustion [but] also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity” (Mayo Clinic, n.d.).
So, what do we do? Cummings offers some great insights. First, follow the financial principle of paying yourself first. This can be related to self-care, but it goes deeper than that. She notes that “to truly manage our time [sometimes we have to say] no to many worthwhile, meaningful things” (Cummings, 2022) and by deciding which things “deserve to go in your bucket in the first place” (Cummings, 2022) you are able to give more to the things that matter most.
Second, “stop saying yes automatically out of habit” (Cummings, 2022). I think this one is the hardest thing for me and probably for a lot of us. We need to give ourselves permission to say “no” and know that it’s ok. We are only human, and we can only do so much with the time that we are given.
Third, prioritizing opportunities based on three criteria from Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. One, ask yourself if the task, program or committee work inspires you? Do you feel that it is worth the time and effort that you are putting into it? Two, is this something that allows you to use a particular talent? Three, is it meeting a significant need? Although I have yet to read McKeown’s book, these three criteria are what have stuck with me the most. Sometimes more successfully than others, I try to be more thoughtful, reflective, and intentional in deciding what I say “yes” to, personally and professionally.
In conclusion, McHone-Chase puts it best when she states, “When we are happier and more fulfilled with our jobs, we ourselves are happier and healthier, and we are better able to give back to the workplace and to our patrons” (2020). By taking time for ourselves and learning to say “no” when we are not feeling inspired, making use of a particular talent, and meeting a significant need in our community, we are not only reclaiming our time and our energy, we are reclaiming a part of ourselves.
Cummings, R. (2022, September 30). Fewer but Better: Selecting Your Yes with Intention [Video]. YouTube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_icPB1ruVc
Dixon, J.A. (2022, March 7). Feeling the burnout. Library Journal. https://www.libraryjournal.com/story/Feeling-the-Burnout.
Mayo Clinic, (n.d.). Job burnout: How to spot it and take action. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/burnout/art-20046642
McHone-Chase, S. (2020, May 28). Library burnout: It’s common and okay to admit! ILA Reporter. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://www.ila.org/publications/ila-reporter/article/137/library-burnout-it-s-common-and-okay-to-admit
Erin Warnick is a youth services librarian at American Fork Library in Utah and a member of the ALSC Membership Committee.
This blog post relates to ALSC Core Competencies of: VII. Professionalism and Professional Development.