Building Back from Burnout

Ahskendrick/ June 17, 2022/ HEARTcare

Compassion fatigue is the cost of caring, or the emotional and mental exhaustion experienced by a caregiver who deals with students who have experienced a traumatic event. Burnout is the result of long term, unmitigated stress, and both mental health problems are occupational hazards in caregiving professions. As educational caregivers, teachers and other educational workers, are expected to provide the emotional labour necessary to ensure that their classrooms and schools are safe, happy, and caring environments for students regardless of their own emotional or mental state.

So, educators are feeling emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted. What can they do to recover and rest?

HEARTcare for Educators: Building Back from Burnout

Educational workers are relying too heavily on self care and individual interventions when faced with difficult and challenging workplace problems. While self-care is an important part of a comprehensive mental and emotional health routine, HEARTcare is more important.

HEARTcare is an acronym that stands for scHool, systEm, individuAl, pRofessional, educaTional worker.

HEARTcare is a framework to investigate all the supports and resources available to educational workers recognizing that workplace wellness is a collective responsibility, and that a key aspect of preventing and treating burnout and compassion fatigue addressing the organization as well as the needs of the individual. Workplace wellbeing is both an individual and collective responsibility.

Schools are a Workplace

While attention has been paid to the influence of schools on students, schools are also the workplace for the many adults needed to keep them running. From educational assistants to teachers to school leaders and facility operators, school systems employ adults and can be either a positive or toxic workplace.

I let my work phone die over the summer, and I didn’t look at it at all. So that was good. It was a good way to set a boundary. (Melanie, school leader)

Schools are Part of a Larger System

Individual schools do not operate in isolation from the local community, provincial government, or each other. While individual educational workers may try to act as a buffer between ineffective policy, inadequate funding, or intensification of work expectations and their students, these forces have a direct pressure on their ability to stay emotionally and mentally well. Educational workers may try to shield their students from racist curriculum or provide basic necessities if they see their students are hungry or unwell, but without the support of provincial and district policy-makers to address the conditions that cause childhood poverty, homelessness, or overwork, educational workers can feel helpless or hopeless, key risk factors for compassion fatigue.

To rebuild hopefulness, read and investigate stories to promote reconciliation, or create a beautiful return to school lesson that will re-ignite your compassion and empathy.

Being empathetic is . . . not necessarily part of my job role, but it’s just part of being a good human being. (Lindsay, support staff)

Individual Self-Care

For HEARTcare planning to work, however, individuals need to take some time to investigate their own sources of stress and distress, the many supports and resources available to them, and then reach out for help if they begin to feel overwhelmed, angry, or distant from the children, youth, and colleagues in their circle of caring. Educational workers also need to accept that being a good teacher or leader does not mean accepting that overwork and burnout are ‘just part of the job’.

I think the most challenging piece [during the COVID-19 shutdown] was that providing supports did not feel genuine because of the distancing and because of all the barriers put in place, and we know that those families or those students and those teachers were struggling enormously. At times, it felt like you were just putting band-aids on things. (Amber, system leader)

Individuals holding school and system leadership roles see, and also feel helpless in the face of student and colleagues’ distress. Part of individual self-care is also accepting that the system leadership is not out to hurt and demean its people and those people are struggling as well. The educational system is made by and for human beings, having both flaws and promise, we can make it better for everyone who works inside that system.

Professional and Expert Help

While educational workers have admitted to accessing help from medical professionals, many expressed that a strong stigma was attached to both accessing and admitting need for expert help in educational settings. However, those who did get help or took a leave to recover from trauma noted that these actions were integral to their return to positive mental health.

I’ve given my heart, my soul, my blood, sweat and tears, and I’m only a number. Please, take what I give you [in this interview] so that nobody else goes through this [expletive]. Get on them early. Teach them how to take care of themselves early. Because I guarantee you, . . . if you pass away, your job is going to be in the newspaper before your obituary will be. And if we don’t learn to take care of ourselves first, there is no way—no way—we can take care of kids. (North, teacher)

Educational Work is Unique

Working with children and youth is an important job, and as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, absolutely crucial to the functioning of a cohesive society. But, no one wants to end up burned out and apathetic, like the teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or cruel and misunderstood like Professor Snape from the Harry Potter series.

Take time this summer to listen to your heart and do what you need to do be become well.