Season Two: Bonus Episode on Stress Management

The calm after the storm - Port Lincoln - South Australia (Explored)Intro

Hi, and welcome back to Linking Our Libraries!

Just in time for the holidays, we are here with a bonus episode to our Season Two series. It’s a topic we all need now: Stress Management. Whether you are struggling with finals, trying to wrap up paperwork before the end of the year, or just working to get that darn snow shoveled – we understand! (We’re in Minnesota; we really understand the snow!) So this podcast will help us all to just take a break, to have a moment to relax, and to gather some tools for you to work on your own stress management skills.

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Background Ideas

We have talked about stress management in prior episodes. So check out our Season One episode 12 Stress in Libraries, and Season Two episode 206 on Conflict Management.

We are talking about this now, because stress happens all the time, from all kinds of reasons; but the combination of end of semester and all the holidays at this time of the year can really make stress worse. Even when you are enjoying your work – it can get stressful! (We love working at CMLE, but vividly remember last December, when we rebuilt our website despite having no website experience. There was a totally dejected trip to Starbucks for revitalizing beverages at one point, just to keep it all moving forward. Things got better after that!)

Stress happens in the workplace. It does not matter how great things are, work is stressful. But we do not have to be passive victims of the stress-fest that happens at the end of the year! Instead, today let’s think about some strategies you can use to reduce the bad effects stress can have on you. (Sorry – we can’t fix everything! Stress will still happen after this episode. But you will be better equipped to handle it.)

Stress is a common problem in many LIS workplaces. It seems disloyal to admit this, to confess that there are parts of our jobs that are less than shiny and happy, that we get stressed and unhappy and burned out. But I will tell you now: stress is part of work. Stress can be hard to discuss. Nobody wants to look weak or incompetent. And nobody wants point out problems that may make them or the organization look bad. It’s okay to acknowledge that you are stressed and unhappy. It’s okay to not want to go to work some days. It’s okay for you to wish you had a job where you could huddle in a backroom without any patrons asking for things, or managers who tell you to do dumb or contradictory things, or all the other things that make your job hard.

It’s okay.

Just acknowledge that you are stressed, that your co-workers are stressed, your staff – everyone.

Think about addressing stress on an individual level, and on an organizational level.


Individual Stress Busting Skills

It’s probably easier to start on the individual level, because you know what is going on with you and how you would most like to address any problems. So let’s look at some ideas for managing your workplace stress:

  • Say no! It’s not just a Minnesota thing – lots of people in the service professions are people pleasers, and we want to help others and do good things. That’s wonderful of course – and helping other people is indeed a strategy for reducing your own stress levels. But take a moment to say “let me check my schedule and get back to you on that” before you commit to yet another new project. Or, if you know you just cannot handle one more thing to do: say no on the spot. You do not need long, elaborate, sorrowful explanations on this; just say “sorry, that sounds great but I can’t take it on right now” and move on with your life. (Yes, we recognize that at work you cannot always have a choice; we are speaking to the times when you do have one!)
  • Set work and life boundaries Technology has brought many lovely and wonderful gifts to work and to the library field. The downside is that it is so darn easy to work and to be connected to work, that it can be important to be strict in knowing when you are at work and at home – and not spending your free time reading emails and catching up on work. (Mary struggles with this one – too often losing the struggle! But just remembering it’s important can be helpful.) It also means leaving the stresses of home at home. That, of course, is easier said than done too! When you have a massive fight with your sweetie, your kids smash your best dishes, and your sister dropped in for a quick visit three months ago – leaving that stress at home can really be tough. But making some internal compartments for yourself may help you to have work stress at work, and then to leave it there.
  • Do some deep breathing. It just sounds so basic, but taking a really deep lung-clearing inhale and exhale can help you to whoosh out some of your accumulated stress. While you do this, take a moment to consciously tighten and relax your muscles. Scrunch up your shoulders, hold briefly, then let them drop. It feels good to have that sensation of relaxation from this quick action!
  • Visualization Visualize something that make you feel better. Does a smiley baby make you happy? Does a beautiful pine forest? Waves lapping on a seashore? Close your eyes and see that relaxing internal video in your mind as you focus on feeling the happiness. (Does your happiness involve visualizing punching an antagonist right in the face? Fine! We don’t want you to actually do it; but the humor value of mentally bopping some rude person with a Bugs Bunny style hammer may be enough to help you to stop the stress of the moment.)
  • Watch videos. Of course the internet is famous for adorable cat videos – go watch some! (We highly recommend Kitten Academy – where kittens learn to cat! Available in videos, or a live 24/7 feed.) There are tons of good relaxation videos to watch or just to listen to, including videos that sound like trains, ocean waves, or a breeze whipping through the trees. Watching fish, even videos of fish, is helpful in reducing stress; so give that a try when you have a couple of minutes and need to take a stress break.
  • Take some peaceful moments. This might mean meditation, or some positive thinking for a minute. It could be prayer for some, or just a focus on being present in the moment. Whatever feels best for you, have regularly scheduled times during the day where you just step back from the hubbub and focus on relaxation.
  • Play with your pets! (And if not yours, find a pet to borrow. Most animal shelters could use your help – a double dose of stress-busting from both animals and helping others!) You really can feel better when you listen to your cat purring at you, or when your pup has a blast fetching a ball with you. Does your library have a stress therapy dog for finals week? If so, see if you can do some patting there!
  • Exercise and nutrition. Yeah, it sounds like something your mom would tell you – but you really will feel better if you eat your broccoli instead of binging on Hostess when you are stressed. Likewise, regular exercise (even walking – no need to be fancy here) will help flood your brain with the chemicals that make you happy. Think of yourself as a very expensive sports car: would you let a fancy car sit in the driveway, never changing the oil, and dumping in cheap gas – then expect it to suddenly drive 200 miles an hour around a track? Of course not. So, fuel yourself with things that make your body happy (a couple Hostess, if that’s your passion), and be sure you take your brain out for a walk on a regular basis to keep your chemicals in balance.



Organizational Stress Busting

Now, let’s talk about some ideas for reducing stress across your library. This is probably a longer-term process, but can be more valuable as we work to bring down everyone’s stress level. (Again: not eliminating it! That is impossible, and thinking it’s a realistic goal will just cause more stress.)

You want to talk about stressors in a way that frames the issue as something everyone can work together to overcome, not as something that one or two people are fussing over. Emphasizing that this is a larger problem than just one person’s problem or reaction lets everyone feel like they are a part of not only being allowed to be stressed, but also that everyone can play a role in stress reduction. Stress affects everyone, to different degrees, so it is helpful to include everyone in the solution.

I would suggest talking about stressors in staff meetings and any staff in-service day, to get suggestions. Send out an anonymous survey where people can just talk about stressors they are experiencing. Possibly hold focus groups across large staffs, to find out where people in different departments and buildings are feeling stressed. Talk about stress in the staff newsletter. Get other people to talk to their staff members, so you get that perspective. Be sure everyone is offered the chance to share stressors in an anonymous way, to get them past any fear of retaliation from other staffers or managers.

When you talk about stress you want to differentiate it from just general complaining. I have been in libraries where there is a constant low-level of complaining all the time, about everything. It’s frustrating for management (maybe a stressor for them?) because there is rarely anything specific you can pin down that is “wrong;” people are just unhappy. That is a more complicated situation for stressor identification; so be clear that you need specifics when identifying stressors. “I think my manager doesn’t like me,” may be accurate, but it’s not very helpful when anonymously shared. More specifics might be helpful here, so we can actually solve problems. Maybe it’s better to get too many submissions of stressors rather than too few; but use some critical thinking in identifying the ones that you can solve.

Putting together a stress-busting committee can be helpful. This can be a way to identify workplace stressors without compromising the privacy of staff. Working with your committee to identify the most common stressors in your workplace can be difficult for everyone. For the best results, you want to be sure that your staff understands that there is no penalty for disclosing problems they are experiencing.

Try to identify two or three things that are either amazingly widespread across all the responses, or that will be easy to address. You may not be able to actually fix everything; but you should be able to figure out ways to make the stressors better for everyone, or to train people in how to handle the stressor. For the first go at this, you (and hopefully your committee) can identify stressors that you know you can address. Later you can work on some of the more complicated issues; but for now you want a win for everyone.

Addressing the horrible snot-colored paint in the staff break room is a pretty easy fix. Do some color therapy research – what kind of mood do you want to establish? Cheerful, with orange? Calm, with a nice blue? Consider a staff vote, where people get to make a choice for themselves. Do you have people on staff who enjoy painting walls? That’s great! Recruit them, hand them all the supplies they need, and get out of the way. Otherwise, consider donating a few hours yourself on a weekend or when the library is closed, or not busy, to do the work. Your staff will notice the effort, even if it lacks perfection. And, as anyone who has ever seen House Hunters on HGTV knows: paint is not forever. You can always put up another color. Make it an annual event to vote on the wall color! Get some talented patrons to paint murals.

When identifying the biggest causes of stress in a library, patrons and their assorted problems are always near the top of the list. Of course, patrons are one of the lovely parts of being in libraries and many of the interactions we have with them are great and professionally fulfilling. But we all know the patrons who are so awful, mean, yelling, or other negative attribute that not only do all the staff avoid them but definitely some staff have cried. This is clearly a problem for everyone, and pretending like it is just some random occurrence instead of a daily pattern of potential harassment and abuse is ridiculous.

Work on strategies for reducing patron ire. First, collect the issues people are upset about regularly. Do you have long lines? Are the self-check machines down? Are the catalog stations broken, or too slow for human patience? Are the bathrooms…yucky?  Work on some ideas for solving the problems that can be solved, and finding strategies for addressing those that cannot.

Next, work on strategies for improving customer service. Establish some clear standards, so everyone knows what you want in “good” service. We have all been in libraries where the poor service was the cause of angry patrons, so work to eliminate that as a problem. And then move on to building skills in conflict management, and identify situations which need to be handed off to a manager, or those where security should be summoned, or the police called.

Customer service is always important, but here we are thinking about making them happier because they will make the staff happier – or at least less unhappy, which is also good. And patron complaints about rodent activity, peeling paint, terrible furniture, unfriendly catalog system, or other issues might be a better way to get funders to address these issues than just saying your staff are saddened by them. Hopefully, funders will be motivated to fix problems patrons have identified as stressors, to encourage them to come back and to continue to use your services.

These things are not going to stop terrible people from coming to your library and behaving in horrible ways to you and to your staff. But they should address and reduce the stress placed on the staff, and that is your main goal.

The next big area of stress reported in my stress studies was bad managers. Actually, this was reported in ALL CAPS and LOTS OF DETAIL in many of the responses I have received. People used every inch of the unlimited space they had to talk about mangers who are unfair, biased, always take an evil patron’s side over staff, absent, and a lot of other terrible things. This is a tougher problem to solve, but hopefully better training for people who are – or who want to be – managers will reduce the problem. (CMLE is here to help with that!)

Now that we have dealt with stress at the organizational level and at an individual level, it would be appropriate to look at it on a professional level. In the district, state, and national groups you belong to, suggest the idea of stress as a topic for their training, or propose it in conferences. We face a profession-wide issue when it comes to stress in the workplace, and getting involved at the level of the profession will help to bring this problem out of the shadows. Plus, when everyone is working on the problem of workplace stress, it seems likely we will find better solutions. Making libraries and archives better places to work overall may also help us to recruit, and to retain, good employees. We want to bring in the best people, but not if they are going to be stressed out and leave within a year or two. Retention of good people across the profession is always an issue; actively working on workplace stress, and helping people to build their resiliency to stress, should help us to attract and keep those good people.


Books we are reading




The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren WilligNothing goes right for Eloise. The one day she wears her new suede boots, it rains cats and dogs. When the subway stops short, she’s always the one thrown into some stranger’s lap. Plus, she’s had more than her share of misfortune in the way of love. In fact, ever since she realized romantic heroes are a thing of the past, she’s decided it’s time for a fresh start.

Setting off for England, Eloise is determined to finish her dissertation on that dashing pair of spies, the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian. But what she discovers is something the finest historians have missed: the secret history of the Pink Carnation—the most elusive spy of all time. As she works to unmask this obscure spy, Eloise stumbles across answers to all kinds of questions. Like how did the Pink Carnation save England from Napoleon? What became of the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian? And will Eloise Kelly escape her bad luck and find a living, breathing hero all her own?”


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