Alleviating Burnout and Alienation Through Support Groups and Mentorship

By saarabi

In Marcia Nauratil’s The Alienated Librarian 1 the author delves into the work toll on librarians, focusing on the psychological element called burnout.  In the book researchers Ines and Aronson describe occupational burnout as a state of, “physical depletion, by feelings of helplessness, by emotional drain, and by the development of negative attitudes toward work, life, and other people.” Burnout is often a gradual shift that occurs in a worker after being exposed to the stress and strain of interacting regularly with the public over time. While stress is not readily associated with librarianship, Susan Casey cited a 2006 study that provided interesting results: “In 2006, the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology was presented with a study concerning levels of job stress among firefighters, police officers, train operators, teachers, and librarians. The study was approached with the presupposition that librarians would experience the least amount of stress. Surprisingly, the findings showed the opposite. Although there were many categories used to calculate stress, librarians ranked the highest in the level of perceived stress overall (Saddiq and Burke, 2006).”
The symptoms of burnout vary from the physical – ulcers, coronary disease, high blood pressure, to the emotional – depression, irritability and loss of self esteem. As Nauratil observes, “Burnout librarians are likely to experience negative changes in their attitudes, becoming cynical about their work, and hostile toward the library and its constituency.” These negative mental and emotional symptoms also often bleed into the personal life of a librarian, and can take a toll on the relationships the librarian has with their family and friends.
One of the more extreme effects of burnout is librarians quitting the field all together. As Nauratil observes, “Some librarians have left the profession entirely, deciding to try their luck at running a craft shop or raising horses.” For those who choose to stay in the field there are ways to deal with their burnout symptoms. Though many scholars view organizational change as one of the more effective shifts that can take place to counter burnout in librarians, this is not always an option. Nauratil acknowledges this in saying, “Despite empirical evidence that democratizing the library can be of substantial benefit to employees and users alike, implementation has proceeded at a much slower pace than in the private sector. Few public libraries in North America have embraced participative management.”
While Nauratil is not optimistic about many of the other strategies at hand to deal with burnout, there are various avenues that can be explored. These are grouped into collegial and individual coping mechanisms.  Unfortunately, none of the latter coping tactics have  been shown to provide a long-term solution to the problem of burnout.  Furthermore, in Nauratil’s findings, “there is some evidence that secondary and tertiary coping strategies are not only ineffective but actually harmful. In a study of managers and medical professionals…both secondary and tertiary strategies were associated with an increase in psychosomatic symptoms.”
Conversely, it is widely held that collegial coping has proven effective in managing stress in the workplace. This coping strategy is broken into two areas by Nauratil. One is socioemotional, which the author defines as, “the sharing of social reality – the external validation of one’s perceptions.” The second is instrumental support, and is described as, “…more concrete forms of collegial assistance. These include sharing information, insights and advice…”
On the topic of burnout in the library sector, suggests support groups as a tool for combatting work related stress: “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.” In professions where the worker is interacting with the public on a daily basis and, as such, burnout is a likely possibility, support groups and mentorship have been shown to have positive results. In a 2002 article on burnout in the Journal of the American Medical Association 2 suggestions for promoting well-being in physicians included, “…a mentor program, in which senior physicians guide and support junior members in their career development and in balancing their personal and professional lives, [and] confidential support groups that meet monthly on a voluntary basis with group generated topics and facilitation by an outside professional.” To echo the findings in the study in the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology – that the levels of stress in librarians are ranked as high as those in the medical filed – it seems a fair conclusion to draw that the JAMA study on promoting well-being is also applicable to the field of librarianship.
There is a support group for librarians, where the main focus is obtaining a tenure track, at the Sterling C. Evans Library at Texas A&M University. In the article “Academic Librarians and the Pursuit of Tenure: the Support Group As a Strategy for Success”, Jeannie P. Miller and Candace R. Benefiel write, “The establishment of an informal tenure support group can provide an outlet for discussing common concerns and channeling participants’ energies toward finding effective solutions. The atmosphere of caring and sharing that results form a support group can remove one more hurdle …and increase the productivity and success of each member.” The positive effects for the staff that make up this specialized support group are a good example of the benefits of the collegial coping mechanism, and the findings are equally relevant to that of a non-specialized library group, in either the academic or public setting. Miller and Benefiel go on to say, “Many of the group members also commented on positive elements in participating in the group, citing feelings such as: being able to share common experiences and anxieties, which made them feel less alone in the struggle; enjoying the opportunity to meet colleagues from other parts of the library, networking and learning their concerns.”
In The Alienated Librarian Christina Maslach, an authority on burnout syndrome, cautions, “…against the danger of group meetings degenerating into ‘bitch sessions’.” There are other concerns, as well, which include burnout being perpetuated between colleagues, or members of the group-mocking patrons of the library.  Though these are valid issues, the effectiveness of a coping strategy is largely based on the person(s) specific outlook, and the way they approach stress and possible solutions.  As Nauratil concludes,”Whether staff support groups ultimately help or harm depends on how they are are structured. ‘If the feelings of members are accepted and they are helped to go beyond the expression of feeling, to formulate constructive attitudes and behaviors for dealing with problems, the support group can be a powerful method for alleviating burnout.'”

  1. Nauratil, Marcia J. (1989). The Alienated Librarian. New York: Greenwood Press
  2. Spickard, Anderson, Jr., Gabbe, Steven, Christensen, John, “Mid Career Burnout In Generalist and Specialist Physicians”, Journal of the American Medical Association, Sept. 2002, 1449
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