HealthNovember 20, 2023

Preventing burnout: Coping strategies for medical librarians

A recent webinar sponsored by Wolters Kluwer Health in partnership with the Medical Library Association (MLA) addressed a critical topic for medical librarians: how to avoid burnout while helping their colleagues access current, accurate, useful medical information to make the best care decisions for patients. Watch the webinar now.

It’s an important mission, and one that is constantly changing as standards of care evolve, new drugs and treatment protocols are adopted, and the volume of healthcare information continues to expand. In fact, medical data is estimated to experience year-over-year growth of 36% through 20251.

The webinar included a panel of experienced medical librarians who agreed that the cause of burnout wasn’t the volume of information necessarily, but rather the lack of coping strategies related to managing the increase. Accordingly, their advice focused on three areas:

  • Recognizing the symptoms and causes of burnout
  • Adopting personal preventative measures
  • Supporting institutional initiatives to improve employee mental and physical health

Recognizing the symptoms and causes of medical librarian burnout

Burnout is stealthy and generally happens over time, rather than all at once. Consequently, it can be difficult to recognize the warning signs. While burnout doesn’t look the same for everyone, our panelists shared symptoms that should motivate medical librarians to press the pause button and assess whether they need to change their approach or activities to preserve their focus and avoid burnout.

According to the panelists, symptoms that could indicate imminent burnout include:

  • Becoming easily irritated or overwhelmed at routine requests
  • Experiencing decreased interest or curiosity in gathering information
  • Being forgetful, especially of new requests
  • Changing your work habits – even subconsciously – to start your day later or leave earlier

The common thread running through all these symptoms: reduced energy and focus, sometimes caused by a high workload, unrealistic timelines and expectations, and lack of institutional support. All of these can jeopardize a medical librarian’s ability to provide the foundation of information that colleagues need.

Personal preventative measures and coping strategies for burnout

What can be done to avoid burnout? As with many conditions, engaging in preventative measures can stave off incapacitating burnout which, in its most extreme form, could drive librarians from the medical information field. Because burnout is so personal, and rarely visible until it becomes acute or impacts others, the panelists suggested a ‘first-line therapy’ of behaviors that can be taken individually:

  • Prioritizing self-care. Self-care can include exercise, such as a daily regimen of walking outside, or talking to a friend or family member about something other than work once a day. One panelist emphasized the need for a “tribe” you can turn to outside your institution. Care also includes setting and keeping boundaries for when you are and are not available.
  • Calibrating your responses. Multi-tasking and juggling multiple requests may reduce the quality of your response to all of them. Rather than treat everything as a high priority, methodically prioritize requests and let colleagues know when to expect a response.
  • Embracing continuous learning without being overwhelmed. This includes the ins and outs of new technology like generative artificial intelligence, or any newly launched digital solution. Developing a solid, but not comprehensive understanding, is usually adequate to provide what’s requested, without becoming exhausted.

Another way to avoid burnout: rely on resources already known and trusted by your colleagues such as UpToDate®, the clinical decision support (CDS) solution used by millions of clinicians. This is an essential resource for medical librarians to ensure tighter alignment between medical librarians and clinicians.

Institutional support for medical librarian wellness and burnout prevention

Although the panelists stressed that medical librarians should invest in self-care and self-reflection first, they also agreed that their institutions play a role in helping employees avoid burnout. Some of the productive initiatives they point to could help all employees, not just medical librarians. A few examples of helpful suggestions include:

  • Promoting employee wellness supports. Specific activities range from subsidizing exercise programs, such as Peloton subscriptions, to offering seminars in topics such as guided meditation or healthy eating.
  • Encouraging flexible work schedules. Post-Covid, working from home is seen as a necessity, not a perk for many knowledge workers. Formalizing protocols can help employees achieve the balance they need to avoid burnout.
  • Implementing efficient meeting management. One panelist said the institution adopted a program to shorten meetings. Now, a meeting scheduled for an hour concludes in 50 minutes, and half-hour meetings wrap up in 25. The result: a reduction in employee stress and feelings of being rushed.
  • Sharing workload and collaborating with colleagues. Scope creep and boundary jumping are the root causes of burnout for many. Enlisting colleagues with relevant expertise to respond to requests, or advocating for additional interns or part-time employees if budget allows, can lighten the workload for everyone.
  • Breaking down organizational information silos. The panelists believed that greater sharing of ideas, information, and resources would benefit all employees by making work more efficient, reducing duplication, and eradicating the feeling that you have to “go it alone”.

Medical librarians play a critical role in synthesizing and providing healthcare and clinical information that directly impacts the quality of patient care and institutional performance. To fulfill that role, librarians should take steps to prevent burnout for themselves and in their institutions. Doing so will help manage the growth of information resources and medical data expected in the coming decade.

Watch the webinar

To learn more, watch the full on-demand webinar, “Doing more while avoiding burnout: Helping medical librarians balance emerging demand.”
  1. Coughlin et al. Internal Medicine Journal article “Looking to tomorrow's healthcare today: a participatory health perspective”. IDC White Paper, Doc#US44413318, November 2018: The Digitization of the World – From Edge to Core. [Google Scholar]
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