Are information professionals burned out?
Research and opinion
This chapter provides an overview of empirical studies on burnout conducted specifically on groups of information professionals over the years. It also includes opinions offered by authors who have reviewed empirical research in this area.
Burnout is a problem whose effects have been studied in numerous professions, occupations and other population groups. Indeed, researchers in 2009 put the number of burnout studies at somewhere between 5,500 (Casserley and Megginson, 2009) and 6,000 (Schaufeli et al., 2009). Today, that number is substantially higher.
As an indication of the scope of these occupational studies, in 2012 alone, burnout research was done on teachers (Pishghadam and Sahebjam, 2012), doctors (Siu et al., 2012), nurses (van der Doef et al., 2012), clergy (Barnard and Curry, 2012), occupational therapists (Gupta et al., 2012), music therapists (Kim, 2012), flight attendants (Chen and Kao, 2012), correctional staff (Lambert et al., 2012), professional caregivers in long-term care settings for the elderly (de Rooij et al., 2012), working undergraduate university business students (Galbraith and Merrill, 2012), dental and medical students (Prinz et al., 2012), eating disorder treatment providers (Warren et al., 2012), and employees at a large public hospital (Hämmig et al., 2012), to name but a few.
In this plethora of studies, information professionals as a group have not been entirely overlooked. Indeed, over the years several studies have been done on librarianship. But in addition to those, opinions on burnout have also been expressed by other information professionals who have not had the benefit of any kind of hard data. As Fisher (1990) notes,
[e]mpirical investigations are severely outnumbered by ideological proclamations from the believers. The faithful are of one voice: library life is stressful and significant numbers of librarians are burning out. They do not often make direct comparisons with other professions, but when they do it is to show that librarianship is at least as stressful as other callings. They do not have to prove any of this, they know it is true. (p. 229; emphasis in original)
Consequently, over the last many decades there has been some disagreement over whether librarianship is a stressful occupation. Certain sources, indeed, have called it one of the least stressful occupations; at the other end of the spectrum, others have declared it to be more stressful even than policing or firefighting.
The 2000 edition of the Jobs Rated Almanac, for example, rated 250 jobs from most stressful to least. Librarianship was ranked the ninth lowest in terms of its occupational stress levels (Sheesley, 2001) – such occupations as bookbinders and barbers were ranked higher. As Marcia J. Nauratil (Nauratil, 1989) has noted,
[l]ibrarianship is popularly viewed as a pleasant and non-stressful sinecure in a quiet booklined setting, with relaxing routines gently punctuated by towheaded tots arriving for story hour and by chats with gray-haired matrons searching for fresh mysteries. (p. 1)
[a]s with the weather, librarians complain about work rather than doing anything about it. There could be many reasons for this inaction, but one of them is probably a lack of entrepreneurial spirit. Entrepreneurs have to go hustle up work. It’s stressful because there is no dependable paycheck. If they want to be paid, they have to go make work happen, which often means working very long hours on short term projects where people demand results or you don’t get paid. If you’re so stressed, try going out and changing your life and making a living in the considerably more cutthroat private sector. Oh, you don’t want to do that? I don’t blame you. Try dealing with billable hours or having your paycheck depend on meeting sales quotas or having to go out and actually find projects on a weekly basis. Some of my acquaintances would look at the complaint and laugh. “Oh, you have to catalog books and answer reference questions, and your boss is dumb? You poor baby!” (Annoyed Librarian, 2009; emphasis in original)
Yet, in surprising contrast to such skepticism, a 2006 study found that library work was the most stressful of five different occupations – firefighters, police officers, train operators, teachers and librarians. Librarians taking part in the study saw their work as repetitive and unchallenging. They saw themselves as having little control in the workplace and one in three suffered from poor psychological health (BBC News, 2006). One of the reasons offered for being more stressed than firefighters or police officers was that library workers were less likely than individuals in these other occupations to have support systems in place designed to help them deal with stress.
If, over the years, this group of surveys has delivered largely equivocal results, so has other more empirical research. For example, Smith and Nelson’s (1983) study of academic reference librarians found low burnout rates, but Nauratil (1989) asserted that their findings were not reliable given a less-than-stellar methodology and the relatively obscure survey instrument used.
A similar comment was made by Fisher (1990) who questioned the findings made by Haack et al. (1984) who concluded from their study that 14 percent of librarians were severely burned out, and another 28 percent showed signs of psychological stress. Fisher and others have suggested that such questionable results were the product of an obscure survey instrument, administered to a non-random sample of people who knew what was being measured. Indeed, the group surveyed were attendees at a conference talk on burnout. Fisher noted that Christina Maslach, the author of the well-known and well-respected survey instrument, the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), had warned against just such a practice. For her, revealing to survey participants that the survey about to be administered had been designed to measure burnout would invalidate the results, since participants had already become sensitized to the issue.
Around the same time, Smith and Nielsen, the same authors who had only recently surveyed academic librarians, turned their attention to special librarians employed by corporations. For this survey, the MBI was employed, revealing that 47 percent had a high burnout score in at least one of the categories of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization or decreased personal accomplishment. Librarians in this study reported that, for them, the specific sources of burnout were lack of positive feedback and having no authority or opportunity to participate in setting library practices or policies (Smith and Nielsen, 1984).
A few years later, a study involving 547 public library reference librarians (Birch et al., 1986) found role conflict and role ambiguity were, in particular, problems on the job. Role conflict takes place when workers find themselves with seemingly incompatible roles (e.g., cutting budgets and improving service). Role ambiguity, in contrast, has to do with workers who are unclear on what is expected of them on the job, often because their roles are ill defined. Birch et al. found that 35 percent of librarians were experiencing burnout linked largely to role conflict and role ambiguity. When burnout rates of librarians were compared with a study of teachers, they were found to be quite similar.
Law librarians seemed to fare noticeably better in a study published one year later by Nelson (1987). He surveyed a group of this particular subset of librarians and found average scores on the MBI in the moderate range. Fourteen percent had scores which indicated emotional exhaustion; score levels indicating depersonalization were found to be only slightly higher. But the scores indicating the extent to which librarians felt a sense of personal accomplishment were noteworthy: they indicated law librarians were not experiencing a great deal of job satisfaction.
Another paper, published within a few years of the above study of law librarians, measured occupational stress and burnout among library media specialists. These specialists experienced greater rates of burnout than seen in a number of previous studies on information professionals; workload and time pressures were found to be the major cause of stress in this specific group (Fimian et al., 1989).
In that same period, M.A. Nauratil’s The Alienated Librarian (1989), while not an empirical work, reviewed much of the existing literature to date on burnout. Nauratil’s theory was that libraries were over-bureaucratized resulting in stress, alienation, lack of job autonomy and burnout. The demand for greater productivity in an era of shrinking budgets, along with technological change, shifting views on how the library is marketed, more non-librarian managers and increasing reliance on consultants were all, in Nauratil’s opinion, escalating sources of stress. To cope with it, she noted that worker autonomy and greater participation in policy and other decision making were vital in keeping burnout at bay. The ability to participate in this regard was also a hallmark of being a professional.
Following Nauratil’s seminal work, Fisher (1990) surveyed the literature on stress and burnout and found only a handful of empirical studies, along with many opinion pieces. The empirical studies, according to Fisher, failed to make a strong case for any significant problem with burnout in libraries. “Many of the works we have analysed have turned out to consist of speculation and assertion rather than hard evidence.” He continued,
[t]hree articles have been based upon empirical research: one showed that academic librarians experience little or no stress; another that the majority of academic librarians surveyed suffer from a significant amount of stress/burnout; and the final piece discovered that the average public reference librarian experiences medium levels of burnout (a level shared by teachers). Hardly conclusive proof one way or the other. (p. 223)
Fisher also surveyed the anecdotal literature, but did not think highly of it. He concluded that ultimately, neither the empirical research nor the anecdotal literature added much of worth to our understanding of the problem and that more serious investigations were in order.
As with Nauratil’s The Alienated Librarian, Janette S. Caputo’s (1991) groundbreaking book, Stress and Burnout in Library Service, made no claim to be an empirical study in itself, but rather a survey of the library and social science literature regarding burnout. Caputo is clearly more impressed with the research to date than Fisher, noting:
[w]ith one exception, surveys of librarian burnout to date suggest that this phenomenon is a very real problem for librarians, worthy of attention and concern. Most of the chronic work stressors experienced in the library field are similar to those experienced by other helping professionals. There are also some additional library-specific stressors that can have an impact on active librarians … it is easy to visualize the progress of a burning-out librarian through stages of enthusiasm, competency, stagnation, frustration and apathy. (p. 84)
Caputo went beyond merely summarizing the existing literature, however. Her book offered information on the causes of burnout, the signs and symptoms of burnout, and how to self-diagnose. In her later chapters, she went so far as to provide advice on how to cope with and prevent burnout.
A few years later, Becker (1993) examined a group of academic teaching librarians to discover whether they were exposed to factors which put them at risk for burnout and whether they were, in fact, experiencing any of the symptoms indicative of burnout. She determined there was indeed a clear risk for burnout among this group of librarians, which mirrored the difficulties faced by professionals in other helping professions.
Pursuing a similar line of research, Affleck (1996) used the MBI to investigate burnout levels in 142 bibliographic instruction librarians at comprehensive or liberal arts institutions in New England. Affleck found high levels of burnout in at least one of the three dimensions of burnout (emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and diminished sense of personal accomplishment) for 52.8 percent of these bibliographic instruction librarians. She also discovered that 8.5 percent of them had scores which indicated burnout in all three areas.
Not long afterwards, Shtern (1999) used a survey based on the MBI to measure burnout rates among librarians in five Israeli university libraries–Bar-Ilan, Tel-Aviv, Haifa, Ben-Gurion and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The study found that the level of burnout fluctuated from low to medium, but overall indicated that it was relatively low among this population. The primary source of stress for Israeli academic librarians, Shtern discovered, was the profession’s low status and the gap between the level of education required to do the job and the lack of remuneration consistent with the level of education. Librarians also were stressed by how little most people knew about the profession and its complexity.
Back in the US, Sheesley (2001) surveyed the literature on sources of stress and burnout in librarianship, particularly with regards to teaching. She noted that library work can be routine and boring, with little intellectual stimulation, and this included the teaching which is sometimes part of library work. Librarians who teach, Sheesley explained, are often asked to teach the same subject again and again, year after year, and to multiple sections of the same course. The repetitive nature of such teaching can be stressful, she asserted, as is dealing with students who are often less than enthused about taking instruction on library sources and research methods.
These librarians who teach, according to Sheesley’s survey, often teach one or a handful of classes as part of another instructor’s course (e.g., where a professor is assigning work that involves the use of library resources). They might also teach one-off courses for library patrons as part of the instruction offered by libraries for their patrons. The result of this type of teaching was that librarians missed the joy which came from getting to know students well and watching a class evolve and grow over the course of weeks or months. Teaching for others, or teaching one-off classes meant that librarians generally did not see the fruits of their own labor.
In addition, not only were librarians who teach not given the respect that is accorded to full-time instructors, they sometimes felt resented by some of their own colleagues or administrators who were of the opinion that teaching should not be part of the library’s agenda. As a result, the teaching librarian was often made to feel that she was neither really part of the faculty nor really one of the staff.
Harwell (2008), another academic librarian, surveyed the literature and discussed his own personal experiences with burnout. Libraries, he noted, shared many of the same sources of stress as various other occupations. These sources included
budget cuts, frequent technological changes, increased competition for fewer positions, heavy workloads, bureaucratic inertia, red tape, poor management and supervision, low pay, sex discrimination, obnoxious customers or patrons, lack of private work space or office, few opportunities to participate in goal setting or decision making, shifting priorities, lack of closure on ongoing projects, few opportunities for advancement, and working nights and weekends. (p. 382 citing Caputo, 1991)
[i]n my career, I have encountered numerous library deanships, difficult managers, temporary administrators, a rigorous tenure process, disappointing budgets, prolonged staff vacancies, redrawn mission statements, restructured organizations, innumerable changes in policies and practices, explicit position changes, and dozens of implicit changes in my day-to-day responsibilities. I have faced conflicting expectations from faculty, students, friends, and members of the larger community. I have learned a new focus to my work at least four times, starting with government documents, then patents and trademarks, law, and my current work, which is business and economics. (p. 385)
But library professionals are not the only sufferers. Paraprofessional cataloguers in academic and public libraries in Florida also experienced stress due to a number of different sources, according to a study by McClellan (2011). Paraprofessionals were expected to work too quickly and found it hard to do their work without making mistakes. The quantity of information they were expected to master along with keeping up with all the changes imposed a good deal of stress on them. A majority felt they needed more training in certain aspects of the job. Finally, they felt they had to balance conflicting needs and requests from a number of different departments which added to the stresses of the job.
Finally, in one of the latest studies in this line of research and commentary stretching back three decades, Ajala (2011) conducted group and individual interviews of librarians and other library staff members at the University of Ibadan Library System, Nigeria. Employees discussed the various issues which caused them stress on the job including lack of sufficient personnel, the requirement to publish while also working full time, and the inability to be involved in any decision making regarding the work. All decision making, employees noted, was done at the management level. These patterns are familiar and universal.
The literature surveyed does show evidence of burnout in libraries. But taken as a whole, these studies fail to provide us with enough definitive evidence to be able to make general statements about where specifically burnout is occurring, why and what can be done about it. As Fisher (1990) noted several decades ago, so much of what we know and believe continues to be based on opinion rather than on any great body of empirical evidence. His call for a credible, empirical approach still holds. As libraries face greater budget cuts, and profound technological and organizational changes, high quality research to determine whether employees in the information professions are at an equal or greater risk for burnout than those in other human services professions is more vital than ever before.
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Annoyed Librarian Just how stressful is library work?. 27 May 2009 Retrieved from http://blog.libraryjournal.com/annoyedlibrarian/2009/05/27/just-how-stressful-is-library-work/.
BBC News Librarians ‘suffer most stress’. 12 January 2006 Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4605476.stm.
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McClellan, E., Stress and cataloging paraprofessionals in academic and public libraries in Florida. The Southeastern Librarian. 2011;59(1). Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.kennesaw.edu/seln/vol59/iss1/5.
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