By Emily Ford
Librarians are great at taking care of their patrons. We will conduct searches for our patrons and provide them with the resources they need, we contribute to the public good and offer ongoing educational opportunities, and we provide community space in the name of discourse and community building. We also testify in and lobby Congress in support of legislation that affects our work—all in the name of taking care of our patrons. But to what extent do we take care of ourselves?
I’m talking about workplace wellness. This is an issue that seems largely ignored in library land, an issue that may cause eye-rolling and cause some of our Lead Pipe readers to stop right here and move along to the next post in their feed reader. But workplace wellness is an issue that seems to be largely ignored by libraries, librarians, and library organizations. Literature searches in library and information science databases return very few relevant articles on the subject. Why?
Before I attempt to answer this question I’d like to propose a working definition of workplace wellness. Wellness in the workplace refers to an employee’s mental and physical health. Many businesses and organizations have implemented workplace wellness. Examples include the facilitation of lunchtime walking groups, providing on site massage appointments, and offering classes and lectures regarding wellness. Also included would be programs supporting employee health; providing free flu shots and health screenings, providing ergonomic work stations, having healthy snacks available, or even allowing workers flexible schedules to take care of their physical and emotional health as needed. According to this loose working definition it’s likely that every library has some sort of wellness program, but it seems to me individual and organizational buy-in aren’t that widespread in the library community.
I assume that the reason workplace wellness hasn’t caught on in libraries is a combination of the following reasons. First, wellness programs that do exist usually happen within a broader institutional context. Since most libraries are part of an academic institution, county or city government, or some other larger bureaucratic model, wellness initiatives seem to occur at a higher institutional level, and, as such they haven’t become top priorities for many libraries. Second, librarians are hard working dedicated people, who may not feel they have the time or even the desire to participate in a wellness initiative. Third, wellness programs haven’t been heavily marketed to libraries and librarians, either by their institutions or by profession-wide initiatives. Fourth, wellness programs cost, and most libraries are already run on tight budgets. Finally, wellness may not be part of a library’s organizational culture, or it might not even been an organizational value. It is this fifth factor that is perhaps the most prohibitive to the overall wellness of library employees.
A healthy and well library staff will provide better services to its patrons. Providing for and assisting employees in this regard will mean that they can work more efficiently and effectively. Of concern to many administrators should be the fact that wellness initiatives will save the institution money in health care costs when workers have fewer physical and mental health problems. One of the best examples that support this is ergonomics.
Wellness in the workplace constitutes a web of factors that can determine the status quo level of health and wellness experienced by employees at your library. Many of these factors may seem irrelevant when considered on their own; however, when placed in conjunction with others, they work collectively to either create or hinder employees’ well being.
The first two factors affecting workplace wellness are simple—your library’s physical space and physical location. How the inside of your workplace is designed affects how much you move at work. (E.g. is there an elevator, how far do you have to walk to place something in the recycling?) The library’s physical location can also affect workplace wellness. (Is there a tempting restaurant nearby or are you close to a park with walking trails?)
The third factor isn’t as cut and dry—organizational culture and values. These can greatly impact wellness at work. For example, many librarians work hard and long hours, which can lead to skipping breaks, even skipping lunch or eating at our desks in front of a project. These habits do not contribute to having a healthy workplace. For one, it reinforces the sedentary nature of library work, and second, it doesn’t allow an individual the mental break that one needs to best achieve work efficiently.
Food is also a large part of culture at many libraries. At one library where I used to work, there was a “chocolate drawer” behind the reference desk. Whenever we had a particularly trying interaction with a patron we would medicate ourselves with chocolate. Other libraries might have a tradition of pastries at department meetings, or social events, which usually include food.
However, changing an organization’s culture is not an easy thing. And if there’s anything that organizations are not quick to do, changing the culture and our values are it. So how are we to tackle this issue? How do we even frame an argument for starting wellness initiatives within our workplaces? First, we have to work to create wellness as a value within the workplace. At institutions where a wellness program already exists, but is not culturally adopted by the library, how do you get the library to do so?
I’d like to offer some suggestions as to how we can begin to tackle the organizational culture and values regarding wellness issue in the places of our employ.
- Conduct an informal evaluation of your workplace to find supporting factors and hindrances to a healthy work place.
- Ask for institutional support based upon your informal evaluation or observations. Paired with the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, this might be a convincing argument that your supervisor can send up the management chain.
- Start a wellness committee and task yourself with developing a wellness plan for your library.
But what if your place of work/administration is not understanding of your plight?
- Be aware of your habits at work. Wear a pedometer; take a walk during your lunch break (and invite your colleagues to join you), consider ergonomics, etc.
- Investigate whether your larger organization (city, county, institution) has a wellness program and participate in that as an individual. Then try to market it to your fellow staff.
- If you create community programs in your library or conduct outreach work, try to plan and implement programming about health and wellness.
There are some resources and initiatives that do exist regarding wellness in libraries. Most notably, ALA Past President Loriene Roy created the Circle of Wellness as one of her presidential initiatives. This web site offers resources for individuals to use to assess wellness attitudes in their library, as well as track their personal wellness goals. These resources offer a good starting place for you if you are interested in investigating wellness at your library.
The healthiest work places already have an organizational culture of wellness and value health as an institution. If this is not the case in your library, establishing a culture of wellness will happen very slowly. It takes quite a bit of energy and work to change and shape organizational values and change begins with the action of one or two motivated and dedicated individuals. It’s time we take care of ourselves and take the steps to create healthier work places. In the long run, our health and wellness serves our well-being and also our ability to provide the best services to our patrons.
See the following articles on organizational culture:
Shepstone, C. & Currie, L. (2008). Transforming the academic library: Creating an organizational culture that fosters staff success. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 34(4), 358-368.
Sannwald, W. (2000). Understanding organizational culture. Library Administration & Management, 14(1), 8-14.
Many thanks to Phil Eskew (one of the best instructors I had in library school), and Miriam Rigby for offering feedback on this post. Thanks also go to fellow Lead Piper Derik for reading this prior to posting.