Tax Season Hell: How to Survive

Photo: Paul Keleher

Photo: Paul Keleher

The dreaded tax season is upon us.  Tax season brings a particular type of hell to libraries and even the most calm and courteous of library staff is stressed and has their patience tested on a daily basis.

There are many reasons for the added stress of providing an area for form and booklet distribution and/or a space for AARP volunteers that provide free tax preparation services.

1.  The tax season brings people to the library who don’t ordinarily use the library.  They may have never been to your particular branch of the library.  They wander around aimlessly or they zero in on you immediately and ask you where something is located.  Frequently the forms or volunteers they seek are under a giant sign and the person just failed to actually look for signs directing them.  They generally require special attention and added energy.

2.  Library staff answer the same questions over and over and over and over again.  We put up a million directional signs and yet we answer the Where is question so many times a day it becomes taxing (Ha!).

3. People ask us for tax advice which we are not qualified to give.  Many of us, myself included, don’t feel qualified enough to fill out the standard form for our own taxes!

4.  Our phone rings off the hook with the same questions: Do you have this particular form?  Where and when do you do taxes?

These factors add up to stress.  I’m not really sure why answering the same question a million times is stressful; but, I’m pretty sure that most people find it stressful, especially if it is not ordinary to one’s job.

This is a dangerous recipe if our library leaders wish us to continue to provide excellent customer service.  Oddly, in the past 15 years I’ve worked at quite a few public libraries and not once has leadership prepared staff for the added stress.  The Saint Paul Public Library’s main branch had a nice setup because they funneled people onto an elevator that took them right up to the fourth floor meeting room.  The folks that planned tried to limit the impact on staff as much as possible and most cases succeeded though I’m sure the occasional person wandered into the administrative offices seeking tax help.

I have been feeling short tempered this week.  Not only am I answering the same questions over and over and over; but, when I’m staffing the reference desk I’m also required to shush the folks waiting to have their taxes done.  Contrary to stereotype, we actually don’t like to ask people to be quiet.  Just this morning,  a patron asked me to get the tax people to be quiet and I’ve had to ask them a half dozen times in 2 hours.  That is not only not fun, it’s stressful.  It’s so stressful in fact, if this was a regular thing, I would switch careers.

I’ve been thinking about ways I could have better prepared myself for this stressful time and came up with two tips that probably would have helped me.

1.  Sleep.  I’ve been staying up too late.  At this time, I actually need more sleep not less.  More sleep would give me a little extra reserve in the patience department.

2.  Exercise.  I needed to ramp up the morning and afternoon dog walks, which Henry would appreciate anyway.

These are two things I should have done leading up to this time; but, ultimately, I should address right now to help the next 6 weeks go smoother.

I wonder what leadership could do to help staff through stressful times.  At times when there are organizational layoffs, the surviving staff is stressed and overworked.  Holidays bring added stress to retail workers, package delivery people, restaurants and numerous other businesses.  I worked at Powell’s Books last year and actually served on a small team that was in charge of Christmas season store atmosphere.  Basically, we were in charge of scheduling a seemingly never ending stream of treats and meals to get everyone through the holidays.  Store managers also were acutely aware of the added stress because they also worked the floor and made it quite clear that if we were overwhelmed or over stressed that we just needed to speak up.

What can libraries be doing to help staff through the stress of tax season?  How are we preparing for the stress of the summer reading programs?  Budget cuts?  Stress brings bad customer service and we can’t afford to have that.

Ultimately we are responsible for our own stress levels and our own committment to good customer service.  We are responsible for our cheerfullness and our grouchiness.  What are you doing to relieve job stress?