Combating burnout: Fostering workplace wellness for librarians


Workers of the world, relax!

Good advice, but easier said than done. The fact is, according to a 2024 report from the management consulting firm Mercer (based on a survey of more than 12,200+ C-suite executives, HR leaders, employees and investors from around the world), more than 80% of employees are at risk of burnout this year.

Among the contributing factors are excessive workload (37%), exhaustion (40%) and financial strain (43%).

It would be a mistake to think that library workers are somehow immune to the pressures faced by employees in other fields. When you consider the stress of doing a public-facing job, often with a severely limited budget — to say nothing of the fact that libraries have become an ideological battleground in recent years — being a library worker is far from stress-free.

By putting a focus on fostering wellness in the workplace, libraries can ensure that members of the library workforce find much-needed work-life balance — and, of course, avoid burnout.

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It's about putting people first


Catherine Murray-Rust, retired dean of libraries at Georgia Institute of Technology, got it right when she spoke at the American Library Association’s 2022 Annual Conference and Exhibition in Washington, D.C.: “One of the most important parts of any library isn’t the building or the collection — it’s the people who work in it."

As we noted in a previous blog post on this topic (albeit not specific to the library workplace), there is growing recognition that a comprehensive health and wellness program can boost employee engagement and increase job satisfaction.

Creating a healthy work environment for library workers

Bobbi L. Newman is the community engagement and outreach specialist at the Network of the National Library of Medicine office for Region 6 at Hardin Library for the Health Sciences at University of Iowa in Iowa City. From Newman's book Fostering Wellness in the Workplace: A Handbook for Libraries — as excerpted in American Libraries magazine — these are a few factors to consider when designing policies that impact the well-being of library workers:

Physical space

According to Newman's handbook, every library worker should have an ergonomic work station, resulting from the recommendations of an external ergonomics evaluation, if it's possible for the library to have one.

"Be prepared to purchase the equipment and furnishings necessary to meet the resulting recommendations," Newman writes. "Ideally, this would come from the library budget, but you may need to consider other sources of funding, such as applying for grants or fundraising."


Fair compensation can make a real difference to the overall well-being of library staff. Newman points out the importance of remembering that all library employees — including both those who hold advanced degrees in library science and those who don’t — are paid based on limited budgets.

Library management should "examine staff salaries for equity and adjust them accordingly. Evaluate and revise hiring practices to ensure fair and equal wages in future hires."

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Vacation time

Empower staff to prioritize their personal well-being by creating a culture where using vacation time is expected as a matter of self-care.

Newman says it should also be policy to allow library staff to completely disconnect from work — "no expectation of responding to emails, texts, or phone calls" —during vacations.

Telecommuting and flex schedules

The COVID-19 pandemic showed employers in all sectors that remote work is not only feasible, but sometimes even preferable. When drafting policies around remote work and flexible schedules, according to Newman, library managers must take an honest look at the responsibilities of staffers and whether or not it's necessary that they be in the building during a strict set of hours to complete their work.

Emotional and invisible labor

Library administration should recognize that emotional and invisible labor exist, and that some library workers are more affected by them than others. Newman recommends providing these employees with access to private space to process emotions away from coworkers and patrons:

Set expectations that staffers may take time away from service desks after difficult encounters with patrons. Creating a workplace that truly embraces diversity, equity, and inclusion will help reduce the burden of emotional labor on the job.

Being intentional about your time


One way for library workers to take charge of their personal well-being is to be intentional about their time, according to Nia Lam, research and instruction/media studies librarian at University of Washington Bothell and Cascadia College Library, and Michelle McKinney, reference and web services librarian at University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College.

Together, Lam and McKinney contributed to the American Library Association publication Thriving as a Mid-Career Librarian: Identity, Advocacy, and Pathways.

Writing specifically of mid-career librarians, Lam and McKinney say that these information professionals need to learn when and how to say no to some opportunities and yes to others, and to regularly reevaluate commitments with an eye toward identifying those that can be discontinued instead of automatically renewed.

"Keep track of how you spend your time over the course of a week," they write. "Analyze your time by grouping similar activities into categories. Ask yourself what went well and changes you could make. Brainstorm how you would like to spend your time and identify activities to combat burnout."

Avoiding burnout to serve their communities

As we so often observe, libraries play a crucial role in communities, offering valuable resources and services while also contributing to community well-being. To maintain this level of service and ensure a proper work-life balance for their employees, it's vital for libraries to have policies in place to prevent burnout among their workers.

Librarians and staff often face heavy workloads, meeting diverse patron needs and technological challenges. When they prioritize staff well-being, libraries not only foster a healthy work environment they also sustain their ability to serve the public effectively now and into the future.

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