7 The Wellbeing of Librarians in the Higher Education Sector
- No matter what the context – ways of working impact on wellbeing.
- Changing thinking can change the impact on wellbeing.
- Time for your family is and life balance is important.
- What are the impactors and enablers of Higher Education Librarian wellbeing?
Figure 7.1 Photograph by Cotton Bro Studio on Pexels
The early chapters of this textbook focused on research arising from primary, secondary, and special education contexts, and from within the literature. Chapter 7 explores the wellbeing promotion in the Higher Education sector as seen through the lived experiences of librarians in that sector.
The higher education environment has not escaped the impact from increased social, technological, political and economic influences. Global research (Carter et al., 2023; Casucci et al., 2020; Carter et al., 2023; Kinman, 2014; Murgu 2021) indicates that a growing number of librarians reporting negative impacts on their wellbeing. Issues such as such psychosocial occupational hazards resulting from negative physical and emotional reactions (Carter et.al, 2023; Ugwuanyi, 2022) are emerging. Changing political agendas (Cox, 2021); increased role complexities; job-related stress (Shupe et al., 2015; Smith et al., 2020); increased work intensification (Bodenheimer & Shuster, 2020; Gunapala, 2017), are having an impact on librarians. This is within a climate of significant disruption and change, and the emergence of substantial complexities resulting from the COVID-19 Pandemic (Fauci et al., 2020; Salvesen & Berg, 2021; Todorinova, 2021; Zacher & Rudolph, 2020). All of which work in combination to potentially impact on the wellbeing of Higher Education Librarians.
The role of librarians within the Higher Education sector, is to skillfully provide information to connect library users with resources. In addition, Higher Education librarians also play a role in providing safe learning spaces and support programs (Cox & Brewster, 2020), which in turn, play a key role in supporting the wellbeing of higher education students (Bladek, 2021). While wellbeing is often fore fronted as a key focus of discussion and intervention in Higher Education Institutions, particularly in relation to students, research by Cox and Brewster (2020) and Grubic et al. (2020) noted that there is little focus on the wellbeing of librarians. As such, despite the role that these librarians play in supporting student wellbeing, the wellbeing of the librarians themselves, remains fairly absent in the literature.
A review of research indicates that very little is known about how Australian Higher Education Librarians perceive their own wellbeing and how their wellbeing is promoted within their work context. Of the studies found, few prior to 2022, have investigated the wellbeing of Higher Education librarians or the wellbeing of librarians in general. One study by Rinio (2016) explored a link between social wellbeing and librarians. A study by Kodua-Ntim et al. (2021) examined stress levels and ways of coping with stress in university librarians in Ghana, while another study (Ugwuanyi, 2022) investigated the psychological wellbeing of librarians. In contrast, a significant number of studies have investigated how libraries are promoted as important safe student places (e.g., Cox & Brewster, 2020) or mental health hubs that provide student-centred support programs (e.g., Grubic et al., 2020). Other studies have investigated the impact that Higher Education librarians (e.g., Bladek, 2021) and school librarians (e.g., Harper, 2017; Merga, 2020) have in terms of supporting student wellbeing. Likewise, Harper (2017) also confirmed that Higher Education librarians have a positive impact on student academic achievement and assist in supporting students by way of creating enriching and safe environments (Bradley, 2021; Merga, 2020).
The literature acknowledges that Higher Education librarians are working in environments with increased complexity resulting from high levels of rapid changes, and ever-increasing expectations (Kolomitro et al., 2020), wellbeing of Higher Education librarians and librarians in general. It seems remiss that how Australian Higher Education Librarians perceive their own wellbeing and how their wellbeing is promoted within their work context is omitted from the literature when the role and the context of the library itself, is seen within the literature as important for people’s wellbeing promotion. Furthermore, a review of the literature also suggests that while librarians play a key role in supporting the wellbeing of others, there are very few studies that position academic librarians as the focal point in research on wellbeing.
Higher Education Librarian Wellbeing
A study by Carter et al. (2023b) involving 97 Australian and International Higher Education librarian participants from 34 institutions in three regions (Australia, New Zealand and Asia), investigated Higher Education librarians’ perspective of wellbeing. An Adapted Interactive Research Design together with a Contributive Research Method (Puig et al., 2018) and CAST analysis (Carter, et al., 2023a) were utilised in this study. Contributive Research Method enables the social co-construction of knowledge where facilitators are also participants in the meaning making process. In this way knowledge is not constructed in a solitary manner rather it is surfaced, investigated and metacognated (Carter, et al., 2023a). Results of the study indicated that participants defined wellbeing with a strong alignment to Diener’s (1984) conceptualization of subjective wellbeing and that there were impactors and enablers to their own wellbeing within their work context. The findings of the study will be explored in the following sections.
A Shared Understanding of Subjective Wellbeing
Understanding a concept that is to be acted on and implemented is important for creating a shared understanding. Carter et al. (2023b) observed when defining wellbeing, the participants focused their responses on their own cognitive and affective evaluation of overall satisfaction. This form of sense making about the concept of wellbeing aligned with Diener’s (2009) three critical components of subjective wellbeing:
(1) overall life satisfaction;
(2) longer term levels of positive affect; and
(3) low level unpleasant affect. The participants voiced feelings associated with satisfaction or no satisfaction with work, relationships, and purpose. This perspective appeared to emerge from a subjective cognitive evaluation of their own life and experiences of positive or negative affect closely associated with workload expectations placed upon them by their relevant boss, colleagues, and students. Eid and Larsen (2008) suggested that when such a strong alignment with Diener’s (1984) definition of subject wellbeing occurs. This often provides evidence that individuals have a deeper understanding of the characteristics associated with subjective wellbeing. As such, this suggests that the Higher Education librarians in the study may have a good working understanding of subjective wellbeing.
When verbalizing thoughts about coming to work every day without feeling like they do not want to be there (Carter et al., 2023), higher education participants in the study demonstrated a clear alignment with Diener’s (2009) notion of a low-level unpleasant affect component of wellbeing. Higher Education Librarians in the study provided examples of low-level unpleasant affect, and in so doing provided insight into viewpoints about how wellbeing is enhanced by not experiencing frequent negative feelings or negative/low moods. This finding is in keeping with similar findings by Grinde’s (2016), who identified that an activation of negative feelings, such as anxiety and depression, can be a major contributor to a lowering of wellbeing.
This understanding is further supported by Maddux (2018) who noted that the notion of subjective wellbeing is very much related to how a person thinks about, feels, and evaluates their life. Thus, Higher Education librarians in the study then perceive wellbeing in terms of a satisfaction and balance between positive and negative affect (Carter et al., 2023b) where an individual is able to function cognitively and emotionally in a productive and fulfilling manner (Huppert, 2009). Participants in the study also outlined a number of impactors to wellbeing.
Figure 7.1 Photograph by Timaroshnichenko on Pexels
Impactors on Higher Education Librarian Wellbeing
According to Smith et al. (2020), work intensification and increased workload of librarians has potential to increase job-related stress and impact on individual wellbeing. When reflecting upon work practices, librarians in the Higher Education sector voiced similar concerns when they identified workload and work intensification as significant impactors on their own wellbeing. Participants expressed a view that they were often expected to undertake the work of several full-time librarians. This finding aligns with research by Pace et al. (2021) and Tham and Holland (2018) who have highlighted work intensification impacting the wellbeing of Higher Education academics. Lawrence et al. (2019) suggests that this is similar for schoolteachers. Additionally, Salvesen and Berg (2021) and Todorinova, (2021) identified that work intensification of general librarians, was an impactor for their wellbeing.
Research by Carter et al. (2023b) identified that Higher Education librarians felt that they have little influence or control over how their work was structured within their organization, how they undertook that work, or the way in which that work was structured within their organization. Participants strongly articulated that this was the case particularly when expressing concerns that the completion of work outside of business hours was often an expected way of working. According to Higher Education librarians in the study, delineation of work hours has now become blurred and that there is often a lack of acknowledgement of hours worked outside of normal business hours, which they felt has become common practice in their workplaces. It was also noted that this additional workload often occurred within the home context which higher education librarians identified as contributing negatively to their overall wellbeing. Participants in the study shared that regularly covering for absent colleagues who were not replaced following COVID-19 lockdowns, also significantly impacted on their wellbeing.
Figure 7.3 Photograph by Timaroshnichenko on Pexels
Higher Education librarians in the study also voiced a number of political factors that impacted on their wellbeing. The majority of participants identified that wellbeing was a largely neglected consideration within their organisations, and this in conjunction with unreasonable work expectations around task intensification, had significantly impacted their wellbeing. In many instances, Higher Education librarians voiced that wellbeing promotion was deemed to be tokenistic within their organisations. Concerns were also expressed that quite a few organisations took no specific action nor had initiatives to support staff wellbeing and instead seemed to hope that things would return to normal following COVID-19 lockdowns. Dickson-Swift et al.’s (2014) study found that where organisations have little or no organisational wellbeing promotion programs in place, then it was more likely that employees will voice non -favorable employee ratings about their workplace wellbeing. In contrast, where Higher Education sector librarians perceived that policies and programs in their organisation supported wellbeing through a healthy lifestyle and health and fitness focus, there was a much more favorable view that wellbeing was promoted within the organisation.
Additionally, Higher Education librarians in the study also identified a number of personal factors that impacted on their wellbeing. In particular, personal factors such as the loss of social connection, conversation, and contact with work colleagues resulting from isolation during COVID-19 lockdowns, were identified as significant negative impactors on wellbeing. Furthermore, emotional strain arising from working in a pressured workplace, blurring of team roles, unclear directions, a lack of clarity around managements’ vision and communication, taking work home to complete, and workload intensification above what was perceived as being appropriate, were also highlighted as major negative impactors on Higher Education Librarians wellbeing. Participants in the study also highlighted a number of elements that positively contributed to wellbeing. These enablers are discussed next.
Enablers of Higher Education Librarian Wellbeing
Higher Education librarians in the study identified a number of key enablers to their own wellbeing. These included working in an inclusive, safe, caring, supportive, and connected environment which focused on building teamwork and a sense that everyone was in this together. Such environments were acknowledged as fostering positive, collaborative communication and relationships, whereby interconnected teams promoted working towards a common goal, thereby enabling individuals to feel as if they have a voice and some influence.
Staying connected with colleagues in staff teams where colleagues got to know more about other colleagues and their situations, was identified as being important, particularly post COVID-19 (Carter et al, 2023b). Making connections with colleagues was described as promoting positive working relationships which in turn was identified as a major factor that contributed to the wellbeing of individuals with the study. Higher Education sector librarians voiced that informal chats and catch ups about work contributed to a positive feeling of connection and belonging, as such, practices created safe spaces without the pressure of formal agendas. Similarly, research by Ugwuanyi (2022) noted that having check-in conversations created a feeling of connectedness that supported the psychological wellbeing of librarians, and that higher reported levels of psychological wellbeing were reported when librarians connected with colleagues and coworkers. Likewise, Hvalic-Touzery et al. (2020), also found that when employees have a sense of connectedness and belonging, there is a higher probability that employee wellbeing will increase as a consequence.
Carter et al. (2023b) reported opportunities to work using flexible/hybrid arrangements, where individuals could either work from home or onsite, were identified as a way of working that promoted wellbeing. Higher Education librarians outlined that it was also important that adequate resources were provided in order to enable flexible/hybrid work arrangements, both at home and for onsite work. In addition, the participants fore fronted the importance of teams also being equitable, flexible, and innovative. Interestingly, while work flexibility and hybrid arrangements were noted as a positive contributor to wellbeing, Higher Education librarians in the study also articulated that increased workload impacted on their own wellbeing where some individuals reported taking work home in order to try and keep on top of the additional work tasks, thereby impacting on both their personal life and their wellbeing in a negative manner. It is worth noting that the literature surfaces that workloads have increased substantially since the COVID-19 Pandemic (Rodríguez-López et al., 2022; Suka et al., 2021; Taylor & Frechette, 2022), and in such a way that there is less likelihood of completing all the expected tasks, it is not likely that positive wellbeing will be promoted. Support in terms of work flexibility will not necessarily lessen the intensified workload (Okeke-Uzodike & Gamede, 2021).
Higher Education librarians within the study, identified effective leadership as a crucial enabler of their own wellbeing. Where leaders and supervisors took the time and made an effort to catch up using individual conversations, expressing an interest in current work challenges or checking-in to see if an individual was “alright”, participants in the study voiced that this created a sense of being cared for both as a person and an employee. (Carter et al., 2023b). According to Bradley (2021), leaders and supervisors should create a culture and ethic of care, that of “caring relationships” (p. 5) and “relational dependencies’” (p. 6) as this is fundamental for workers in organisations.
Research across the globe indicates that librarians have experienced increased role complexities, work intensification, and job-related stress due to rapidly changing technological advances, pivoting political agendas, and impact from the Covid 19 Pandemic. However, while student wellbeing is a key focus of discussion and intervention in Higher Education Institutions, more research needs to occur to surface the voices of librarians into the wellbeing conversation so their wellbeing can be promoted, and they are then best placed to support student wellbeing. In other words, it is difficult to support the wellbeing of students if the person doing the supporting does not have their own wellbeing maintained.
When provided with an opportunity to voice their perceptions about wellbeing, Higher Education librarians explained it with consensus, aligned to a definition already in the literature (Diener’s 1984, definition of subjective wellbeing) where wellbeing involves an overall cognitive appraisal of life satisfaction, feelings of positive effect and low-level negative affect. Workload, and political and personal factors reportedly negatively impact on the wellbeing of Higher Education librarians. In contrast a supportive, caring, connected and inclusive community; positive collaborative collegial relationships; flexible/hybrid work arrangements; and effective leadership and personalised communication were outlined as enablers of Higher Education librarians. It is hoped that Higher Education institutions change their ways of working to be more inclusive of the voices of librarians in the sector and together ensure that there is a focus on promoting the wellbeing of the helper (i.e., librarians).
Tips to Try
- Set timeline parameters for work and send these to the supervisor or keep a written copy. Work the hours without distraction and take note of what could not be completed within the assigned timeframe.
- Work the set hours and feedforward how many hours are actually required for the task. If a workforce keeps working well above their paid hours then employers may not realise this is happening.
- A negotiation of tasks and support for task completion may need to occur in alignment with Industrial agreements.
In other words, change the thinking from “I will do whatever it takes to complete the work” to “I will work the hours I am paid to work and feedforward the need for appropriate support”. Time for your family is and life balance is important. Sometimes there does need to be give and take in the work role but if more hours are regularly required than resourcing alongside role requirements might require review.
- Carefully track hours spent on tasks.
- Feedforward hours required to complete tasks.
- Work in alignment with Industrial agreements which are designed to safeguard working conditions for employees.
The authors leave you with the following question to consider
What proactive steps can librarians in the Higher Education take to promote their own wellbeing in the context of their work environment?
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