When Does Burnout Begin? The Relationship Between Graduate School Employment and Burnout Amongst Librarians
Burnout issues are of increasing concern for many service professionals, including Library and Information Science (LIS) workers; however, the majority of articles addressing burnout in the LIS field describe methods of coping with burnout, but do not ascertain trends and preventable factors. The purpose of this study was to identify the percentage of LIS workers (current and former) and students who have experienced burnout. Additionally, this study focused on the correlation between those who work while obtaining their LIS degree and whether or not they later experience burnout. These objectives aim to answer the question: what percentage of future librarians are more susceptible to burnout once they enter the profession because they are currently working while enrolled in classes? The LIS field is competitive, and students are encouraged to gain experience in libraries while pursuing their LIS degree. By identifying the prevalence of burnout within the LIS profession and attempting to identify the earliest causes, we hope to spark a conversation between hiring managers and current or future library professionals about the effects of our profession’s expectations and the high risk of burnout.
By Jade Geary and Brittany Hickey
Burnout is becoming an increasingly prevalent issue in our society. According to a general population survey from Statista, 21% of females and 17% of males age 18 and older in the U.S. suffer from exhaustion related to burnout (2017). Librarianship is not immune to the increase in burnout. In fact, helping professions are particularly vulnerable to burnout (Swanson 1992), and librarianship is a helping profession. It is essential to investigate the causes of burnout and how to prevent burnout. By looking at causes and prevention techniques, Library and Information Science (LIS) educators can help students prepare for the potential of burnout in their future careers and managers can become better informed on how to aid employees. The findings of our study indicate that there is a high connection between those that work while in library school and experiencing burnout. Thus it is imperative that burnout prevention techniques are discussed with LIS graduate students. This discussion includes both how to prevent burnout for themselves as well as how to aid others in burnout prevention.The latter is essential as it important for future managers to be able to assist those they work with in preventing and coping with burnout in librarianship.
The idea of work-related burnout first appeared in psychological literature in the 1970s (Schaufeli, Leiter & Maslach, 2008). While burnout did not appear in the LIS literature until more recently, there is still an abundance of information available. The LIS dialogue on burnout ranges from coping resources (Bosque & Skarl, 2016; Martin, 2009), webinars (Rogers-Whitehead, 2018; Singer, & Griffith, 2011; Westwood, 2017), panels (Block, Clasper, Courtney, Hermann, Houghton, & Zulida, 2019), and scholarly literature (Adebayo, Segun-Adeniran, Fagbohun, & Osayande, 2018) on this topic. Burnout is not the sole domain of only one particular library type; it is pervasive in every type of library from special libraries to public libraries (Mangus, Salo, & Jansson, 2018; Salyers, et al., 2019; Swanson, 1992). In fact, it is common for the literature to focus on particular job functions associated with librarian burnout (Affleck, 1996; Nardine, 2019). Unfortunately, even with the growing popularity of burnout research, there is limited literature focusing on the root causes of burnout. This literature review will focus on the literature currently available on the topic while our data will help fill a gap in the literature of when burnout begins.
To begin, it is important to explore how burnout is defined and what the symptoms of burnout are. There are numerous definitions of burnout, but this study focuses on the definition provided by Christina Maslach, a leading authority on occupational burnout and the creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory. Maslach (1982) defines burnout as “a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who do ‘people work’ of some kind” (p. 3). The primary factors leading to burnout are an unsustainable workload, role conflict and a lack of personal control at work, insufficient recognition or compensation, lack of social support, a sense of unfairness, and personal values that are at odds with the organization’s values (Maslach & Leiter, 2008). There are three overarching components of burnout: “overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment” (Maslach & Leiter, 2016, p. 103). Maslach & Lieter (2016) describe the physical symptoms of burnout as the following: “headaches, chronic fatigue, gastrointestinal disorders, muscle tension, hypertension, cold/flu episodes, and sleep disturbances” (p. 106).
Methods to Prevent
In the literature, many articles offer tips on how to prevent burnout. Christian (2015) argues that proactive solutions are needed to “reverse the symptoms of a passion deficit” (p. 8). One solution offered by Christian (2015) is for LIS faculty to do a better job of preparing students for the “emotional labor” aspect of librarianship, including the negative side effects. This route takes a preventive approach; unfortunately, for those currently working in the field, precautionary methods do little to alleviate existing problems. In turn, there needs to be more literature on how to reduce burnout within the working profession for everyone from top-level administrators to part-time paraprofessionals. Most articles on preventing burnout focus on steps that individuals can take. DelGuidice (2011), for instance, offers a list of ways for school librarians to avoid burnout after the appearance of symptoms: attend conferences, take your lunch break or “prep” hour, take a sick day, let your aides do more, partner with the public library, or reach out for help. Campbell (2008) has many of the same suggestions, but also adds personalizing your workspace, engaging in meditation, and finding a hobby.
Farrell, Alabi, Whaley, and Jenda (2017) suggest library mentoring— not as a method of prevention, but one of mitigation. They propose that mentors who are aware of the causes of burnout, including racial microaggressions and imposter syndrome, and symptoms of burnout are more likely to offer compassion and empathy. However, mentors who are unfamiliar with burnout may fan the flames of burnout by encouraging their mentees to work harder to prove themselves.
Scholarship on burnout in LIS
Much of the scholarship surrounding burnout in libraries focuses solely on academic library settings. Adebayo, Segun-Adeniran, Fagbhohun, and Osayande (2018) investigated “perceived causes” of burnout amongst all levels of library staff at academic libraries in Nigeria by asking participants if they felt certain factors caused them to personally experience burnout. The causes included factors such as funding, support, and work environment. Nardine (2019) focused specifically on academic liaison librarians in the Association of Research Libraries (ARL). Kaetrena Davis Kendrick (2017) studied the low-morale of academic librarians and identified burnout, along with bullying and workplace toxicity, as being a contributing factor to issues with morale.
Although the literature is focused heavily on academic libraries, public libraries and librarians are not completely left out of the scholarship on burnout. Lindén, Salo, and Jansson (2018) investigated burnout in public libraries in Sweden. They studied organizational factors that lead to burnout and found that “the most frequently occurring stressors encountered in the
library organization was the workload stressor ‘overload’, the job-control stressors ‘technostress’ and ‘patrons’, the reward stressor ‘poor feedback from management’ and the community stressor ‘isolation’” (p. 203). Salyers et al. (2019) note the lack of literature available on burnout in public libraries. Their study gathered data from 171 public librarians about the issue of burnout. Salyers et al. (2019) found,
several job and recovery-related factors to be associated with increased emotional exhaustion and cynicism and decreased professional efficacy. Important job-related variables appear to be work pressure (associated with greater emotional exhaustion) and protective factors of autonomy, role clarity, and coworker support (for emotional exhaustion and to a lesser extent cynicism). (p. 981)
Swanson (1992) focus on burnout in youth librarians both in public libraries and school libraries. Swanson (1992) emphasises how burnout is common within the helping professions and focuses on physical exhaustion, emotional exhaustion, and psychological exhaustion. Swanson (1992) found that her pool of participants did not experience a significantly high rate of burnout and exhaustion. The literature on burnout and school media specialists or special librarians is primarily limited to those articles which offer methods of prevention (DelGuidice, 2011; Anzalone, 2015) rather than in-depth research into the prevalence of or specific factors leading to burnout.
Graduate students are virtually forgotten when it comes to scholarship on burnout within Library and Information Science. Multiple database searches failed to reveal any relevant articles. Although research on this topic is limited within the LIS field, burnout among students in other professions, such as Social Work and Psychology, is being investigated. Han, Lee, and Lee (2012) found that incoming Social Work graduate students are more susceptible to the three overarching characteristics of burnout identified by Maslach if their emotions are frequently influenced by the emotions of those around them. Wardle and Mayorga (2016) found that only 14.28% of counseling graduate students were not on the verge of, or already suffering from, burnout.
The focus of our study was to answer the following research question:
Are library school students who work through graduate school more likely to leave librarianship due to burnout than their peers who did not work while obtaining an MLS/MLIS degree?
To gather our data, we created a branching survey that adjusted each participant’s questions based on their provided answers (Appendix A). The survey is not an adaptation of the Maslach Burnout Inventory because we were not measuring the degree to which librarians experience burnout. Instead, librarians were asked to determine if they believe they have experienced burnout. Other questions were designed to attempt to identify common experiences of librarians who have or have not experienced burnout.
Prior to completing the survey, participants were provided with an informed consent statement and an explanation of the purpose of our research. Before completing the survey, our respondents were provided with a definition of burnout, which was adapted from Maslach’s aforementioned definition. Our research focus limited our pool of LIS professionals. To be best aligned with our research question, the survey was targeted to MLS/MLIS students, current librarians, and former librarians. This was noted prior to beginning the survey with the following statement: “the survey is open to MLS/MLIS students, current librarians, and former librarians. We are not seeking responses from paraprofessionals at this time”.
After approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at both of our institutions, we distributed our survey on October 1, 2018. This was done via Facebook groups, Library Think Tank – #ALATT and the Library Employee Support Network, as well as our own personal accounts. The survey was also shared via Twitter, professional listservs, and via our home libraries. We posted our call for participation on social media twice, listservs twice, and our home libraries once.
The survey remained open on Google Forms for one month. Once the survey closed, all results were extracted from Google Forms via Google Sheets. An original copy of the data was kept and has remained untouched. The data was then cleaned. Anyone who did not meet the criteria was removed, codes were set for the responses, and the data was moved into StatCrunch for statistical analysis.
We received responses from 612 people who met the survey requirements (i.e. participants who completed library school or are currently LIS students). The responses encompassed a wide range of library types: public (n=333), academic (n=216), school (n=74), archives (n=39), government (n=3), special (n=40), law (n=2), law firm (n=1), medical (n=2), hospital (n=1), subscription/membership (n=1), military (n=3), state (n=2), and high-density offsite storage (n=1). Participants were able to indicate all of the types of libraries in which they worked, allowing our research to reflect a wide array of library experiences.
There were 612 total respondents, of which 76.64% are current librarians. Of the current librarians (n=469), 79.10% responded that they have experienced burnout based on the definition of burnout provided at the beginning of the survey. Additionally, 47.33% of current librarians responded that they have considered leaving the profession due to burnout.
An overwhelming majority of current librarians, 94.24%, were employed while they were enrolled in LIS courses. Current librarians who took an average of three credit hours per semester worked an average of 34.13 hours per week. Those enrolled in more than twelve credit hours per semester worked an average of 18.22 hours per week.
Closer inspection reveals that 78.89% of current librarians had a job in a library while taking library school classes. Overall, 74.84% of current librarians worked while enrolled in classes and experienced burnout, 10.87% worked but did not experience burnout, 4.26% did not work but still experienced burnout, and 0.85% neither worked while enrolled in classes nor experienced burnout later in their careers (Fig. 1).
Of the total respondents (n=612), 5.23% are former librarians. Of the former librarians (n=32), 71.86% responded that they have experienced burnout based on the definition of burnout provided at the beginning of the survey. Burnout was the primary reason that 18.75% of former librarians left the profession and an additional 40.63% reported that burnout was a contributing factor in their decision to leave the profession. Of the former librarians who experienced burnout, 86.96% worked while in library school. Of those, 39.13% worked 31 or more hours per week. Interestingly, 100% of former librarians who never experienced burnout worked in a library while in library school. Overall, 62.50% of former librarians worked while enrolled in classes and experienced burnout, 21.88% worked but did not experience burnout, 9.38% did not work but still experienced burnout, and 0% neither worked while enrolled in classes nor experienced burnout later in their careers (Fig. 1).
LIS students comprised of 18.14% of our total participant pool. Of the students who responded (n=111), 96.40% are employed. Of today’s LIS students, 61.26% work 31 or more hours per week in addition to taking classes. Further inquiry reveals that 77.47% of student respondents work in a library, including 15.31% who have multiple jobs, at least one of which is in a library. Furthermore, 53.15% of LIS students take six credit hours a semester on average. The majority of those students, 59.32%, work 31-40 hours per week in addition to their class responsibilities (Fig. 2).
The results of our study highlight the pervasiveness of burnout in the LIS field. Out of the sample (n= 612), 81.86% of librarians reported that they have experienced burnout. With over three-fourths of respondents indicating they have experienced burnout, these results indicate that this topic demands further study within the profession. Additionally, since we are investigating the link between burnout and working while enrolled in graduate courses, the percentage of students working while pursuing their masters must be taken into account. The discussion section will take a closer look at these numbers to help provide a more comprehensive picture of factors that influence burnout.
Generally speaking, it appears more graduate students are working than before. We do not have a breakdown by decade, but we do know that 96.40% of current students are employed while taking classes, compared to 94.03% of current librarians, and 84.38% of former librarians (Fig. 3).
Not only does it appear that more of today’s students are working, but they are also working more hours on average than current or former librarians did as students (Fig. 4). As expected, the average hours students spent at their jobs decreased as their average credit hours increased. The only exception was with retired librarians; however, only one retired librarian took an average of three credit hours and they worked an average of 15 hours which skewed the results.
Our survey only asked students if they were working for income, experience, or a combination of the two. As depicted in Figure 5, the majority of students work for income and to gain experience. Out of the 111 current LIS students that responded to this question, 69.37% work while enrolled for both income and experience. One student commented that they are working specifically so they can receive benefits, such as insurance. This begs the question: will more students work full-time in the future to ensure they have health insurance and how will this increase their susceptibility to burnout?
Contradictory to our predictions, as discussed in the results section, 100% of former librarians who never experienced burnout worked in a library while in library school. This data is varied from our current librarians that shows 74.84% of current librarians worked while enrolled in classes and experienced burnout. It would be impossible to draw conclusions from this data without talking more in depth with the former librarians that we surveyed. One possible explanation is the changing landscape of both librarianship and graduate work. Even though the changing landscape possibly contributes to burnout, it does not mean that this is the reason that former librarians did not experience burnout. There are many additional factors like the number of working hours, credit hours taken, the rigor of programs, and the type of work schedule they had to maintain both as a student and a professional.
This study consisted of a variety of limitations. First, for roughly an hour when the survey was opened, there was an error with the branching in Google Forms. This caused four participants to receive the wrong screen via Google Forms that provided them with additional, irrelevant, questions. Only a small number of participants were affected by the issue, and since we were quickly alerted, we were able to fix this issue without it affecting our results. To adjust for this error, we removed the “extra” information that was provided to us via the branching mishap. The second limitation would be our pool of participants themselves. Selection bias is a possible concern. It is possible that LIS professionals who have experienced burnout were most likely to complete the survey. Additionally, it is difficult to connect with former librarians. Most are no longer on traditional listservs and or social media. Thus we had a relatively small pool of former librarians. The last limitation is the definition of “librarian”. According to the Department for Professional Employees (2019), “in 2018, 53.5 percent of librarians held a master’s degree or higher” (p. 3). So, nearly half of those with a title of librarian do not have a master’s degree. We were specifically exploring the relationship between working while in library school and its impact on susceptibility to burnout later in life. Therefore, for the purpose of our research, we limited our data only to library workers who attended and completed library school. We found that some participants took the survey even though they did not meet this requirement. Consequently, they were removed from the pool. We recognize that burnout is an issue for all library employees, regardless of education or title; however, the scope of our study was limited to those who completed library school in order to determine if there is a correlation between burnout and work levels in library school. Lastly, we intended to investigate the relationship between burnout and race and/or gender, but we did not receive enough data to dive into such a complex issue.
Burnout is a complex issue. An overwhelming percentage of librarians experience burnout. The vast majority of librarians work while taking graduate classes. However, based on the relative lack of data from former librarians and librarians who have not experienced burnout, we cannot definitively say that working while in graduate school is a source of causation. Burnout is an invasive issue within librarianship. Although this is something that we were aware of before we began the study, the data revealed how pervasive this issue truly is. We, as a profession, are suffering and it is clear that more research, training, and professional development needs to be done on this topic.
We have only skimmed the surface of burnout research. There is much more room for analysis surrounding the degree to which people experience burnout within librarianship, rather than the prevalence of burnout in the profession. Feedback from our participants, and on social media, revealed that there is definitely a need to focus on all library workers regardless of education or position. Thus it is essential that more inclusive research is performed on this matter. Further, exploring the potentially additional stressors of paraprofessional library work is a topic that needs to be investigated more in-depth. Finally, it is important to note that our study was not limited to one type of library setting. Many articles that are written about librarian burnout focus on just academic librarians or just school media specialists; however, our study shows that burnout is a risk no matter the library setting.
It is our hope that this article can serve as a call for action for librarians, managers, and LIS educators. Hopefully, this can aid in a culture change for librarians and create greater support for burnout. Librarians need to be able to openly discuss burnout and know that they are not alone in dealing with it. We hope that this article will act as a catalyst for such discussions. Perhaps our survey will persuade hiring managers to take another look at the experience requirements for “entry-level” positions. If entry-level positions were truly “entry-level” and didn’t have such lofty experience requirements, then graduate students may not feel so compelled to exhaust themselves while in graduate school, thus possibly reducing the number of people who experience burnout. Even with the overwhelming number of librarians who have experienced burnout, it is not a topic we heard mentioned in lectures or assigned readings in library school. As our findings indicate, our profession is rife with burnout. It is our hope that LIS schools and educators will put more of an emphasis on preparing students to prevent burnout in their lives and the lives of others.
We would like to thank Megan Fratta, our external reviewer, Bethany Radcliffe, our internal reviewer, and Ian Beilin, our publishing editor for all of their insight, suggestions, and guidance. We would also like to thank Jesika Brooks for proofreading early drafts. Finally, we’d like to thank everyone who took the time to complete our survey.
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Link to Survey Questions
Relationship Between Working While Enrolled in School and Experiencing Burnout
|Worked while in school; Have experienced burnout||Worked while in school; Have not experienced burnout||Did not work while in school; Have experienced burnout||Did not work while in school; Have not experienced burnout|
Percent Distribution of Hours Worked by Credits Taken, LIS Students
|Credit Hours||0||1-10||11-20||21-30||31-40||More than 40|
|More than 12||0%||0%||33.33%||66.67%||0%||0%|
Percentage Working or Worked While in Graduate Courses
|LIS Students||Current Librarians||Former Librarians|
|Did not work||3.6%||5.97%||9.38%|
Average Hours Spent Working While Enrolled
|Credit Hours||LIS Students||Current Librarians||Former Librarians|
|More than 12||22.16%||18.22%||10.5%|
Why Current LIS Students Work
LIS students’ reasons for working while enrolled in graduate school, given in actual numbers, not percentages:
- Health care benefits: 1
- Both income and experience: 77
- Experience: 1
- Income: 28
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This is such an important article and it feels oddly cathartic to see my experiences reflected here. While this is my anecdotal experience, I can say being employed as a Graduate Assistant at an academic library while working toward my degree made me ready to quit the field before I was even getting started. So often we are expected to perform at the caliber of professionals in the field for a fraction of the pay (or no pay, since your wages can be garnished as a result of the school paying for a portion of the tuition) and no benefits. Not to mention the systemic issue of hiring libraries not valuing student employment or assistantships but also not being willing to be the providers of the relevant experience they apparently feel these applicants do not have. Excellent way to create to disillusion.