ON LIBRARIES: The Return of Burnout

Burn out is a common problem at the end of the school year, but here we are a month or more after schools have ended and for many the challenge continues. You are not alone. The workload, the assessments – of students and you – and the feeling that you aren’t valued are all contributing factors.  Add to this all the ways COVID-19 has exacerbated the issue, and it’s hard to change course. How can you rekindle your enthusiasm?

Moving at top speed to get everything done will not help.  Once you recognize you are burnt out – whether from things at work, home, or a combination – your first step is to pause and breathe.  To create a pause, do what you can to remove yourself from the environment you are in. Go sit outside. Take a walk. Drive to park and, if necessary, sit in your car. Just get away from your usual surroundings with its reminders of all you have to do.

Next consciously take a deep breath, slowly in and slowly out (this is good even if you can’t change your environment).  In the article The Benefits of Deep Breathing, Andrea Watkins, LCSW, writes that the benefits of this one action include:

  • Decreasing stress, increasing calm,
  • Reliving pain,
  • Stimulating the lymphatic system (and detoxifying the body),
  • Improving immunity.

Once you’ve taken these steps, you’ll be better able to think clearly and see the ways you’re capable and succeeding. You are used to dealing with many demands. You have proven how flexible you are. Throughout the quarantine you have been a source of information –and comfort – to students and teachers. Trust yourself to continue to be that. And make sure your principal and even your superintendent know what you have been doing and how it has contributed to learning and student engagement throughout this time.

Another action that can help is to reconnect with your “Why.”  It’s amazing how powerful this can be. Think back to the reasons you became a librarian.  Recall the special moments you have had with kids, teachers, and others. Maybe even some that took place during this crazy final semester. Remember your Mission and Vision statements.  This is who you are and what you bring to others.

You can also try reorganizing your day and possibly your work environment. A change-up will help to energize you. Be sure you are including “me-time” of at least 30 continuous minutes. You will get more done by taking a break than if you worked through it.

When you’re feeling calmer, identify what was the “straw” (or strawS) that triggered the burnout. Look at both your work and personal life. Each may be a contributor. Once you’ve determined what that breaking point might be, taking action – even one step – can help.

I’ve been reading on the School Librarian’s Workshop Facebook page that many of you are worried that after all you have done, you won’t have a library to go back to. You might be re-assigned to the classroom if libraries and other specials are being cancelled for the year, or perhaps the administration is talking about eliminating you entirely. Your action step can be stepping up your advocacy. All across social media you can find numerous charts and infographics for “sharing” with your administrators.  Here is  one from New Jersey Association of School Libraries or this one from Arlen Kimmelman, also of NJASL. AASL has one specifically for administrators.  You might also request time with your principal to discuss how you can impact student learning in the various potential configurations for school in the fall. Bring your awareness of trauma-informed learning and teaching. Discuss how you can assist in helping teachers who are also suffering from trauma.

The switch to distance learning, helping teachers who are struggling, and doing the same for students has been incredibly draining.  As you look toward a new school year, the extent of uncertainty about how the new configuration will look, and what your role in the new configuration it will be is increasing your anxiety and exhaustion. But if you take the time to use your support systems, make a plan, and take a step, you will discover you can do this.  You have already done so much.  Don’t let burnout stop you now.

Take the time you need and, as always, breathe!

ON LIBRARIES – Beating Burnout

It happens to the best of us – in fact, the most invested in your job you are, the more likely it is to happen to you. Burnout. Your alarm goes off, and you don’t want to get out of bed.  It’s not just tiredness and lack of sleep, although that’s part of it.  You have given and given, worked and worked to make do with less and less, constantly striving to demonstrate the value of your library program and what you bring.  Now it feels there is nothing left.

Burnout is common to leaders –so take some comfort in knowing that as lousy as it feels, it’s a sign that you are acting as a leader. Going into work when you’ve been feeling this way for a while leads to little getting accomplished.  Worse, because you are not at your best, you are less likely to handle situations with your usual skill. This, in turn, will give you more work to do in repairing any damage to relationships and the last thing you need is more work.

Although the feelings of burnout are most likely to happen during the school year, vacation is a good time to prepare for the likely possibility of this condition. Knowing in advance how to deal with this challenge will help you get past it quickly.

Once again, I’m using advice from the business world to address this. The first suggestion Mark Ellis offers, in his article entitled What to Do When You Can’t Face Your Team, is to take some time off.  During the school year, that’s probably limited to one “mental health” day (personal or sick – your choice) but it’s vital that you use it if you truly need it. And when you do use it – do what you can to make the most of it. Since you’re reading this during vacation, make sure you currently are taking the opportunity to replenish yourself. It’s also a good time to stop and think about what makes you feel burned out and what most helps alleviate the stress. This way when “symptoms” appear, you have a plan.

Ellis’s next suggestion is to remind yourself why you do what you do.  In other words, connect with your Why.  Read last week’s blog as a reminder.  And if you still haven’t defined your Why, this should be a further incentive to do so.

For those of you who can, meditation is another one of Ellis’s methods for breaking out of burnout. There are not only shelves of books to help you with this, but videos and apps as well. If it works for you, you’ve got a great new tool to use whenever you need it.  I use walking to get out of my head and find an inner peace.  You deserve to find an equivalent that works for you.

If you have been beating yourself up because your library program doesn’t “look’ the way you want it to or you are comparing your library to someone else’s—give it up.  As Ellis says, “putting that much expectation on yourself as a leader will only leave you chasing something that doesn’t exist.”

Wendi Pillars, writing for ASCD, presents Eight Burnout-busting Self-care Strategies that can also help. The first is Monitor Connectivity.  We are far too attached to our digital devices and need to schedule unplugged time for ourselves.  I now shut my computer down for the day at supper time.  Watching some of my favorite television programs after dinner (I’m hooked on several British mystery series) is a great way to tune out and give my brain a time to rest.

Create is Pillars’ second recommendation (and – bonus! – it’s one of the four Domains of our new National School Library Standards). There are many ways to create. Knit, crochet, draw, doodle, take pictures, scrapbook, or put together a puzzle. Adult coloring books can bring out the artistic side of just about anyone. Is it any wonder they are so popular. Look to things that give you pleasure.  Even writing a snail mail thank you is a form of creativity.

Pillars follows that with Get Back to Nature which can mean camping, walking even simply going to a nearby park to sit on a bench and relax.

Review Your Diet and Sleep are her next two suggestions. When you are feeling burnt out you are likely not eating wisely.  Usually, that means too many sugars or carbohydrates which leads to worse eating and also affects your sleep.  Figure out how much sleep you need and do what you can to get those hours.  You deserve them and your career and relationships will benefit from it.

Choose Your Frame is about mindset. Negative self-talk makes everything worse.  Find a better way to see the situation.  What are you doing well despite the challenges?

Enjoy Friends and don’t say you haven’t time because you have too much to do.  You will always have too much to do.  Time lost with friends and family can never be recovered. And you will feel restored after being with them.

Finally, Practice Gratitude.  This is advice I love.  It also helps your mindset.  When you see how much you have to be grateful for, you are much less likely to indulge in negative self-talk. Keep a list, a journal, or even jot it down in your calendar at the end of each day. As the list grows you’ll find yourself feeling better.

None of these ideas are earth-shattering. You probably could have come up with many of them yourself, but now you have them laid out. As Ellis concludes in his article, don’t consider burnout as a failure. “Leadership is tough, and we all have to go through these difficult periods if we are to grow and thrive.”