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Put your oxygen mask on first: 13 strategies to support your teams and yourself

By Zarena Cassar and Meg Uttangi Matsos

As a branch manager, it can sometimes feel like you are pulled in all directions and need to work at all hours. At the same time, it can feel like you are removed from your staff and doing all your communicating through email and texts. How do we support staff when we are not physically working side-by-side with them and we are not “on the clock” during all open hours? We have some strategies for supporting your teams, both in general and during extraordinary circumstances. And, just as you have to put your oxygen mask on first on an airplane in case of an emergency, we also have strategies for you to help yourself.

Think about the following scenarios.  How would you respond?

  • You just received a text at 7 p.m. from staff saying that the bathroom toilet is leaking.
  • You are in meetings all week, but you want to welcome a new part-timer who starts tomorrow evening.
  • You have to write a performance appraisal for staff who you rarely work with because they work evenings and weekends.

Of course there are a myriad of ways that you could respond to and solve any of these problems. Here are six tips that help you get through any or all of these scenarios.

Our time is precious and it is critical that we prioritize and ensure we can avoid unnecessary repetition (i.e., don’t reinvent the wheel).

Make time for the priorities:
Choose what is important and try to be there for those things. You may have to delegate the task of training new staff, but take the time to be there for their first day. Face-time adds value.

Don’t reinvent the wheel: If you find that you have to send the same email or complete the same document more than once, create a template that you can re-use. Don’t spend time doing the same work over and over again.

Train staff to do what works for you: If you don’t want staff to call you at “anytime”, don’t tell them that they can.  Be more responsive during the time that you want to be contacted in the format you’d prefer to be contacted in.  If you prefer email, respond via email.

Get good at long-distance communication: If you find that most of your communication is done via email, make sure you are good at it.  Include descriptive subjects, only cc: those that are necessary, and use formatting to make emails easy to digest and remember.  If you need information in your email to be passed on to others, write it in a way that is easy to forward.

Respond without spoon-feeding: Staff are usually given the tools needed to solve a problem, so let them.  When you swoop in and save the day, you are a hero, not a coach.  Even if something goes wrong, debriefing and following-up can have a greater impact than problem solving.

We are all people: Each of us has goals and challenges.  It’s a manager’s role to observe, offer opportunities and support staff based on their individual abilities and needs.  The only way to do this is by getting to know them as people.

Supporting yourself

While we often talk about ways we can support our staff,  it’s just as important to support ourselves. We all know the warning that flight attendants give us before a plane takes off: In case of emergency, put on your own oxygen mask before you help someone else put theirs on. This flight warning is actually a pretty good rule of thumb for life because you can’t take care of other people before you take care of yourself.

Be proactive: So much of what we do is in response to situations as they arise; a little fire comes up and we jump to put it out. What we can do, however, is debrief and learn from each time we put out a fire.We can put practices into place so the next time that same incident happens, we are better equipped to deal with it.

Close your door: Not only is it okay to be unavailable sometimes, it’s also very necessary. Coaching and supporting staff is a big part of our job, but it’s not our whole job. We have other tasks and projects that also require attention, and sometimes you have to be intentional about your time to get it all done.

Trust your team: Trust that your staff have the skills to do their job. You don’t have the capacity or the time to do your job AND their job. 

Figure out where your time goes: If you’re not intentional about your time, an entire day can just be responding to emails, talking to staff who come into your office, and responding to little tasks. Block off and schedule time for yourself to work on projects and accomplish bigger tasks.

Avoid burnout

The truth is you might be doing all of this already and still feeling burned out. If that’s the case, remember that you’re not alone, and try to keep the following in mind:

Focus on what you can change: Sometimes you don’t have the capacity or authority to just get things done, and often that contributes to burn out. What you can do, however, is focus on what you do have power over. 

We might tell ourselves that we have no power over anything, but is that ever true? When you lead a team, there are always things you can do at your own level to improve a situation. You can change your attitude. You can change your behaviour. Recognize what isn’t working and identify a solution that you have control over.

Have empathy: When you’re tired, it’s easy to forget that everyone around you is dealing with their own stuff too. Remember the people element of our jobs: thank people and let them know when they’ve done a good job. Not only does that contribute to the morale in the branch, but it is a good reminder that supporting and leading your team needs to be your priority. 

Say no: Sometimes you just need to say no. It’s okay to say you have too much on your plate or that you can’t commit to one more thing. At some point your plate is going to be so full that if you add one thing before you take another off, it all comes toppling down. Know when your plate is full.

We presented on this topic in January 2020 at the OLA Super Conference, when the world was a very different place. While not everything is directly applicable to our current circumstances, we hope some of our tips for taking care of your teams and yourself will help you navigate our new normal. And on that note, we want to leave you with a few book and app suggestions that we found helpful and hope you might too.

Recommended readings

  • Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day by Jake Knapp & John Beratsky
  • I Know How She Does It by Laura Vanderkam
  • Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock
  • Managerial Leadership for Librarians: Thriving in the Public and Nonprofit World by Edward G. Evans  and Christie Holland 
  • Cultivating Engaged Staff: Better Management for Better Libraries by Margaret Zelman Law 

Recommended apps

  • Forest App
  • Insight Timer
  • Anylist

Zarena Cassar is a branch manager at Brampton Library. From working on expanding Brampton Library’s after hours study spaces to implementing creative ways to address customer needs, her focus is on creating great experiences for both staff and customers. Zarena began her career in 2012 in Children & Youth Services. She has worked at both Caledon Public and Bradford West Gwillimbury Public Libraries,  and is a graduate of the Masters of Information program at the University of Toronto. You can reach her at

Meg Uttangi Matsos is a Branch Manager at Hamilton Public Library. Over the past 10 years she has managed staff teams in small clustered rural libraries, inner-city neighbourhood branches, suburban community locations and at HPL’s busiest central department. Her interests are in training and coaching library staff for front-line customer service.  She can be reached at

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