Strategies for reducing stress in your library

Let’s make libraries better!

Working in libraries can be surprisingly stressful. Well, not surprising to those of us who are there, working with ever-evolving patron needs, with short budgets and staff, and everything that comes with these pressures. The constant series of people who, when they find out where you work, exclaim “I wish I worked in a library so I could read books all day!” does not help!

I have talked about this topic here, and when I chat with people in person during site visits. This is something I have researched in different types of libraries, talked about at conferences, and published articles looking at it. People are always surprised when I tell them this is such a widespread issue. Inevitably, someone whispers to me that they thought they were the only one.

If you are stressed at work: You Are Not Alone!! (If you are not stressed in your library workplace at least some of the time – you might be alone in that.)

Of course, working in a library is wonderful! We do great things, we have fulfilling work, and we are generally lovely people! Libraries are amazing places, filled with all kinds of fascinating materials and programs, and staffed with interesting and fun people. I truly believe this is true, and would not work anywhere outside the library field!

But that does not mean what we do is not stressful, or that the workplaces we are in are not stressful.

In one of my studies, these were the biggest stressors the participants identified:

  • Lots of interruptions to your work
  • Difficulties with co-workers
  • Many deadlines to meet
  • Budget issues
  • Excessive workload
  • Workplace culture
  • Lack of time to finish work
  • Difficulties with management
  • Lack of recognition for your work
  • Building facilities

( This is the article: Wilkins Jordan, M. (2014). All Stressed Out, But Does Anyone Notice? Stressors Affecting Public Libraries. Journal Of Library Administration, 54(4), 291-307. Although this just looked at public libraries, the results were consistent across different library types. Quotes below are also from it.)


For each of these categories, I heard and read horror stories from different libraries.You may be surprised that “working with patrons” did not come up here. In this study I mixed managers in with staff; when I took them out in future studies, patrons climbed up the list. With managers added into the mix, budget issues were higher; without them, the budget itself dropped in importance while other factors made worse by budget problems remained.

You can see that stress is a problem across an organization; but the specific things that cause stress in individual members of the library might be different. As with everything else, to really know what is going on your library. If you are working alone, you can take some time out to reflect and clarify the stressors you are experiencing.

A few basic groupings of stressors can be identified here, and hopefully in your library you can take some steps toward making these things easier for yourself and everyone else. Looking at this information, it seems clear that thinking about how to structure people’s work – on the desk and off, strict adherence to a schedule or not – can make a big difference. Many library jobs are still in-person and require a human to be standing there to provide help. But are there parts of your job that could be done telecommuting? It could be an option to consider, to make your work easier for you.

Other studies have shown that giving people as much flexibility as is reasonable for the job requirements, for scheduling, for decorating their locker/desk/counter-top, and in the work they do – it can help them to be happier and more productive. Not every job can be flexible in all of these; but it’s worth taking some time to consider what could be done. Sometimes you will come up with a change that is not only better for the staff, but also for patron service – always a great thing! (We are a service profession after all; libraries are here to serve our communities above all else.)

Sadly, some of the most passionate comments I received in this, and every other, study were about managers. There are too many bad, or at least thoughtless, managers out there who make the lives of their staff more difficult than they need to be. “Obviously, the objective truth to anonymous comments cannot be verified; however the passion with which these library people discussed their frustration and anger with poor managers was very striking and worthy of notice. At the very least, there is a serious level of miscommunication in these libraries between librarians and manager.” (p. 301)

“While not part of the official data collection process, many emails sent to me by potential respondents were heartbreaking. Several people sent long emails detailing their medical ailments resulting from stress, including medication, nervous breakdowns, and stays in psychiatric hospitals. People wrote almost casually of crying in their cars in the library parking lot, dreading to go inside—but feeling as though it was something they individually were doing wrong, instead experiencing the same widespread stress of many librarians. Emails continued to pour in for nearly three weeks, from people very eager to share their stress-related stories with someone who asked about it.” (p 301-302)

The first step toward making this better is to acknowledge that libraries are stressful places to work. Not bad places – but places where things can be hard. It’s okay that things are not always perfect; but it’s not okay to do nothing to make it better.

Talk to everyone in your library and see what stressors are there, and you can start making some strategies for dealing with them. Not every problem can be fixed, but most things can be improved.

A few basic things to try:

  • Conflict management training for every single person on a public desk (it really cuts down on patron problems!)
  • Painting the walls. A nice cheery color is not expensive, and can make a huge difference for staff and patrons. Could your staff, or patrons, paint murals? That could be a neat program, and cheer up the library!
  • Moving off the desk work to a private area. Constant interruptions are not good for stress, or for efficiency!
  • Set up a staff lounge. This can even been a tiny place; but everyone needs a place to get away from the public and their work, and to just “be” for a moment. Obviously: cheerful colors on the walls!
  • Encouragement for staff to do conscious breathing, meditation, prayer – whatever feels comfortable for them – when they have a minute (or five) to sit and breathe with their eyes closed. Giving that break means a big reward in their ability to focus later.
  • Encourage physical activity when possible. Could your library encourage people to take short walks on breaks? The resulting burst of endorphins could spread happiness around the library!
  • Open discussion of problems, and an emphasis on finding solutions. An organizational culture where people just complain is miserable. One where people bring up problems, and then everyone works to solve them, is empowering!

The important thing is to get ahead of stress!! You do not want to be the person who burns out at work, or to have it happen to your colleagues. Everyone knows someone who has had burnout, and it’s terrible for them and for the library.

Actively address workplace stress, and make your library a great place to work!