Burnout – Social Isolation: How Do We Help Our Staff Through the Covid Challenge
Framing the problem:
The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He used it to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions. He categorized burnout into three areas: Emotional Exhaustion, Alienation from (work related) activities, and Reduced Performance. I was floored when I read this because I completely identify with these three things!
In summary, exhaustion is the fatigue that comes from caring too much for too long. Alienation is the isolation that we are all feeling; but deeper still is our inability (because we are isolated) to be caring and compassionate in a way we are accustom to ie: a hug, a nod of recognition, or a pat on the back. Lastly, reduced performance. We often feel like we are not making a difference and we are incredibly hard on ourselves when creating lessons. We may have had more time to prepare to teach remotely; however, we have also had more time to be anxious about our performance. The fear of failure and feelings of guilt have intensified as we move through the school year. Increased training, the desire to improve, and the pressure to perform is causing our staff to burn out. An increase of anxiety and worry, can trigger our stress response systems, causing our bodies and brains to move into a survival state where we find ourselves feeling chronically unsafe, dysregulated, and stressed.
Whether we are a School Leader or Staff Member, our primary focus has been on the student. Making sure we deliver the curriculum they need to ensure success at the next level. During this unprecedented time, I often remind myself that the point of a Professional Learning Community is to help the professionals develop with and for each other so that the student receives exactly what they need to master the curriculum.
What I have noticed as a counselor, especially over the past nine months, is that we have been unable to learn with and from our colleagues. The isolation that comes with the Covid Era has made it incredibly challenging for the educator to continue with the collaborative process that is the linchpin to a PLC. We have forgotten how help each other through these challenging times. While there certainly is an uptick in the number of students in both my school and district, who are struggling with anxiety; what I have found is there is a growing number of staff members who are also exhibiting similar symptoms. Much of what happens in our students lives, is directly related to how the adults in their lives are interacting with them. What I see very clearly time and time again is that as the adults behave, the students follow suit. As I coach a variety of school leaders and work with my own staff, I have found that the staff members who practice self-care and care for others are much more resilient when dealing with the strain the Covid era is causing.
Many of the teachers, staffs, and schools that I work with are struggling to either engage and/or reengage with their colleagues and the students they serve. Some schools are virtual, some are a hybrid, and some are attempting to bring the students back. I attribute the struggle to engage with others and burnout with the long period of sustained isolation and the new restrictions on social integration. The impact of burnout and social isolation has a profound and powerful impact on our teaching community. Some of the impact is overt and some of it is very subtle. For example, many teacher teams have celebratory rituals that may include fist bump, handshake, or hug that they must refrain from. Working via video conferencing does not allow for assessment of non-verbal communication, which is equally important as the verbal communication.
We are inherently relational beings, and when we are forced to be removed from our community/social setting, the impact resonates way beyond the limits of our friendships. Anxieties are heightened and our ability to re-form relationships and re-integrate becomes distorted. We are still unclear on the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on our mental health, I have no doubt that we are beginning to witness the immediate emotional impact this period has had on the school community, and in particular the Staff. The sustained isolation and burn out can have a profound impact on a person’s sense of belonging, their sense of worth, their sense of hope, and their sense of trust. This is especially tough for educators who feed off the energy of their students and coworkers, but there are ways to feel more connected!
When we are aware of these sensations and feelings tied to our stress, we can begin to address our mental and physical well-being. Below are practices and strategies that address nervous system regulation and can be implemented in just a minute or two each day.
- Allow yourself time to both recognize and process your emotions. Because emotions have a beginning, middle and end; it is important to see them all the way to the end. When we do not allow ourselves time to process, we can often get stuck in an anxiety loop. Allowing emotions to cycle through us helps to build success and resiliency. Which, in turn, help us handle the academic and social pressure due to COVID-19.
- Give yourself permission to model-show-demonstrate strength and vulnerability to each other and your students. It is okay to appropriately share your struggle and success, AND share how you dealt with both. This modeling can help others be aware and more comfortable with their own feelings of strength and vulnerability, making it less shameful and more normal.
- Find a “lean into” partner (personal and professional). This is not a “commiserate” partner, rather a person who listens, supports, bolsters, strengthens, AND helps to push you to continue moving forward. They are not there to “fix it”. They are here, with you, to support, listen, and encourage forward progress through the fear, uncertainty and unknown. We are relational, so having someone to lean into is vital.
- Self-care is critical. We, in the helping professions, tend to be the worse at this crucial skill. We know, from the airlines, to put our ‘oxygen mask” on first. When we move from the “knowing” to the “doing” we build our own capacity to care for ourselves. Mindful practice is a simple and easy way to practice self-care. What is most important is that you find a healthy practice that works for you and do it consistently.
- Talking out loud to yourself, especially in the third person, can be very beneficial (even if it sounds silly). When you are by yourself, talk yourself through a problem/issue/dilemma. Then, talk yourself through potential options and outcomes – settling on a course of action. When talking to yourself, try adding some positive validation, soothing, and encouraging words.
- Focus on what you can control. When we are feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and worried, we can lose perspective on what is in our control. It can be helpful to create a short list of the things we can control and those we cannot. Sometimes when we are feeling dysregulated, we forget to pause and step back. As educators, we tend to want to fix problems, help troubled students, and quickly find a solution. Sometimes, what can be more beneficial is to let go and observe, allowing the experience to unfold.
- Hum or Sing. Humming and singing activate the vagus nerve. It is associated with functions of the body that are automatic, like swallowing, digesting, and the heart’s beating. It relays signals to the brain that all is well or not. Activating this nerve tells your brain that you are calm and relaxed, while stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system to slow your heart rate and respiration and lower your blood pressure.
- Letting go of the past (spring). Teachers should keep things in perspective and forgive themselves for being less than perfect. This past spring, when transitioned to distance learning, teachers gave it their all instructionally. Despite working under difficult circumstances, they showed love to their students the best they could. Covid-19 has turned everyone’s world upside down and it is important to recognize the fact that everything changed during quarantine. We did not have control, and that is very hard for many of us.
- Mindset! When you wake up in the morning, set your mood right away. “Today is a new day, filled with challenge and success.” “I am ready to face this day – I got this!”
- Freudenberger, Herbert J., and Geraldine Richelson. Burn-out: the High Cost of High Achievement. Bantam Books, 1981.
- Desautels, Lori. “5 Simple Ways to Manage Stress This Year Finding Ways to Process the Challenges of This Year Will Be Critical for Teachers.” 20 Oct. 2020.
- Robbins, Zachary Scott. “How to Make Teaching Online Feel Less Isolating.” 31 Aug. 2020