Preventing Law Librarian Burnout

More recently, there's been a consistent pattern to my conversations with law librarians where the law librarians have mentioned, often through exhausted tone, that they are doing more with less in the face of shrinking budgets and ever-changing expectations.

I find this to be true, as well, but it's also led me to examine societal changes regarding productivity and the extension of work into all areas of our lives. Lately, it's felt more acutely like everything is work.

A recent NYTimes article discussing the death of leisure provided some insight about why more things feel like work. In analyzing the recent purchase of the Lord & Taylor retail space in NYC by a company called WeWork, the article stated, Today, of course, shopping is something else entirely, not a diversion but just an extension of our working or “productive” lives. At our desks and laptops we buy our avocados, face creams, bathing suits, boxer shorts, coffee tables, routers, sport coats, ski clothes. We can spend $53 or $8,500. There is nothing to immortalize unless you are a writer or artist moved to render the image of an exhausted-looking middle-aged woman staring at a screen-full of Amazon reviews.

Former leisure activities that are now an extension of our productive lives can lead to a feeling of overwork and burnout. We're at the point that this is becoming a public health concern.

Another recent NYTimes article discusses burnout stating that In today’s era of workplace burnout, achieving a simpatico work-life relationship seems practically out of reach. Being tired, ambivalent, stressed, cynical and overextended has become a normal part of a working professional life. The General Social Survey of 2016, a nationwide survey that since 1972 has tracked the attitudes and behaviors of American society, found that 50 percent of respondents are consistently exhausted because of work, compared with 18 percent two decades ago. Occupational burnout goes beyond needing a simple vacation or a family retreat, and many experts, psychologists and institutions, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, highlight long-term and unresolvable burnout as not a symptom but rather a major health concern.

 Common work stressors that lead to burnout include:

• Overcoming challenges associated with new software, changing atmospheres or different processes

• Unrealistic deadlines

• Frequent scheduling conflicts or interruptions

• Unpredictable schedules

•Added responsibility beyond the initial scope of one’s role while not being compensated [for the additional responsibility]

• Interpersonal demands such as interactions with colleagues or customers

Most law librarians likely encounter each of these stressors on a near-daily basis. The article goes on to recommend various ways to combat burnout:

• Focused breathing, which can tap into your parasympathetic nervous system to help you reduce or manage stress.

• Frequent breaks, preferably five-minute breaks for every 20 minutes spent on a single task, or sitting at your desk.

• Ergonomic chairs and desks, like a sit-stand arrangement, or even a small plant in your office space.

• A trusted mentor at work with whom you can discuss and strategize other ways to deal with work-related issues.

• A hobby outside of work through which you can decompress, de-stress and dissociate from work. It doesn’t have to be anything specific, but regular exercise or another fitness activity works wonders here, and has benefits beyond stress relief.

The author ends with a recommendation that If you have the ability to work remotely, that’s another great way to add stress-reducers to your life. Periodically working out of the office enables you to try working from a quiet and contemplative space in which creativity may grow.

To buttress the use of quiet time as a stress reliever, another article in the Harvard Business Review (sub req'd) states Recent studies are showing that taking time for silence restores the nervous system, helps sustain energy, and conditions our minds to be more adaptive and responsive to the complex environments in which so many of us now live, work, and lead.

Cultivating silence increases your chances of encountering novel ideas and information and discerning weak signals. When we’re constantly fixated on the verbal agenda—what to say next, what to write next, what to tweet next—it’s tough to make room for truly different perspectives or radically new ideas. It’s hard to drop into deeper modes of listening and attention. And it’s in those deeper modes of attention that truly novel ideas are found.

Ultimately, to prevent burnout, meet all of our daily demands, and push the profession forward, we must be aware of our own workplace stressors and take purposeful steps to avoid or minimize those stressors.


  1. Thanks for this post. I plan to think about these ideas; they could lead to useful changes in my own work day.

    I imagine that remote work isn't an option now for many librarians. Perhaps it is more so for information professionals who don't work in libraries and will increasingly be possible in the libraries/information settings of the future. But I suppose that remote work wouldn't be so necessary or helpful to information professionals who are enjoying their work and their interaction with colleagues and patrons. If you get to do work that's fun and/or rewarding -- something that appeals to what got you into the profession in the first place, or what has kept you upbeat since -- then time at the workplace probably won't seem so exhausting! (Of course, taking care of young children or having other outside obligations might still make remote work the best option, even if the workplace is enjoyable.)

  2. Speaking as an academic law librarian, it's a good point that many librarians are currently prohibited from enjoying the benefits of remote work. It seems that in many instances, though, we could be treated more like the professionals that we are and be allowed some freedom in our workday. If you are not at a service point and need a few hours to decompress (which would arguably lead to greater productivity through increased workplace happiness and more creative ideas), why should you be required to sit at your work computer all day when much of your work can be done remotely? If your employer is anything like mine, it will still have tons of stats to measure your productivity outside of the office (email reference, faculty requests, letters of reference, etc), so there shouldn't be a concern of skirting work. I do like my office and my colleagues, and I do enjoy the occasional drop in session from a faculty member or student. But many of these interactions can result in the very things that cause burnout: unrealistic deadlines, frequent scheduling conflicts or interruptions, unpredictable schedules, interpersonal demands such as interactions with colleagues or customers. A little quiet time can be the thing that keeps you from burning out. It may be time for libraries to reconsider outmoded, industrial era workplace policies.


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