Low Morale, COVID-19, & Ambiguous Loss

One of the things my original low morale study surfaced is how grief shows up in the experience. Many participants described their grief using the terminology of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ Grief model: denial, anger, bargaining, even acceptance:

“…You know, as the stages of grief are not clear cut and you stop one and go on to another one. They all kind of enter or leave, they’re all affected by what’s going on in your life or outside of work, in your life in general, in the world in general. I’ll admit: for the last week, hopelessness has been really high on my list of things I’m feeling. But I’m just trying to take a deep breath and move on from all of that and work toward that acceptance.” – Acquisitions librarian participant

“[My experience] was one of those things where you go through the stages of grief. [Laughs] It’s like, ‘Oh I’m in denial,’ and then ‘oh, now I’m in anger.’  I don’t know if I’ll ever reach acceptance. Yeah…then now I’m kind of in the – in that – I don’t remember what all five stages are – right now I’m definitely, I guess you could call it acceptance, but it’s not a – like I’ve accepted it that it’s happened, but I’ve not accepted that it’s ok that it happened.” – Special Collections librarian participant

My low morale studies have continued throughout the Pandemic – since 2020 I’ve published two more studies and am in epoché on another. I’ve also been gathering data on the impact of the Pandemic on already established low-morale experiences, and I’ve been offering live Renewal Colloqiua for organizations. In each of these spaces of collegial contact, echoes of grief continue surfacing, and they are tied to how libraries are (not) responding to the Pandemic. While general conversations contextualize this Pandemic grieving as collective, my deep work tells me something more: library employees are also dealing with ambiguous loss while being exposed to the trauma of workplace abuse and neglect.


Ambiguous Loss

Ambiguous Loss is a term coined by researcher Pauline Boss, who defined the state in two ways – both centering the nature of presence and absence:

  • physical absence with psychological presence  – the outcome or physical status of the person is not known but they remain in loved ones thoughts and unresolved emotions (e.g,, missing persons or bodies due to war, terror, catastrophic natural disasters)
  • physical presence with psychological absence – a person is physically present but cognitively or emotionally absent, resulting in unresolved or conflicting emotions (e.g., due to Alzheimer’s, brain injury, etc.)

While ambiguous losses are large, there are also more ordinary forms of this phenonemon. In the former iteration, ordinary ambiguous loss could manifest through divorce, adoption, and the like; in the latter iteration, ambiguous loss could manifest in preoccupation with work, or missing familiar surroundings (Boss 2006, pp. 7-8). At its core, Boss notes that while ambiguous loss is ‘ubiquitous’ in our modern society, it’s hallmark is a “dissonance/incongruence between absence and presence” in human relationships (Boss, n.d.). I posit that since

  • librarianship centers human relationships and
  • those human relationships have been traditionally cultivated in physical spaces – the library;
  • during the Pandemic, library workers have been experiencing both aspects of ambiguous loss, and
  • ongoing library responses to the Pandemic have exacerbated this unique loss cycle through enabling systems and frameworks connected to workplace abuse and neglect.

Physical absence; pyschological presence

At the beginning of the Pandemic, library workers immediately dealt with the conflict of wanting to close library buildings and keep community users (and themselves) safe, but also they also were very worried about how to maintain the deep relationships they cultivated with library users, who were now unexpectedly “missing” (suddenly not able to come to the library for an uncertain period of time) . To alleviate this conflict, many libraries created curbside services; however, several employees also resented these services, which continued to place library workers and community members at risk. Herein we see that incongruence between absence and presence, as well as the unresolved emotional conflict that came up as library workers’ thoughts of their “missing” patrons clashed with their feelings about how to keep them present.  It should also be noted that many library workers also found themselves suddenly cut off from their daily face-to-face interactions with co-workers, and a similar emotional conflict arose when library leaders made inconsistent decisions to allow some workers to work from home, while others were mandated to work on-site.

Physical presence; pyschological absence

As the Pandemic continues, library workers find themselves either continuing work in libraries that never closed, or back in libraries that are “fully open,” often dealing with inconsistent mask mandates or rapidly changing public health guidelines. Additionally, workers are noting that the politicized nature of public health where the Pandemic is concerned has increased their feelings of being unsafe at work. Moreover, there are library workers who realized that their work can be done remotely, yet find themselves forced to come back on-site and are now grappling with the resultant reduced productivity (while longing to be back off-site so they can resume their more productive workflows). And there are those workers who are concerned about their family’s well-being as they try to manage daily workplace exposure to the virus and its variants.

At press time, my COVID-19 study shows that library workers in all kinds of libraries have  experienced upticks in burnout (80%), vocational awe (72%), and resilience narrative (79%) exposure. Qualitative data also disclose that library workers contend(ed) with non-existent communication from their library or municipal leaders, and more recently, Twitter conversations and threads reveal that library workers are considering leaving the profession as a result of these framework exposures and reduced feelings of workplace safety.

In short: while librarians are who are working on-site may be reporting to the physical building, they are no longer as directly engaged while they are there. Furthermore, they are experiencing emotional conflict on what they should do next. This unresolved conflict is an echo of my 2017 study, where participants shared that they felt guilty about wanting to leave because they want to help their communities, but were tired of being abused at work.

The unresolved feelings from ambiguous loss in librarianship will have significant impact on service provision in our libraries, as well as retention in the field.  We must keep up the calls for/do the work of:

  • expanding library advocacy to include and prioritize the people who work in libraries;
  • reimagining and applying workplace policies that dismantle or reduce the impacts of enabling systems in library workplaces;
  • enacting self-preservation in our daily and long-term work- and personal lives; and
  • promoting improved access to mental health services.

“There are times when resiliency is not the answer – a change in policy is the answer, or a change in some kind of other way of doing things.” – Dr. Pauline Boss

How does ambiguous loss resonate with you when it comes to the recent experience of your career (or even as a part of your low-morale experience, regardless of the Pandemic)?

Works Cited

Boss, P. (2006). Loss, trauma, and resilience: Therapeutic work with Ambiguous Loss. New York: W.W. Norton.

Boss, P. (n.d.) Ambiguous Loss: Its Meaning and Application: Module 5. Minnesota: University of Minnesota

P.S. I want to make sure that I note: library workers are experiencing ambiguous loss as part of their career or in direct relation to their library workplace — and it is in addition to the collective grief they are dealing with as we attempt to make sense of the catastrophic human loss that the Pandemic has caused in our communities, our nation, and around the world.


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