Kristin McDonald is a professor and Associate Chair of Human Services and Sociology at Post University
Over the past two years, we have all had the wonderful opportunity to get re-acquainted with the four walls around us. At this point in my pandemic life, I think every room in my home has been organized or had a facelift. While so many of us had the opportunity to reimagine our work, family, and personal lives, my transition to full-time life at home was not all cupcakes and rainbows.
Once the dust settled from unexpectedly moving our main campus courses to a virtual space, my calendar quickly began to fill up with meetings, my inbox exploded, and my chat apps were constantly pinging. This increasing demand to be present and accessible at work was partnered with the need to guide my children through virtual kindergarten and preschool and manage life at home. On any given day, I went from collaborating with colleagues to engaging with adult learners, and from managing virtual classroom logins with twenty 5-year-olds to simple addition whiteboard lessons. As the pressure to perform heightened, so did my stress levels, and in turn, my health started on a downward spiral. I was always tired and my eating habits were off-balance. I was barely finding time to be active, beyond walking from one room in my house to the next. I started to hit a wall and felt completely unmotivated every morning as I would pour my coffee and sit in front of my computer. I found myself going through the motions without feeling any emotions.
Isn’t This Just Normal Stress?
Working with students in the human services field, teacher burnout is something I talk about regularly. Burnout occurs as a result of prolonged stress and can often cause us to feel a lack of emotional responsiveness or a negative attitude. When we take on too much or feel that we are not receiving enough support, our stressors can begin to pile up over time. When experiencing burnout, we may begin to withdraw, question our personal success, and feel that we have less energy to devote to our work. Since burnout occurs over a long period of time, it can feel like there is no end in sight. This can ultimately lead to experiencing hopelessness, numbness, or anxiety. At a time when the world seems to be imploding, it is no surprise that faculty stress levels are at an all-time high.
Acknowledging Teacher Burnout
As Faculty Senate President, I found myself speaking to colleagues even more frequently while in our virtual world. I was hearing story after story of people feeling overwhelmed, unhappy, and carrying added stress and trauma as a result of the struggles their students were facing. As I was coaching my colleagues through their own experiences of teacher burnout and compassion fatigue and leading check-in chats, I realized that I was not alone. While this brought a level of comfort, I also felt more frustrated knowing that my colleagues were struggling to stay afloat and silently carrying that burden every day.
Engaging in Self-Care
Once I acknowledged my burnout, I realized I needed to take control and focus on self-care. I sought out medical treatment, established boundaries with my work schedule, and found more time in my day to focus on myself. I immediately saw my physical and mental health improve drastically. Making small changes in our daily lives can make a world of difference! A self-care plan does not have to include exotic travels or a full day at the spa. It can simply be taking 15 minutes to practice mindfulness, joining a book club, or taking a hot shower to clear your head. When we have a self-care plan in place, we can begin to bounce back from burnout and establish a balance to manage our ongoing stressors and responsibilities.
As I felt myself regaining control, I realized the need to talk about my struggles and encourage my colleagues to focus on their own well-being. As educators, we often focus on caring for others first which leaves us susceptible to neglecting our own needs. I began to reframe our group chats and create opportunities for folks to share tips and strategies to practice self-care. This opportunity to connect on a deeper level and collaborate to plan for a healthy future helped many of us to improve our sense of self-worth, identify vulnerabilities, and reinvest ourselves in our work with a better perspective.
It has been months since my teacher burnout peaked and I can gladly say my self-care plan has been working! I now put up an out-of-office email every Friday at 5 p.m., giving myself permission to check out for the weekend. I also schedule a daily lunch break for myself, setting aside time to close my computer and shut off my brain. The most important self-care strategy for me is giving myself permission to be human and leaving non-emergent tasks for the next day. Before wrapping up my workday, I take a few moments to focus on the things I accomplished that day and celebrate my hard work.
Developing Your Own Self-Care Plan
It is always hard to acknowledge when you have taken on too much or are simply having a hard time sifting through the responsibilities life throws at you. If I learned anything at all these past two years, it is that so many of us are in the same boat. While it may still be hard, opening the door to discuss how burnout can be cathartic helps us to engage in courageous conversations that can lead to change. Even if you are not ready to talk openly about your own teacher burnout, acknowledging your needs and developing a self-care plan can assist you in coping and moving forward. If you are ready to develop your own self-care plan, here are a few suggestions:
- Assess your own needs. Are you finding that you are not taking care of your personal health? Are you neglecting personal relationships? Think about the areas of your own life that need attention!
- Make note of the stressors or vulnerabilities you are struggling to address. These stressors may change over time, depending on life circumstances.
- Think about what has worked for you in the past. Reflect on the hobbies or activities that bring you joy and find ways to dedicate more attention to them!
- Schedule time for yourself! These might be small steps like scheduling time in your workday to be active or finding time to meet up with a friend.
- Acknowledge that there may be challenges and give yourself a break! If there is anything the pandemic has taught us, it is that life is far from linear. Know that your self-care plan may change and that being flexible can help keep you on a continued path to prevent burnout.
Want to learn more about identifying and preventing compassion fatigue and burnout? Check out When Caring Hurts: Compassion Fatigue in Higher Ed, presented by Dr. Alison DuBois & Dr. Molly Mistretta.