Everyday Advocacy

Supporting Staff Well-being

Welcome to Ask ALSC, where the Managing Youth Services Committee asks leaders in children’s libraries to share their response to an issue or situation.  We hope to showcase a range of responses to topics that may affect ALSC members. If you’d like to respond to today’s topics, or suggest a topic for the future, please leave a comment.

*Disclaimer* I am not a healthcare professional. I am a reader and a hard-working mental health advocate, both personally and professionally.

Self-care and wellness are frequent buzzwords in articles discussing the workplace. Why? What’s changed (other than the obvious) to warrant an uptick in administrative discussions surrounding mental health and career? And why should we as managers devote time and space to discussions on well-being?

There are a myriad of reasons why we should all be focused on mental health, but for brevity and deliverability, I will focus on three. I’m sure you can think of many more, but these fit within the framework of most mission statements and can be conveniently easy to share with administration or add to growing strategic plans.

The world changed.

The last few years have forced everyone to take a good hard look at what matters, and for some people, work was the last item on that list. In light of “The Great Resignation,” in 2021 The Washington Post reported that among the reasons for leaving a job, burnout was frequently cited, as unrealistic employer expectations weighed heavily on employees trying to make do with less. Covid left some libraries stretched thin, and even those libraries that were able to weather the storm had to contend with mask enforcement, upset patrons, and the near-constant shifting of expectations from both without and within. The new normal is here to stay, why not shape it in a healthy way?

Our jobs got harder.

No one gets into librarianship for the money. But linger in a job for a while, and you might start to notice other people’s workplaces offering incentives and bonuses that a career in public service can’t, and for the most part shouldn’t provide. While a focus on employee well-being might take time and attention, there are many ways to do it at low to no cost, finally bringing a perk usually associated with the corporate world into the realm of public service. Sure, it’s a job, but it’s also a career that can last decades in the right library. Wouldn’t everyone benefit from retaining an all-star staff?

For some, the job has always been hard.

Many libraries are focused on inserting equity, diversity, and inclusion into everything we do. While policies and mission statements supporting inclusivity are a great starting point, an organization cannot truly support this mission unless its actions match its values. One of the best ways to support and retain diverse talent is to recognize the compounded stress and trauma that simply existing in a space can create for some library staff. The recent uptick in book challenges targeting black and LBGTQIA+ narratives alone shows how conflict at work can be deeply personal and can overwhelmingly affect the well-being and mental health of employees. Libraries work hard to be a welcoming place for all patrons, imagine what would happen if we turned that effort inward? 

Understanding why we are here is just the first step in supporting your staff’s well-being. The next phase is actually sitting down and considering what you can do about it. 

Make space.

Literally and metaphorically. Have a lounge, a section of the breakroom, a chair, or a corner where overwhelmed staff can go to decompress and reset. Make this space separate from public areas, and make it known it is a place for quiet and calm. Respect and understand that staff may need a moment, or two, or ten, to return to work after an upsetting interaction. If you can swing it, invite a social worker or therapist as frequently as you can manage to meet with staff, listen, and offer suggestions. If your library is anything like mine, we field dozens of calls from patrons with therapy dogs wanting to read with kids. Book them for your staff! Librarians by nature are creative and savvy. Use some of that guile to help your staff cope.

Create a buddy system.

In her book, Whole Person Librarianship Sara Zetterval uses social work practice to inform a compassionate approach for library staff and patrons. Some of the solutions she outlines cost literally nothing but time. Allow for staff to meet with each other and debrief after a difficult situation. Check in frequently and make sure staff can safely move forward after a taxing event. Meet as a team to discuss changes or training that can prevent a stressful event from happening again. An approach to employee wellness doesn’t have to be high-tech, it can be as simple and intuitive as listening to each other.

Be an advocate.

Ask staff what they need. Report back to administration. Report back again. Be a squeaky wheel. As middle managers, it is not always easy to make our voices heard or to ensure follow-through with suggested changes, but retaining staff and increasing employee productivity and contentedness are high on the wish list of most administrators. Encourage them to support staff attending training on mental health and wellness. While you’re at it, encourage administration to attend the same training. There are many free webinars and excellent resources out there to inform your work. If you have the budget, investigate any additional support you can offer your staff through insurance, EAPs, or other supplemental care. Talk with administrators about adjusting programming schedules and desk shifts to meet your staff’s available bandwidth. Suggest incentivizing mentally healthy practices at work with small tokens or contests. Make it known, over and over again, that this should be a priority. 

As managers, we are laser-focused on making sure our staff has everything they need to work productively and happily. What we’re not always so great at is turning that gaze inward and asking ourselves if we have everything we need. 

Look inward and outward.

Do not put too strong an emphasis on self-care. Banish the phrase. Mental health and well-being are something we all contribute to, and unfortunately, detract from in the workplace. It is not on one person and one person alone to heal themselves in the face of dysfunction, but it is up to all of us to work together toward an inclusive and healthy workplace. The best way to do this is to lead by example. 

Boundaries. Boundaries. Boundaries.

The (seemingly) simplest way to promote change is to model behaviors yourself. Take time off. Share your experiences when you feel comfortable. Share books you’re reading about wellness and mental health. Speak with respect. The good news is, you don’t have to be an expert to share your expertise! Instead of approaching “fake it ‘til you make it” as a catch-all for covering up insecurity and uncertainty, use respectful language, breathing techniques, or the buddy system – whatever works for you – to inch your way toward a happier and healthier workplace. Try something new. Evaluate. Repeat. Exercising patience takes time, but it is more rewarding and has more positive, longer-term outcomes than grinning and bearing it.

Trickle Down Effect.

A happy working environment affects every person in every position. Making small changes toward a balanced work environment will have ripple effects through frontline staff, administration, board members, shelvers, cataloguers, circulation clerks, delivery drivers, custodial staff, and even patrons! Just as one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch, one instance of respect can spread into many more opportunities to grow.

Supporting staff well-being doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. I would even venture to guess some of these things are already being done – in healthy, and perhaps less-than-healthy ways (ahem..breakroom venting). And yes, this is just the first step in a long and involved process, but working with awareness and intentionality will never fail you. We know the world is not what it once was, so let’s make a start by realizing these changes are affecting every aspect of our lives. A supportive workplace doesn’t need to be indulgent and expensive, it will just require patience and humanity. 

What are some ways you support staff well-being? What are some ways you support your own well-being? Share in the comments below.

Today’s blog post was written by Betsy Raczkowski, Head of Youth Services at Rochester Hills Public Library in Rochester, Michigan, on behalf of the ALSC Managing Children’s Services Committee. She can be reached at betsy.raczkowski@rhpl.org. This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of I. Commitment to Client Group, VI. Administrative and Management Skills, and VII. Professionalism and Professional Development.

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