Career Strategies for Librarians
Running on Empty: Dealing with Burnout in the Library Setting
by Tim and Zahra M. Baird
Burnout is alienation from work, i.e., physical, emotional and psychological exhaustion. Burnout can be
defined as a disabling reaction to an overload of stress on the job. A definition particularly applicable to
the library profession comes from Christina Maslach, a social psychologist, who defines burnout as a
multifaceted state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by chronic stress occurring
when helping-professionals experience long-term involvement with other people in emotionally
Physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, weight gain and insomnia; mental ailments including
depression; emotional symptoms including detachment, inability to concentrate, and boredom; and
social symptoms like rudeness and feelings of isolation from colleagues and/or the library profession
are all indicators that you are headed for burnout. Excessive absenteeism, frequent tardiness,
decreased job performance, a poor attitude, experiencing a lack of control over your commitments,
negative thinking, feelings of alienation and deep cynicism and incorrectly believing that you are
achieving less are other warning signs to watch out for.
The Library Burnout Factor
The very nature of library work predisposes us to burnout. A normal library workday can be described as
a continuous round of interruptions. When demands for our services (including reference questions and
reader's advisory) roll in, we must refocus ourselves to find the answers and set aside whatever else we
have been working on. These constant breaks in our day interrupt the flow of our concentration and
make it hard for us to complete our tasks. The repetitive nature of library work induces monotony;
boredom can easily set in by doing things over and over again, making us prime candidates for burnout.
Janette S. Caputo, author of Stress and Burnout in Library Services, identifies many work-related
stressors that are highly correlated with job burnout. Stressors include: budget cuts, the quick response
time to reference questions, censorship issues, heavy workloads, the overload of clerical duties, poor
management and supervision, technology-related problems, the lack of time for (or no voice in)
collection development duties, the lack of closure for ongoing projects, a shift in priorities, low pay,
obnoxious public/patrons and few opportunities for advancement.
According to Judith A. Siess, author of Time Management, Planning and Prioritization for Librarians,
overwork is the primary cause of burnout. As budgets shrink and expectations rise, we are finding
ourselves having to do more with less; therefore, we accept more and more work without having any of
our duties reassigned or hiring more staff. When overloaded, we just can't seem to bring ourselves to
stand up and say "No!"
Diagnosis Burnout -- Now What?
The first step is to recognize that you are experiencing burnout. The good news is that you CAN make
changes that will help you break out of the burnout cycle that you are stuck in. Protect yourself from
burnout by setting some boundaries and maintaining them. Try different strategies until you reach a
more balanced and harmonious existence and are able to refuel. Reorganize and reevaluate your
priorities and schedule. Design a structure that will help improve your workflow and reduce stress
Our own work habits and beliefs can be catalysts for burnout. Perfectionists, people who overcommit,
one-track-minded individuals, and people who have not set up a personal support network tend to
deplete themselves quickly. Who you are (your personality), where you work (your job environment -- the
physical setup as well as bureaucracy), and what your job is (the tasks and duties assigned to you) all
directly impact your potential for burnout.
Refueling: Dealing with Burnout
Personal strategies are internal ones that YOU can use to regain control of your work life. Listen to your
body. Pain is a signal that something is not working for you. Be kind to yourself, slow down, eat well,
exercise, and schedule regular periods of downtime. Set realistic limits and keep to them. Lower your
standards to lessen the pressure that you put on yourself. Refrain from being a perfectionist. Accept
help from others.
Take stock of your strengths and weaknesses. Know your limitations. Inventory how you use your time.
Find sources of emotional replenishment and nourishment; identify activities that help you relax and
make time for them.
Internalize optimism. Your attitude is of paramount importance. Remember that it might be worth taking
a pay cut and/or a lateral change in position in order to work in a less stressful environment.
Work strategies are organizational strategies that can be used to overcome and manage the stress
originating from your workplace. Develop a detached view of your job, and don’t take things personally –
this can really help reduce chronic stress, which leads to burnout. Identify portions of your job that cause
the most stress, and then brainstorm on ways to reduce the pressure. Learn to compartmentalize, and
leave your work at work when the day is done.
Figuring out how to adapt your present job to better reflect your interests and actively seeking out
challenges can help alleviate boredom. Pace yourself and work steadily, but when it is time to go, be
gone. If possible, delegate: don’t be afraid to share the workload with others.
Take time off and use all the days that you are entitled to, regardless of whether you travel or stay home.
Don't forget to use your sick days when you get sick, take your full lunch time and take those short
breaks. The time away will help you clear your mind and reduce stress accumulation.
Know when to seek help from a stress therapist or support group. You can’t overcome burnout on your
own. Sometimes outside help is needed in order to get back on track after experiencing burnout. A
good psychologist can help deal with feelings of de-motivation and disenchantment with your job and
your life. A life coach can help you set up a wellness plan that will help you revitalize, recharge, and
replenish inner energies that have been depleted due to burnout.
Professional library associations are a wonderful resource where you can find all sorts of support and
mentoring as well as opportunities to cultivate and use your unique talents and skills. Get professionally
active if you are not already, and temper your involvement if you are overcommitted – both of these can
really change your course on the path to burnout. Many professional organizations offer continuing
education courses on topics like stress management, time management, and skill building, all of which
can help to alleviate stress.
Burnout Avoidance Maintenance Plan
Periodically reexamine and, if necessary, eliminate commitments that do not fit in with your goals and
abilities. Decrease your stress levels by spending less time with people who are high maintenance and
disengaging from volunteer work that causes chronic stress. Bowing out gracefully is not quitting.
Knowing when to cut your losses can aid in reducing burnout.
When job rotation, job switching, retraining, or changing jobs are not possible, seeing things from a
different perspective is necessary. Keep your options open by developing a positive perspective.
Give yourself permission to refocus your energies. Be sure to rest, relax, and above all, resist the
temptation of falling into old stress-inducing habits such as taking work home. With readjustment of
your goals and aspirations, you will be able to create balance in your life by investing in family, friends,
social activities and hobbies. Cultivating a taste for the simple pleasures in life will result in your leading
a rich, fulfilling life outside of the library. It is important to note that outside pursuits cannot replace job
fulfillment. If you have tried many of the burnout strategies listed above and still feel that you are totally
burnt out, it might be time to look for a new job in another sector of the library field and/or consider a
Recognize the differences between building and sustaining a career. It is easy to embark upon the road
to burnout when you are beginning a career – you want to try everything! You don't have to do everything
that comes your way. Weigh options; use the opportunities that come your way as stepping-stones.
Once you have established a professional reputation, it is time to start strategically selecting the
opportunities you choose to accept.
Learn from your burnout experiences by investigating why you became burned out. Be proactive; take
measures to not only correct but prevent future burnout.
Keep on Track or Your Burnout Will Be Back
Burnout is an extreme consequence of workplace stress. Not all stress is bad. Positive stress
(eustress) happens when you are in control of your stress, and negative stress (distress) occurs when
your stress is out of control. Accumulated negative workplace stress can lead to feelings of failure as
well as loss of self-esteem and self-confidence, often resulting in burnout. Eustress from stimulating
challenges or circumstances can help you grow. Library workers can keep on track and avoid burnout by
investing time in their lives outside work. Burnout crises can be used as turning points and
opportunities for change. Burnout thresholds are different for each person. We encourage you to act on
the suggested tips and strategies in order to keep your tank full and avoid running on empty!
Arden, John B. Surviving Job Stress: How to Overcome Workday Pressures. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career
Caputo, Janette S. Stress and Burnout in Library Service. Phoenix: Orynx Press, 1991.
Maslach, Christina and Michael P. Leiter. The Truth about Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal
Stress and What to Do About It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997.
Siess, Judith A. Time Management, Planning and Prioritization for Librarians, Latham, Md.: Scarecrow
About the Authors:
Tim Baird, an Adult Services Librarian at the White Plains Public Library, is an avid bridge, tennis and
golf player who is active in the New York Library Association. Zahra M. Baird, a Children’s Librarian at
the Chappaqua Library, is a passionate letter writer, jigsaw puzzle maker, and ravenous reader who is
active in the New York Library Association and the Westchester Library Association. The Librarians
Baird are working on a book about stress and librarianship which will be published by Scarecrow Press.
Article published April 2005
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.