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A Pandemic Side Effect: Low Morale in Public Libraries

by on September 14, 2020

There’s a common refrain I’ve heard repeated by library workers over the last six months: they are exhausted. They are scared. They aren’t sure if they see themselves continuing down the path of librarianship. I’ve heard these concerns echoed by employees at all levels: librarians and paraprofessionals worried about their exposure levels at service desks to managers scrambling to write and rewrite safety policies for staff and patrons with little outside guidance. It may seem obvious, but it desperately needs to be acknowledged: employee morale is at an all-time low in the world of COVID.

A recent piece by McKinsey & Company identifies three key challenges for workplaces during the pandemic: flexibility in changing workflows, the increased prevalence of remote work, and future expectations of what working will be like once the virus is under control. Public libraries are not only faced with all of these, but also the added pressures of having to work closely with the public in a time where person-to-person exposure is risky, as well as the potential of funding cuts due to COVID’s economic impact. These challenges, coupled with the general anxiety of living during a pandemic, are enough to make anyone second guess their work life. 

Now that libraries across the country have reopened or are moving towards doing so, many library workers are left feeling stressed about returning to in-person work. One Adult Outreach Librarian I spoke with, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells me, “My stress level has gone up considerably since we started working in our building again. It’s mentally draining to be so focused on sanitizing as much as possible, not to mention the constant worry of being exposed and bringing something home to my family. Add in the stress of having to constantly police people about correctly wearing their masks, and it’s just become exhausting to worry about day in and day out.” 

Economic fallout from the pandemic is also a large source of employee stress. To combat funding uncertainty, many libraries have had to turn to furloughs or even lay-offs in order to preserve their budgets. Cutting positions is not only a morale killer for the employees directly involved, but it can place a significantly heavier burden on the remaining staff. When the majority of staff were furloughed at one anonymous library, remaining employees found themselves spending significant time reallocating job duties on top of the hours it took to complete the actual furloughs. Staff was brought back “on a rolling basis”, and it took more time for managers to bring them up to speed on new changes and procedures. “It’s just been nonstop and we’re all burnt out for different reasons, and morale is so low,” a supervisor describes. The morale of the staff who had experienced furloughs has obviously suffered, and the rest of the staff found themselves even more overworked than usual during the ordeal.  

Another department head complains about the lack of safety measures and clear planning at her library, describing an environment in which librarians were forced to justify the need for precautions such as plexiglass barriers at service desks. Despite the fact that one employee passed away from COVID in April and other workers or their family members have tested positive, they were still expected to return to work as usual and were likened by administration “to pizza delivery drivers and to grocery store workers.”

Even administrators have struggled during the pandemic. At my own library, I have scrambled to keep up with constantly changing data surrounding the virus and what it might mean for our operations. It’s been difficult and sometimes demoralizing to craft plan after plan with very little guidance from public health authorities, and the anxiety surrounding keeping my staff safe has been overwhelming. Pandemic-related emergency response is certainly not something they teach in library school. 

The pandemic is not the first time morale in our nation’s libraries began to suffer, though. Even before March, burnout and job dissatisfaction were growing. More attention has been given lately to the emotional labor involved in librarianship. A recent Book Riot article details the prevalence of compassion fatigue in libraries, while referencing Fobazi Ettarh’s notable 2018 work on vocational awe. As libraries find fewer social and civic services in their communities, they are forced to take on new roles that they may not be appropriately equipped for. Shrinking budgets force us to do more with less, and our workers can only do so much. 

So how do we fix this? Aside from the obvious answers like better funding and local social services, public library administrators and boards must take an active role in protecting our employees not only physically, but also from as much on-the-job stress as possible. Although outside staff development days and happy hours are not realistic in the world of COVID, small infusions of positivity such as encouraging employees to take time off as needed – or even gifting extra time, if possible – can go a long way. Organizations should welcome employee feedback in reopening plans and actually take it into consideration whenever possible. Delegation and shared workloads should be encouraged to minimize burnout, and, of course, staff safety should be at the forefront of every reopening plan. It is vital that administrations keep in mind that rushing to reinstate services before it is safe to do so is the worst thing that can happen right now, both for staff and patrons. Although operating in the face of the health and financial crises occurring right now is difficult, we cannot afford for our workers to suffer. 

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