In my studies, participants frequently discussed increasing feelings of anxiety and/or increases in symptoms of physical ailments as they began preparing for work (say, on Sunday night) or as they got closer to the workplace during their commutes. I call this work dread, and it is one of the early physical indicators of abuse or neglect.
As you browse the participant commentary below, keep in mind how trauma responds in the body – even before we are cognitively aware of what is happening (or even if we try to downplay what is happening). Bessel van der Kolk reminds us that “the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions, in autoimmune disorders and skeletal/muscular problems…” and that “[t]he more people try to push away and ignore internal warning signs, the more likely they are to take over and leave them bewildered, confused, and ashamed.” If you are experiencing work dread, don’t ignore the signs.
“…There was times I was, you know, had a knot in my stomach when I was driving to work. There were – I started dreading Sunday nights ‘cause it’s like, what’s Monday going to bring? What’s the day going to bring? Is she Happy [Person]? Is she Bitchy [Person]? …and I really noticed it, too, when, in the summer we work really weird hours, so I started realizing, like, the weeks that I knew she was going to be off for a whole week, I had like no stress. I would come to work, have a great time with my co-workers, I wasn’t worried about Sunday night, you know, and that’s when I started realizing the impact it was having on me physically.” – Low morale in Academic Librarians study participant (public services), circa 2016
“You know, overall, the impact was I dreaded coming to work, you know… I would kind of like, physically feel it. [Laughs] I would get that knot in my stomach, you know? It was just one of those things, and I was gripey – more apt to complain about having to go to work, not looking forward to going to work. And I would have anxiety, and I would feel like I had to do stuff, you know. I always had to be on task or I had to always be checking my email. Because after a while of being told that I had to be on email every moment of every day and unable to escape the situation, I just started giving into that, you know?” – Low morale in Academic Librarians study participant (cataloger), circa 2016
“I would go home and feel like ‘oh, do I really want to go back to work the next day.’ [Laughs]. ‘Cause I was, I’m usually someone who enjoys work so that was kind of a new feeling, like ‘uh, I don’t know what tomorrow’s going to be like,’ and sometimes – this is maybe too extreme, but just kind of like, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow and what’s the newest frustrating thing we’re going to encounter,’ [Laughs]” – Low morale in Academic Librarians study participant (instruction), circa 2016
“…it was an issue of low morale because, you know, where I used to enjoy coming to work, I would dread it. I mean, once I got there, I was ok, but, you know, you always knew there was going to be something, and you know, there always was.” – Low morale in BIPOC Academic librarians study participant (manager), circa 2018
If you haven’t started looking for a job yet, how have your job search concerns impacted your daily work?
“I feel stuck, like I’ll be stuck at my current job, and I’ll be miserable for years. This makes me question how much of the work I’m currently doing actually matters.”
“It takes so much energy to apply to jobs that I find myself exhausted all the time..”
“It’s really hard to stay motivated but I’m taking some continuing education courses to keep my spirits up. It’s helping me feel like I’m learning new things in the meantime..”
How have offers and/or rejections impacted your daily work?
“The rejections made me feel like the people who were bullying me were right about me. The offer (and new job) made my low self esteem more apparent and that’s impacting me daily.”
“Yes – the offer I received buoyed me up tremendously! It has affirmed that I *am* a good, capable, important worker…”
“The rejections are hard, but getting an offer and not being able to take it because of COVID concerns (moving out of state during nonessential travel ban) has been soul-crushing. Now I have even less motivation at work than before or to find a new job. I’m concerned another will never come around.”
How have the offers and/or rejections impacted your perceptions of the library profession?
“I was amazed at how many places are currently recruiting for someone in my position. I’m still being headhunted right now. In a way it makes me more worried about leaving – that I may not be able to live up to what I look like on paper.”
“I’m okay with the offers and even the rejections, but being “ghosted” by two systems feels demoralizing and dehumanizing.”
“Mostly I just think the problem lies with me, not LIS.”
Considering your job hunt activities (or desire to begin looking for a new job), how has your low-morale experience affected your perceptions of career mobility?
“The pandemic has certainly made things feel less mobile, and, it feels more risky to take a new job if seniority matters for layoffs. The pandemic, like all crises, has also laid bare values, competencies, and priorities, which makes career mobility feel very serious: in some cases, potentially life-threatening. That is, I have to leave this job or it could be injurious to my body and/or mind.”
“I’m thinking about leaving the field before I even use my degree.”
“Sometimes I look for jobs but I wonder if being at the institution I am currently has stunted my growth and therefore now limiting my opportunity to advance. I think maybe I need to try harder where I’m at but then the cycle repeats itself. I was a new librarian and I missed the opportunity for mentorship and now I’m scared to be stuck in limbo..”
Feel free to share other concerns, advice, or ideas about job hunting during low-morale experiences.
“In other low morale times, sometimes just browsing job openings has been enough to make me step back and appreciate what I have.”
“Trying to resist the temptation to take anything else just to get out of here. I’ve been taking the time to talk to staff at other institutions to avoid potential red flags.”
“I’ve spent a LONG time now in a toxic, low-morale setting and I worry that I won’t find anything better, but I also worry that if I *do* find something better, I’ve learned a lot of bad coping habits from current situation.”
“My biggest concern is recovering from my burn out. I do not want to bring it into a new position and I believe finding the energy to be enthusiastic in an interview as well as in a new job would be hard. I am not a visibly excited person, so forcing it has been extra hard.”
It’s Renewals’ four-year anniversary (yesterday also marked the four-year anniversary of Renewers – Renewals’ connected Facebook community, and the second-year anniversary of Renewals’ Twitter and Instagram accounts). This update also finds us heading into a third year of the COVID-19 Pandemic. However, Renewals’ communities have grown, its mission has been clarified, research has been published, and new data collection projects, continuing education efforts, and the identification of targeted services have developed during the past year.
Renewers, the online Facebook community, now has over 1,500 members, (Twitter: 1,221; Instagram: 620). In August of 2021, the Renewals website was redesigned to highlight its mission and values:
Mission: Renewals reconnects people and organizations to their purpose, creates empathetic strategies, and centers positive and wholehearted outcomes for the long-term improvement, integrity, and humanity of our workplaces.
Soon after last year’s update, I learned that my public librarian low morale study was was named winner of the 2020 Partnership Article Award for its “originality, relevance and timeliness to the profession, contribution and impact on the profession, and quality.” New research was also published – the Leaving Low Morale study I referenced in last year’s update was published in Alkiin July 2021. While I’ve completed data collection and began data analysis for my formal leader study, I’m currently in epoché, and I anticipate reintegration of the data by the end of the year. In the meantime, I shared some of my thoughts and findings on an episode of Library Leadership Podcast. While working on these formal studies, I’ve also continued gathering and reporting data on various aspects of low-morale experiences. This year I added two projects:
Since the formal U.S. Federal Government’s acknowledgement of the COVID-19 Pandemic, I’ve been tracking how library organizations’ responses to the Pandemic have impacted ongoing low-morale experiences. The survey remains open, and I’ve presented results and/or discussed mental and physical impacts in a variety of venues or platforms, including:
Also, I’ve been asked to discuss these studies and associated countermeasures, especially as we enter the third year of the Pandemic: in May 2021, I was interviewed by Dr. Nicole A Cooke as a guest for The Skillset Podcast for a series on Collective Care. Associated with this topic, I also participated in a Association of Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) conference presentation.
During this fourth year, I led several Renewal professional development/facilitation events:
I also shared general research data at ALA CORE and the 2021 NCLA/SELA Conference. I’m slated to present several Renewals events in 2022, so please follow this blog for updates.
My data has been very clear in showing that people who face low morale are seeking career clarity and/or support as they navigate within or transition from dysfunctional workplaces. To that end, in late January I formally launched career services for this unique group of workers. Click the following links to learn more.
I increasingly look forward to expanding my research and support tools in these areas, and as always, I will continue to improve. Please look forward to it.
As a final note, I’d like to share that March 21 is not only the anniversary of Renewals – it is also my maternal grandmother – Lillian (Dennis) Delaney Edney’s – birthday. She passed away earlier this year, and this post is dedicated to her life, her support and guidance of my education, her modeling of the points of my ongoing mission, and her love and care.
In addition to this blog, you are welcome to keep up with my speaking engagements and other workhere.
Since December 2019, I’ve been collecting data about job hunting during low-morale experiences. The project explores how people who are contending with negative impacts of workplace abuse and neglect navigate job-seeking processes. While this survey sparked my now published study onleaving low-morale experiences, I am continuing the survey. You can see the initial report and a report from Spring 2021 (be sure to follow the “Part 2” links to both reports, as well). This post shares the latest information from this effort.
Here are the quantitative results of the report, which reflects 185 responses (up from 153 in 2021):
96%are currently experiencing workplace abuse/neglect (low morale);
41%indicate their low-morale experience has lasted between 1 -3 years;
65%are currently looking for a new job as a result of their low-morale experience;
82%are searching for work in other libraries;
Those who haven’t yet started looking note the following concerns:
84%: presence of workplace dysfunction or low morale at potential workplaces
Cameron, Pierce, and Conroy’s study centers tenure-track academic librarians and measures work-stress levels and connections to organizational support systems. The report validates links between lack of support and employee stress, and offers an interesting finding regarding connections between professional confidence and stress. Their work cites the 2017 low morale study.
Late last month, the Alaska Library Association held their 2022 annual conference. I was invited to facilitate a Renewal Colloquium for registered attendees. The session was one of the most well-attended over the course of the four-day virtual conference.
This report shares selected attendee data generated from the event’s pre-work activities and evaluation survey.
Pre-Colloquium Questionnaire Highlights
Represented areas of practice
17% TIE: Reference & Instruction; Other
55% 10 years or more
40% Emerging countermeasures and best practices to reduce/interrupt low morale
30% Behavioral and cultural norms that enable low-morale experiences
Goals for attending the Colloquium
“I want to recognize behaviors of mine, or situations under my control, that may contribute to the lower morale of my staff.”
“Finding strategies for working with and improving the performance of a particularly unhappy and burned out employee in my department. “
“[L]earning to ‘press pause’.”
“A strategy for saying no or working toward changes when morale is too low to meaningfully or successfully contribute to a project.”
“Maintain the high morale in our library even in hard times and on hard days.“
“How to make meaningful work in the library at the past-mid-point of my career.“
Low-Morale Experience Survey Highlights
Have you experienced low morale?
Length of low-morale experience
39% 1- 3 years
Perpetrators of abuse
TIE: 17% Library administrators; Library supervisors or managers
Types of workplace abuse experienced:
Feelings experienced during low morale:
17% Sadness; 16% Frustration
What contributed to low-morale experience?
17% Uncertainty & Mistrust; 12%Leadership Styles
TIE: 18% Decreased professional engagement; Decreased work productivity
16%Desire to change careers
Colloquium Evaluation Report Highlights
Things learned or more clearly defined:
“I like how you explained the idea of collective care which I have done somewhat with colleagues, but it was a lot of work to help others as I went through my own stresses. I feel I have lots of reading to do now!”
“I know our organization has low morale, and I was definitely aware of burnout but I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the other terms/factors associated with low morale and it made a lot more sense and has helped me understand all the layers that can contribute to low morale and that I may need to address more than my burnout to get back to a place where I enjoy work.”
“The concept of ambiguous loss was helpful.”
“It was really helpful to know that I’m not alone and to be able to share my feelings with other librarians.”
Share how attending this Colloquium may influence your daily or long-term library practice:
“I really need to do some anonymous surveying of my staff, or have a mutually trusted third party take answers and relay feedback. Need to learn more about what my leadership style actually *is*.”
“I feel empowered. I am going to address things that have been bothering me, I am ready to stand up for myself. And also show compassion for the bullies in my workplace. I am determined to continue being authentic, kind, and clear. I am also going to find time for my creative practices.”
“I’ll definitely be practicing putting moral courage into my daily routine, as well as making sure that I greet my colleagues each morning and work to combat bystanderism.”
“I want to look at my own leadership and my own difficulties during the pandemic because I know they made me less effective and more negligent.”
Recovery plans (personally or at work):
“Try to communicate more clearly with my boss when there are issues, and thinkabout things I used to do that brought me joy that I have stopped doing – and try to start them up again.”
“Therapy! I will ask my questions a little louder, document everything, and keep holding space for my colleagues and I to have a safe psychological place to be.”
“I sometimes focus too much on the limiters that can’t be changed, instead of focusing on what I CAN do within those limitations. I loved the lists of what we CAN do on an individual level, and carrying out some of those practices is what I plan to do.”
Topics recommended for discussion/consideration:
“Some folks are struggling with hyper vigilance due to uncertainty about their physical as well as psychological safety. Is there anything we can do to combat that, or is that on a different plane altogether?”
“The idea of: you got out of this bad situation, now, how do you recover? You touched on it a tiny bit, but this could be an entire session.”
This report offers an update of the qualitative data in my open survey focusing on the impact factor of deauthentication,“a cognitive process that People of Color (PoC) traverse to prepare for or navigate predominantly White workplace environments, resulting in decisions that hide or reduce aspects of
the influence of their ethnic, racial, or cultural identity, and
the presentation of their natural personality, language, physical and mental self-images/representations, interests, relationships, values, traditions, and more,
to avoid macro- or microaggressions, shaming, incivility, punishment or retaliation, and which results in barriers to sharing their whole selves with their colleagues and/or clients.” (Kendrick 2018).
Please consider participating in the survey; and review the original report of this qualitative data.
The following selected qualitative data are responses to the one of the survey’s last questions,“How has deauthentication affected your library practice?”
“I’d honestly have to process this further. I checked nearly every box and I’m wondering who I am at work. I do know it’s stifling. Like a straight jacket. It’s a self imposed reduction of my own voice.”
“Deauthentication has increased my personal stress working in libraries. Having to consider how my presentation is read by colleagues and patrons adds extra work to my already busy portfolio.”
“Not as confident in self/workplace decison making. Not as easy to create bonds with coworkers, feel left out. I refuse to change clothing habits–cultural norm at workplace is pants and flats. I prefer dresses and heels and have heard rumblings of others thoughts which make me self conscious. Its even worse when managers send someone else home to change clothes for an occasion instead of asking someone already prepared.”
“I am more deliberate with how I communicate with everyone. Being a black woman I don’t want to be perceived like I am angry so I feel like my range of emotion has to be limited. More aware of just being especially around faculty members.”
“I’ve reduced my conversations on racial diversity. Too many eye rolling and sighs.”
“Feelings of being stifled and unable to have critical conversations around race and racism without social recuperation. Also constantly questioning my place here, the work that I do, and if I fit in and is actually contributing to the mission and vision.”
“I don’t feel like I’m truly myself which in turn doesn’t make me authentic for my students.”
Less engagement, purely work related discussion. I would not share anything outside of my work life. I’m constantly worrying about worse discrimination – Yes. That happened. The world is filled with educated people that do not behave like human. I had to do that just to protect myself.”
“It has allowed me consider moving the peg up a notch in my career goals since it gets my foot in the door academically. Then my hope is to work the system enough to make a change in the treatment of POC in library and information practices.”
In these commentary, we see nods to the additional enabling systems that BIPOC employees deal with as they face low morale in their library workplaces, includingDiversity Rhetoric, Whiteness, and White Supremacy. Read more about these additional Enabling Systems.
Kendrick, K.D. (2018, Feb. 5). Considering: Deauthenticity in the workplace. Retrieved fromhttps://bit.ly/2BWTqkR
For review, deauthentication is “a cognitive process that People of Color (PoC) traverse to prepare for or navigate predominantly White workplace environments, resulting in decisions that hide or reduce aspects of
the influence of their ethnic, racial, or cultural identity, and
the presentation of their natural personality, language, physical and mental self-images/representations, interests, relationships, values, traditions, and more,
to avoid macro- or microaggressions, shaming, incivility, punishment or retaliation, and which results in barriers to sharing their whole selves with their colleagues and/or clients.” (Kendrick 2018)
The following data are responses to the one of the survey’s final questions,“What do you believe may happen at your workplace or in your library career if you do not engage in deauthentication?”
:”That my full self will not be accepted. I feel like I don’t have much in common with my colleagues. So opening up more will make me feel and be more isolated.”
“Increased microagressions that would occur if I, for instance, wore a hair wrap would add to my own tension at work and make me a worse candidate for promotion and opportunities.”
“I fear that I may be dismissed or not given the same option for advancement. I fear that I won’t be taken seriously.”
“The white folk would be horrified beyond what they already are by the “troubling vision” (Nicole Fleetwood) of my mere presence on the campus and in the library. I am in a position previously held by what one long-time employee terms as (two) “racist white women”, who worked here for many years until retirement. I would likely be targeted for some form of sabotage in order to get rid of me and return to the status quo maintained and upheld by the two aforementioned ‘Racist white women.'”
“I have at times in my career been a more authentic version of myself more consistently at work. It resulted in extreme feelings of isolation from my direct colleagues which eventually turned into overt hostility.”
“I have been lucky to have worked in very liberal institutions with fairly open people. most of what i did was self imposed to “fit in” but i also recognize that that culture influenced my behavior even without the danger of getting attacked. i do know however that there is an invisible line that even liberals do not allow. and as a poc i won’t know if i am there until someone informs me and I’m 100% sure it’ll be both undeserved and unexpected.”
“I would be in a leadership/administration,”
“I will feel free.”
These data highlight additional Enabling Systems and also reveal the kinds of abuse and/or neglect this group are subjected to during their low-morale experiences, including:
Promotion and Tenure
Read more about the general and *additional* Enabling Systems that racial and ethnic minorities face in their library workplaces in my published study (done with Ione T. Damasco, University of Dayton).
Kendrick, K.D. (2018, Feb. 5). Considering: Deauthenticity in the workplace. Retrieved fromhttps://bit.ly/2BWTqkR.
On February 24, I’ll be leading a Renewal Colloquium for attendees at the 2022 Alaska Library Association Conference. This year the conference will be held virtually. The event is slated for 4:30P AKST. Learn more.
“…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 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)?
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.