Do librarians struggle with work-life balance?
Work-life balance is a hot topic in all fields of work at the moment it seems, including librarianship. Many people I chat to outside of the profession are bewildered about this – don’t librarians just deal with enquiries and switch off when they’re not at the library? Well maybe some do, but none I know.
Most librarians I know do indeed spend some time doing customer facing duties such as answering enquiries, recommending resources, and teaching information literacy skills sessions. But in order to do any of these activities competently, there’s a lot of behind the scenes work that needs to go on. If we just take one of those examples of teaching information literacy, it’s not just a case of turning up and teaching. It’s a case of developing their own knowledge, refining their teaching skills (many librarians hold teaching qualifications and many academic librarians are Fellows of the Higher Education Academy), planning and scheduling sessions, preparing teaching materials, leading the session, and supporting learners after the session. Librarians also need to know their users and their needs, which often involves a lot of communication, research, and relationship management. These aren’t things that can be done easily or completed and then forgotten about; they’re constantly evolving. Much of the work of librarians is done digitally, including a lot of emails, so many don’t need to be physically located in the library to work (meaning they can take work home).
Then you take someone like me, who is a librarian, but not working in a traditional librarian role. I am part of an academic library, but much of my work is externally-funded project work. All of my work (both internal and external) is project-based, so it varies massively every day. Sometimes I’m working on fairly short projects of a few months, sometimes on longer term projects over multiple years. I’m always juggling at least 3 projects, usually many more. I teach research skills, both for my own organisation and on behalf of other organisations. I’m also an active supporter of continuing professional development (both for myself and enabling others) so am often involved in other voluntary responsibilities to support the profession. Although my work is all in the library and information sector, and supports librarians, it’s probably more similar to that of a researcher or project manager in other fields rather than that of a librarian.
So do librarians have the same struggles with work-life balance? Absolutely! I certainly do, and many of my professional contacts do too. It’s often a topic of conversation in groups I’m part of.
My top tips for better work-life balance
I thought I’d share a few tips and resources for those interested in improving their work-life balance.
- Learn to respect (and protect) your time – I used to volunteer for many extra things (in all aspects of my life) and was often expected to pick things up at short notice. I then used to worry about having lots of things to juggle and keeping them all on track. Fortunately, aside from my masters dissertation taking longer than initially planned, I coped OK, but I rarely got any rest time. I have slowly come to realise that down time is incredibly important for my physical and mental wellbeing, and the person in control of that time is me. As soon as I started respecting and valuing my time more, I found that others did too.
- Learn to say no when appropriate or necessary – as an extension to the previous point, I had to learn to say no to things when I simply didn’t have the time, or when it wasn’t appropriate for me to do something (or was more appropriate for someone else to). I found this incredibly difficult at first, but now find it much easier. I wrote one of my CILIP columns on this topic; the PDF is available: The Art of Saying No.
- Consider what works for you and your role in terms of working arrangements – I’m very fortunate to be working in a role that suits me well in terms of working arrangements. I work fairly independently and am trusted to organise my work to meet any deadlines. I have been working from home occasionally on an informal basis for a few years, and recently had a formal home working application approved. This gives me greater flexibility which is useful for my unusual role (with irregular days and some long distance travel), and also means I can balance things outside of work easier than when I commuted into an office a fair distance from home. I appreciate this is an unusual setup and wouldn’t work for every role or person, but I’d recommend spending time thinking about whether you could adapt the way you work in terms of hours or location (either formally or informally) to both help support the type of work you do and encourage a better work-life balance.
- Focus on one thing at a time – this is one I still struggle with to be honest (working from home doesn’t help here!). I find my mind constantly flitting between so many different tasks which isn’t productive. From a work-life balance perspective, I struggle to switch off from work in evenings, weekends, and whilst on leave. This means I’m not really making the most of the down time to help raise the ‘life’ side of the scale because I’m still thinking about the work things. To help combat this I find it helpful to use to-do lists to quickly capture any of these thoughts and get back to what I was doing; turn my email off my mobile devices when I’m on annual leave; and try not to sit in front of a computer during evenings/weekends. I also don’t tend to check my phone whilst I’m with family and friends to focus on enjoying my time with them. You may well have much better tips and techniques for this one – let me know if so
- Don’t compare yourself to others – I’m aware of the irony in including this one in a list of things I’m sharing with others as obviously these are things that have worked for me but they may well not work for you. The most important point I’d like to pass on though is this one. We’re all different people, with different demands on our time and different levels of acceptable stress. By all means discuss these matters with other people (I’ve learnt a lot that way hence wanting to write this post in case it helps others), but most importantly of all, listen to your own mind and body and do what feels right for you.
Do you have any tips for a better work-life balance? Please share in the comments if so.
The restorative power of taking a few days out – Sali Hughes
You Really Couldn’t Have Had It All – Attempting Elegance
Links to resources on work-life balance – LIScareer.com