Continuing Professional Despair: How to balance enthusiasm, development and wellbeing for neurotic* new library professionals on the job hunt

A very happy new year from the FLIP Team indeed! After a significant hiatus in blog activity (life comes at you fast) we’re back with an anonymous contribution from a colleague within the LIS profession. We are incredibly grateful for this honest submission which we feel deals with some very important issues affecting the sector. PS. Please enjoy the very calming but entirely unrelated featured image of some ducklings….

*Good advice contained within whether you consider yourself neurotic or not; we keep the pieces written for us as true to the original form as possible, so this is the title as given by the author, but it has been pointed out to us that you don’t need to be a ‘neurotic new professional’ to find this advice useful! 

Working in academic libraries, I’m a big proponent of lifelong learning. I also struggle with depression and anxiety, something that significant numbers of people also face. CPD – continuing professional development – acts as a nexus for my enthusiasm and anxiety.

In an employment context where funding for professional qualifications is not always readily available and job roles are changing radically, library staff are expected to take more and more responsibility for their own professional development, in terms of both time and money. Goal posts feel like they’re always moving and you’ve always just missed them. It can be an incredibly anxious experience and feeds unhealthy self-talk: how do I get those skills, why am I so behind, what’s the point of applying for a bursary when I’m just rubbish, how do I even find these opportunities when all I want to do is curl up forever.

Sometimes it seems like you’re in an endless cycle of “you don’t have enough experience”… to get the job… to get the experience, and you feel like you’ll be stuck forever. Waiting for the right job to come up in the right location is a horrible trial of patience — and it might never come up. If it does, suddenly you’re in a post totally out of your depth because your training has been piecemeal and self-directed, but somehow it’s still your fault.

It’s almost as though the intense sense of competition that capitalism and the neoliberal university are perfectly designed to inculcate, could actually amplify anxiety…

Sadly, I haven’t yet figured out how to end capitalism and rescue our public services. But here are some lessons I’ve learned in my personal quest to Chill Please, Dude.

It’s okay to…

* Take a break.
Things I don’t do: read articles or blogs about libraries on my lunchbreak. Skip my lunchbreak or eat at my desk. Work unpaid overtime (…not talking a matter of minutes, or even an hour here or there, but a regular pattern of working all evening every evening).

Your mileage may vary, but I know from experience that if I engage in the above behaviour I’m more likely to overstretch myself and hit a depressive slump. You’re not a machine – the library might be open 24/7 but you don’t have to be! Taking a break has so many benefits, from resting your eyes through to reducing stress, and just making sure you have enough sleep is really important for mental health. Library work requires a lot of emotional labour in terms of providing support to users and colleagues, so please also look after yourself.

* Take your time.
Comparison is the thief of joy. It’s easy to panic about career milestones and development and oh my god how long is this all taking, I’m so behind in life. It’s definitely worth thinking about how to find or create new challenges for yourself, but it’s also okay to not be developing yourself constantly.

You don’t have to get to a certain grade/score a certain job/hit up whatever conference to have a meaningful job and be making an impact in your community… although sometimes it’s easy for that voice in your head to tell you that’s what’s important, simply because that’s what’s visible. The line between paraprofessional and professional posts can be weirdly nebulous, but your value isn’t dependent on your job title or your work history.

* Be more than a librarian.
With many library folk being a lively mix of chatty and digital, library social media is constantly buzzing. You can feel the pressure to be thinking, talking, tweeting libraries 24/7. Heavy workloads mean that development often isn’t the highest priority during work hours, and you might feel the need to catch up on your time off.

Librarianship is often vocational, but don’t let your work consume your identity! If the dreaded dinner party question “so…what do you do?” wasn’t about your employment, how would you answer? How would you want to answer? Create a space for joy in your life, something where success is not measured or quantified.

Things I would recommend…

* Know your limits.
I do my fair share of CPD in my own time as I’m currently studying for a Masters via Distance Learning. I think that’s a pretty solid effort to make towards my own development. Any extra CPD? Can either take place during my working week, with budget to attend from my place of work, or it can wait until I’m done studying. Taking anything else on would not be a healthy for me – but your limits might be totally different. Reflect on what you can and cannot do, and know that it’s okay to not be a superhuman.

* Track what you do.
You might have CPD’d without realising you, like, totally just CPD’d. Internal training, job shadowing, attending an event, work projects you contributed to, a MOOC you followed out of idle curiosity? Totally all CPD. If you’re in an academic context, jump on all the free training you can find because there’s usually loads and in nicely digestible chunks – whether that’s a workshop on project management, sneaking into a session on Technology Enhanced Learning, or just using access to resources like Lynda.com. Keep a record of all the things you do, take a bit of time to reflect on your takeaway learning, and you’ll build a list with hopefully minimal stress.

* Talk to your colleagues.
Find out about hiring practices, ask what distinguishes between a strong application and a weak application, and discuss how to shine at interviews. Your mileage may vary again, depending on your relationship with your manager – you might need to seek someone else out as a mentor, but even if there’s nobody at work, there’s a lot of online networks you could reach out to, like this one. I find being equipped with knowledge helps me challenge my anxious self-talk, so all the advice from my manager about hiring really helped me conquer the more irrational interview nerves.

On a final note, as fellow library folk, I’m sure you understand the importance of keywords. I found it helpful to stop thinking of myself as someone who “struggled” with mental health and as someone who “managed” it, just like I’d manage my time or my collections. I know, I kind of hate myself for using that kind of metaphor, but just bear with me…

Like time, mental health is something that you have to live with (or through), and although it might seem linear on paper, in experience it’s anything but. You can get clumps of busyness/anxiety, you can get plateaus of quiet/sadness, you get hectic flurries of manic happiness, and while sometimes it’s wildly out of your control, you can make decisions that give you the best chance of being healthy.

Just as you’d manage a collection by weeding or purchasing books or you manage your career by seeking out new opportunities, I manage my mental health by reducing things I know impact my health and developing self-care practices. Instead of feeling that mental health defined me, I’ve taken responsibility for looking after the precious “resource” that is my wellbeing, curating and nurturing it.

And sometimes the best thing to do was not to exhaust myself in the name of endless development and improvement.

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