As Compassion Fatigue Takes its Toll, Schools and Public Libraries Take Steps to Support Librarians

Tips for self-care can be useful but are not always practical. So proactive administrations and public library management are taking steps to support their stressed-out staff.

Teacher librarian Anthony Devine with library technician Joan Tilley
Photo by Yulianna Ramirez

Anthony Devine’s days are demanding, and during busy seasons, his work as a teacher librarian at El Cajon Valley (CA) High School, serving some 1,800 students, can be especially stressful. Students in the San Diego County school come from a high-poverty community, with nearly 90 percent qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch, and they bring the stressors from their lives with them to school. Devine tries to support the students as much as he can, but he still sometimes feels defeated.

Yet as hard as he works and as much as he gives, Devine says he’s not burned out. “I feel like I have the best job on campus,” he says.

Meanwhile, Laura Preble, a teacher librarian at another high school in the district, is so frustrated that she has decided to end her school library career.

“When I started, I loved this job.…Now I’m retiring in June,” says Preble, who works at Monte Vista High School. “I’m 58. I didn’t plan on retiring that early.”

The two schools are similar in size and demographics. Preble, like Devine, describes the occupational stress that comes from serving students who are experiencing poverty, homelessness, and foster care. Yet Preble is clear that she is stepping down not due to any issues with her students, but because of a failure of support from her district and administrators.

If her working conditions were more like those of her colleague Devine, she says, she would not be leaving at all. Devine has a library technician to help him with administrative tasks, while Preble does not. Devine’s staffing support is a crucial element that allows him to maintain job satisfaction, be an effective educator, and prevent burnout, he says.

Retiring teacher librarian Laura Preble.
Photo courtesy of Laura Preble

“I get to go visit classes frequently, and I get to market myself as an instructional leader to my staff. When they ask for help with things, I can frequently say yes because students will still be able to come to the library to get help with Chromebooks or return a book,” Devine says. “The tech is at the circulation desk. I’m able to do other things.”

Caring for others is often part of the job of being a school and youth librarian. In librarianship, as in some other professions such as nursing, there’s growing awareness that this caregiving is a form of work layered on top of other job responsibilities. It’s emotional labor, and when librarians are overworked and drained from dealing with others’ needs and not having time for their own, it can lead to what researchers call compassion fatigue.

Librarians are often counseled at professional conferences, on blogs, and on social media that to ward off compassion
fatigue, they must practice self-care: go for a walk during lunch hour, take a five-minute meditation break, drink enough water. Although these tips are useful on an individual level, not everyone is able to take advantage of them, and to some, they seem like Band-Aid suggestions that don’t address the underlying causes of burnout. However, some schools and public libraries are taking compassion fatigue seriously and using effective strategies to support their staff and insulate them from burnout.

Researchers define compassion fatigue as the combination of secondary trauma and burnout—and have often applied it to the experiences of doctors, nurses, and first responders who are regularly exposed to traumatic events. Librarians, too, are often exposed to trauma. Librarians in Philadelphia made headlines a couple years ago because they were administering Narcan to people overdosing outside the library.

Even when they aren’t literally saving lives, youth and school librarians regularly help children experiencing poverty, divorce, homelessness, and mental health issues. Being in a caregiver position for others in trauma has real secondary effects, according to Jacquelyn Ollison, an adjunct professor at the University of the Pacific School of Education in Stockton, CA, who has studied the effects of compassion fatigue on teachers in California.

“What happens when you want to help? Maybe it’s outside your control. It takes its toll emotionally and physically and mentally,” Ollison says. “Sometimes people start to self-protect and withdraw. They become irritable and anxious or depressed.”

Ollison’s research found that at higher poverty schools, there was a greater incidence of compassion fatigue among teachers. Women are more susceptible to compassion fatigue, as are people who have experienced trauma in their own lives.

The World Health Organization defines burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” characterized by unmanaged workplace stress. Ollison believes that educators should receive training in compassion fatigue, mental health first aid, and self-care strategies; that administrators should make a point of creating a supportive school climate by regularly checking in on staff well-being; and that schools should offer staff mental health support after traumatic events, such as suicides or natural disasters.

Last year, a group of five siblings under the age of 12 started showing up unaccompanied at the Twinsburg (OH) Public Library (TPL) and staying there for hours. Behavior problems ensued. When library staff investigated, they discovered that the children were there because their mother needed to get to work, and she felt it was better to leave them at the library than at the hotel where they were living. After a consultation with the mom and the children’s school, it was arranged that an older sister would supervise the other five siblings at the library, and the library staff shared snacks with the kids to alleviate their hunger. It didn’t solve the problem, but it helped.

“There’s frustration, because there’s only so much you can do to fix their situation,” says Laura Leonard, director of TPL, who started her career as a teen librarian. “You don’t get that training in library school.”

Leonard says that her staff regularly interacts with people who are dealing with traumatic circumstances, including poverty and health crises. She tries to make sure that her staff has resources to deal with these patrons. For instance, last spring they attended a library conference about understanding mental illness, and she invited an expert to give a training on how to approach patrons in distress.

Leonard also places a high priority on making sure her staff has the resources they need to stay healthy and motivated, and to avoid burnout. If someone has a difficult confrontation with a patron, she or another staffer takes over at the reference desk to give them a 30-minute break. She counsels them not to overextend themselves by volunteering for too many committees or professional organizations. And the library contracts with an employee assistance program that gives her staff access to three free counseling sessions a year, as well as other benefits to help them in their personal lives.

Denver Public Library senior librarian Tara Bannon Williamson (left) with DPL social worker Sonia Falcon.
Photo by Alicya Tebo

Tara Bannon Williamson, senior librarian at the Denver Public Library’s (DPL) Park Hill Branch, which also participates in an employee assistance program that includes free therapy, makes sure to tell her staff when she’s heading to a counseling session.

“That’s an important thing to model. If someone needs to take a mental health day, that’s OK,” Williamson says. “It’s hard enough to prioritize yourself; you don’t need flak from your boss about it.”

People who are experiencing homelessness, mental health crises, poverty, and abuse spend time in DPL branches every day. They use computers, read books, charge their phones, use the bathroom, and take shelter from the cold. The library has made it its mission to proactively help this population by hiring five social workers, known as community resource specialists, since 2015. These staff members work one-on-one to help patrons throughout the library system access resources that will improve their circumstances, such as signing them up for food assistance and referring them to employment centers.

They make an important impact on the lives of their clients. But their presence also crucially benefits librarians by reducing their burden and their exposure to secondary stress.

“We’ve had situations where maybe we’ve been worried about kids,” Williamson says. In the past, the staff’s only recourse was to call child services; now they can call an in-house social worker who can be a trained eye and identify the best resources that can aid the whole family. “Before community resource specialists, that [kind of situation] would have kept me up at night,” says Williamson. “But now…there’s someone to talk to about that.”

Denver librarians have benefited from trainings in mental health first aid, supporting youth in crisis and understanding trauma and adverse childhood experiences ( Williamson says that training and social worker support make librarians more confident when dealing with stressful situations. And though there is often an ethos in librarianship that doing your job means pushing yourself as hard as you can, she tells her staff that they should avoid burnout and give 80 percent of themselves—not 100 percent—at work.

“When the time comes you have to step up…you’ve got it. You’re not already at 100 percent and now have to give 110 percent,” Williamson says. “Boundaries aren’t about pushing other people away; it’s about protecting your own energy. It’s the distance at which you can love yourself and still love someone else.”

Fobazi Ettarh, an undergraduate success librarian at Rutgers University, believes it is hard for many librarians to enforce boundaries because the profession has adopted a position of “vocational awe” about the nature of its work.

“In the face of grand missions of literacy and freedom, advocating for your full lunch break feels petty,” Ettarh wrote in a 2018 article about vocational awe for the online journal In the Library with the Lead Pipe ( “Tasked with the responsibility of sustaining democracy and intellectual freedom, taking a mental health day feels shameful.”

Ettarh, who used to work as a high school librarian, recalls being at a conference several years ago and hearing one of the speakers say that working with youth as a librarian was a “sacred duty.” The idea jarred her. She realized that librarians are invited to see their work as a quasi-religious calling more akin to being a priest or nun than a professional.

This mythology about librarianship is harmful, she argues, because it bakes a sacrificial mentality into the profession and keeps librarians from asking for occupational supports that they need to protect themselves from secondary trauma and burnout. The burden is even greater, she says, for librarians from marginalized communities, who experience more stress in the workplace and often have fewer resources for self-care.

Breeze, a dog at Twinsburg (OH) Public Library, offers comfort to the reference staff.
Photo courtesy of Twinsburg Public Library

“That students’ well-being is more important than your own well-being is something that really plays out in K–12 education, as well as higher education,” Ettarh says.

Preble says that if she felt she could help her students in a meaningful way, she might not be retiring early. But she isn’t able to work on projects in the classroom with students like her colleague Devine. Her administrative work is too demanding, especially since her school rolled out a 1:1 Chromebook initiative four years ago. Her day-to-day work responsibilities have been consumed with tech support, and she’s overworked and burned out.

The American Association of School Librarians recommends that each school library employ at least one full-time support staffer to assist the librarian with administrative tasks. Many school librarians work with students all day, then spend their breaks and off hours catching up on new literature and maintaining the collection. Devine credits his library technician, as well as the support he gets from his principal, with allowing him to stay nourished as an educator and be valuable to teachers and students. He’s particularly proud of collaborating with classroom teachers to help students create digital portfolios to highlight their work.

“It’s very rewarding, and while I’m doing that, my library tech is in the library making sure students get what they need,” he says. “I’ve seen [other] librarians come to tears in our library meetings because they’re super frustrated with not being able to have more purposeful work.”

Institutional support systems can best help school and youth librarians practice self-care and prevent burnout by maintaining proper staffing, offering ongoing education in mental health and trauma, and providing employees with resources to protect their own well-being. But Ettarh also suggests that, absent institutional reforms, a simple way for librarians to take care of themselves is by simply acknowledging that there are times when they don’t like their job. If they can separate themselves from the supposedly “sacred duty” of librarianship, they can create a protective mental distance.

“Allowing yourself to critique your field can be an incredibly empowering thing,” Ettarh says. “Nothing is beyond critique.”

Drew Himmelstein is a journalist covering areas including education, parenting, and religion.

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Brooke Galbreath

Thank you for this article. These are things I struggle with regularly. I've often wondered why I didn't feel like the other librarians around me, or how I imagined they felt. I've never read these ideas in a professional journal before or heard them talked about at state or national conferences. We certainly don't talk about them at my library or within our co/op. I'm the only commenter after 12 days. Why is that? I fear maybe it's shame that prevents us from talking openly. Maybe if this was a larger issue for our professional organizations it might be more readily addressed at our individual libraries? I'm not sure. I only know that I felt seen for the first time after reading this article and I want to be part of a larger discussion about these issues.

Posted : Feb 29, 2020 06:57



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