Supporting mental health has become more important than ever. Here are some ‘real-life’ experiences shared by librarians themselves.
Dr Sadie-Jane Nunis sits on various local and international councils and is passionate about promulgating a happy, healthy, and supportive profession enabling librarians to deliver their very best for their communities.
COVID-19 hit everyone like a hurricane, leading to many scrambling to adapt and adopt new ways of doing things. As libraries clamoured to meet the needs of their users, who looked after the mental well-being of our librarians?
Mental health —the taboo topic for eons.1 Even though there is increasing acknowledgement that society should support those who suffer mental health challenges, it has taken the COVID-19 pandemic to expose the extent of the issue. Showing signs of depression or bad stress management can be instant career killers. Especially given that so many librarians are front-liners who focus on delivering services to our users.
Many library professions have experienced periods of depression or burnout, albeit at varying levels.2 In part, this is due to the fact that many librarians are so engrossed in their day-to-day activities that they forget about checking in on their own mental health. Ask yourself, when did you last check in on the mental state of your colleagues, or even yourself for that matter? Not just during COVID-19, but throughout your library career? It is not uncommon for mental health issues to build slowly and silently over time.
In this article we discuss several scenarios experienced by ‘real-life’ librarians (identities anonymous, of course) and look at how supporting our mental health is even more important now than ever.
The challenge of mental health and stress manifests in many ways and has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. It ranges from verbal abuse from some library users (not necessarily a new problem) through to isolation from users and colleagues due to working from home and remotely (a new and somewhat strange experience). As well, the sudden and forced change of work focus and breaking away from established systems has created stress and uncertainty that impacts mental health. We are also seeing our users, young and old, facing illness, and in some cases death.
I joined the library world in late 2018, but prior to that, I had always been a ‘heavy’ library user. As I reflect on mental health, I think of seemingly simple things, like signs at retail outlets or hospitals that say “Do not abuse our staff” and I have always wondered, so what happens if staff are abused? What would happen if we put a similar sign at the library to protect our colleagues? Perhaps the reaction would be “Bravo, you are looking after your colleagues, your team - to some degree.”
But what would you do if patrons abuse your librarians via E-mail or during a call? How would you create a safe way for staff to share this experience with you so you can support them? Will you step-up and protect your librarians, or tell them it is just part of their job?
I have a feeling that most would choose the latter. Also, some staff may not feel that abuse of that nature should be reported - maybe they see it as sign of personal weakness. Nobody likes uncomfortable situations. Don’t get me wrong, I am not condoning this. I am being realistic. However, if it was me, I would put the unreasonable user in their place in a firm, courteous manner. I would adopt this approach to rebuild the library -patron working relationship. But apart from protecting your staff, how else can you help them manage the emotional and mental stress that arises from experiencing traumatic situations?
And Along Came COVID-19
There is no doubt that the pandemic has increased anxieties and fears. Firstly, most librarians have been so accustomed to seeing their patrons, and some of them really look forward to the interactions. They are also accustomed to seeing their colleagues on a daily basis, and maybe, prior to COVID-19 these regular interactions, including small talk about such things as unreasonable patrons, helped to ease the stresses of the day.
Now, staff are told to return in smaller groups, log in via ZOOM (who knew of ZOOM pre-pandemic?), and deal with the various requests via Email, chat, and other means. Means that often remove the librarian from the personal relationship with a patron. They have to figure out how to resolve as many requests from anxious users who need everything ‘now’. This was especially true for requests from academic libraries.
In addition, if users are stressed out, you know there is a higher tendency for many to have shorter tempers, and unfortunately, unleash it on our poor librarians without recognising that they too are in the middle of a pandemic, and subject to changing systems, logistics and government rules that make delivering to pre-COVID expectations much harder.
If the librarians felt that they were unable to share their anxiety and stresses before with their team lead or heads, it was much worse now as everyone clamours to ensure the needs of the users take precedence over everything else. It is not that the senior library team don’t want to help, it is just that there is too much happening, in too short a time, and it feels like we were writing the first draft of a future template of what to do and how to handle the pandemic.
Mental Wellness and the Librarian
Mental wellness is a positive state of mind. Those who are mentally well are able to manage their thoughts, emotions, and behaviour in an effective manner, and while increasing our mental wellness can help to reduce the chances of us developing mental illnesses, that does not mean that you are not free from any possibility of having mental health issues.3
So, what does this mean for our librarians and their state of mental health? The following real-life examples or caselets provide some real insights and could be used to open up discussions with your colleagues about how these and similar situations can be effectively managed for all.
Caselet 1 – Pre-COVID-19u
A librarian was receiving E-mails that contained vulgarities and abuse from a particular user for years. Although he escalated it, the buck was passed back for years. The user was a loyal library member and took advantage of the situation given that nobody pushed back. The librarian was stressed and although he did share this experience with his colleagues (which helped alleviate some of the stress) every time he saw this user or his E-mail, he would suffer from anxiety attacks.
- As a colleague, how would you help him?
- As the librarian receiving the abuse, how would you manage the situation?
- As the overall-in-charge, how would you manage both the user and the librarian?
Caselet 2 – COVID-19 hits
When Singapore was in lockdown, there was a limit set on the number of librarians who could return to work. Library attendants, who did mostly manual tasks, were left with high levels of uncertainty. This was due to the fact they had minimal work to do. Facing uncertainty about whether they would still be paid if the situation continued for months, and without the demand for them to complete their ‘usual’ work, they were afraid that they would be deemed as ‘unnecessary expenditure’ and hence, retrenched.
Even though top management assured them that the jobs were secure, given that they are more senior in age, they are afraid that the day would come when they will be told to go. They felt anxious and showed high levels of stress.
- As a colleague, how would you help?
- As the overall-in-charge, how would you manage these staff?
- What redeployment opportunities exist that could reduce stress and keep them engaged and feeling productive?
1 Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH). (2018). Singapore Association for Mental Health (SAMH). Retrieved from Understanding Mental Health: https://www.samhealth.org.sg/understanding-mental-health/what-is-mental-illness/
2 Institute of Mental Health. (2018). Latest nationwide study shows 1 in 7 people in Singapore has experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime. Singapore: Mental Healthcare Group.
3 McGroaty, B. (2021, February 23). Industry Research: Defining “Mental Wellness” vs. “Mental Health”. Retrieved from Global Wellness Institute: https://globalwellnessinstitute.org/global-wellness-institute-blog/2021/02/23/industry-research-defining-mental-wellness-vs-mental-health/
4 World Health Organisation. (2021). Mental health and substance use - Helping frontline workers cope with stress during COVID-19: actions for peers. Retrieved from World Health Organisation: http://www.emro.who.int/mnh/news/frontline-workers-and-coping-with-stress-during-covid-19-peer-support.html
5 Singapore Emergency Responder Academy. (2020). Singapore Emergency Responder Academy. Retrieved from First Aid In Mental Health Theory: https://www.sera.sg/en/index.php/courses/first-aid-in-mental-health/
6 Therapist Aid LLC. (2017). Therapistaid.com. Retrieved from Progressive Muscle Relaxation Script: https://www.therapistaid.com/worksheets/progressive-muscle-relaxation-script.pdf
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