We work feverishly to make ourselves happy. So why are we so miserable? In Do Nothing, award-winning journalist Celeste Headlee illuminates a new path ahead, seeking to institute a global shift in our thinking so we can stop sabotaging our well-being, put work aside, and start living instead of doing. Here, Headlee discusses how librarians can apply these lessons to avoiding burnout.

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How Librarians Can Avoid Burnout by Celeste Headless

At this point in history, burnout is an epidemic. Around 20 percent of adults in the U.S. suffer exhaustion related to burnout and the helping professions are particularly prone to suffer from it. A 2019 study report on the issue said that “burnout is not the sole domain of only one particular library type; it is pervasive in every type of library from special libraries to public libraries.”

At heart, burnout is exhaustion. There are many symptoms beyond fatigue, including weight gain, insomnia, forgetfulness, distractibility, and a tendency to cry. People suffering from burnout can become moody, withdrawn, or detached. These toxic ingredients mix to create a crippling cocktail for librarians, resulting in headaches, compromised immunity, stomach problems, and even cardiovascular disease.

It can be difficult to prevent burnout, since the causes are various and the amount of stress a person can tolerate changes vastly from one individual to another. But one root cause of burnout is general overload. Two librarians, Tim and Zahra Baird, wrote that “the very nature of library work predisposes us to burnout. A normal workday can be described as a continuous round of interruptions.” Being constantly distracted and sidelined is a common cause of stress, but added to budget difficulties, limited opportunities for advancement and tech issues, every day on the job can seem like it’s too much.

In many places, funding for public libraries has fallen dramatically and the remaining librarians are left to do the work of several people. As of 2015 (the most recent data we have), California employed only 859 public school librarians, or one for every 7,187 students. For comparison, the state had nearly 1400 librarians in 2001. And yet, the number of books has increased significantly. In Iowa, there are now 20 percent fewer librarians than there were 20 years ago. It’s no wonder that those remaining feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks they’re expected to accomplish.

It’s not just the workload, though. The truth is, our non-work habits are fueling our feelings of exhaustion, rather than relieving them. We take a break and spend that time looking at social media, not realizing that we’re increasing our stress instead of reducing it. It’s hard for people to accept this, but looking at Instagram or Facebook lowers your sense of wellbeing. Dozens of studies have proven this. In fact, a very thorough study in 2017 showed that increased use of Facebook means decreased happiness. As the study authors said: “liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.”

Beyond what we choose to do with our off-time, there’s the issue of whether we take time off at all.  Americans chose not to take 705 million vacation days in 2017 and more than 200 million of those days were lost forever because they couldn’t be carried over to the next year. That means Americans donated $62 billion to their employers in one year. The number of vacation days we use has declined over the past three decades, even though those who use all of their time off report being 20 percent happier in their relationships and 56 percent happier with their own well-being.

If you suspect that you’re experiencing burnout, it’s important to mitigate your stress immediately. However, make sure you’re choosing activities that will actually lower your cortisol. Put your phone down and take a walk outside, for example. Walking in nature can lift your mood and lower your heart rate.

Call a friend and have an honest-to-goodness conversation instead of a text exchange. Social interactions in person or over the phone can increase your sense of well-being, while social media decreases it. You can also try going somewhere quiet (ie, no computers or cell phones) and reading a novel. Find time to escape the constant interruptions and distractions that are making you feel overwhelmed.

Burnout is becoming an epidemic, I believe, because the forces that are causing it are with us at all times. Our smartphones are powerful tools, but they’re constantly distracting and stressing our brains. Social media can be helpful in very limited amounts, but checking our feeds on a regular basis is eroding our self-esteem and making us miserable.

The good news is, the solution to burnout doesn’t cost much. It’s as easy as walking out the door and leaving the technology behind in the library.

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Celeste Headlee, Author of Do Nothing, on How Librarians Can Avoid Burnout

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