Pandemic: Stress, Anxiety, Fear & Uncertainty

It’s 7:30 a.m. on a weekday and I’ve been awake for half an hour. My phone dings with a new text message: A staff member reporting they’re sick and won’t be in today. So begins the scramble to find last minute coverage for their shift.

This used to happen maybe once or twice a month, a few times a year.

It happens multiple times a month now, sometimes multiple times in a single week. Some have symptoms or a positive test and need to quarantine, some are waiting for test results, some are simply worried about a possible exposure and don’t want to risk exposing coworkers. Scheduling has become incredibly unpredictable and coverage is stretched thin.

It’s gotten to the point that I wake up every morning with a low-key dread sitting in my stomach, waiting for my phone to ding. I have a visceral anxious reaction every time it does.

I didn’t used to have this reaction.

My scheduling worries are a minor stress, all things considered. I can only imagine what it’s like for staff working public service desks right now: Interacting with patrons who frequently aren’t wearing masks. Patrons who insist on leaning around the plexiglass air barriers to talk to you. Patrons who expect you to sit next to them at the computer for extended periods of time while they’re actively coughing.

Every day, staff come in to work and wonder if this is the day they get sick.

Every day, we read new reports and see new video of patrons screaming at library staff, threatening library staff, physically assaulting library staff. Every day, we see more examples of angry people abusing service staff of all kinds. It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it.

Every day, staff come in to work wondering if this is the day they have to deal with that patron.

Even pleasant interactions are fraught with the possibility of risk. This job is dangerous to a degree it’s never been before. The mental and emotional stress of it is unprecedented.

This job is harder than it’s ever been.

The world is destabilized. Child care, elder care, school, even running errands are charged now. There’s a psychological strain in our day-to-day existence that’s not normal for many of us in our prior experience.

How do we balance doing our job, helping our community, providing valuable and needed services, with the increased needs, burdens, stress, and fear we’re all struggling to meet in the rest of our lives?

How do we create a stable work place—some solid ground amidst such unpredictability—when we also have to change, pivot, continually adapt to an evolving public health crisis?

I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to give staff what they need.

Shortly before the pandemic, a part-time Youth Services librarian told me they want to move to full-time. A couple months ago, I let them know a full-time YS position was going to open soon. They told me they have no desire to be full-time in the pandemic.

Their reluctance isn’t concern for their safety. They don’t like the way we have to work now. They haven’t done a story time in almost two years. They don’t get any in-person time with kids anymore. When they’re on the desk, there’s a physical barrier between them and our patrons, and interactions are kept brief by necessity. They’re spending more time working remotely on our telephone and email service lines, which involve no in-person interactions at all. They tried to jump into our online program offerings but found that environment too remote, too disconnected and sterile to satisfy.

They hate this disconnection. They miss people. They miss children in the space. Their favorite parts of this work are gone. Work used to fill their bucket and now it just drains them. They told me working this way for 20 hours a week is hard enough, they’d be miserable if they had to do it for a full 40.

So not only is this job harder than it’s ever been, it’s also a lot less rewarding.

As a manager, I have a responsibility to keep staff engaged in our work and I’m failing. Nothing I do can overcome the necessities of these circumstances. I can’t bring back the connections that have been severed. It’s not safe to do in-person story times or events. We can’t spend time with patrons in the stacks or at the computers without unacceptable risks to our health. We have to minimize face-to-face interactions. Email, telephone, online, and distanced offerings like curbside are currently the best options we have to offer what services we can to our communities.

Staff need to work remotely as much as possible, to minimize bodies in the building and reduce everyone’s exposure risk. Meetings are all on Zoom or Teams or Jabber or Slack, we can’t have pot lucks or birthday parties for each other. Coworkers barely see each other anymore.

There’s so much less human connection now, and that connection is what so many of us crave in this work. To keep people safe, we have to take away the best parts of their job.

It sucks. And I don’t know how to handle it.

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