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Battling Burnout - How to win the invisible war, by Albert Wright, M.Ed.

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

The alarm goes off, & you barely pry your eyes open enough to hit the snooze button for the third time this morning, promising yourself you will definitely get up the next time you hear that horrible beeping. Five minutes later it goes off again, and as you roll over to turn it off, you stretch and take a mental inventory of what is hurting this morning. Ouch…Back hurts, ankle seems a little weaker than yesterday, head pounding, need caffeine stat. You stretch it all out and drag yourself into the kitchen to reheat the coffee that was hot when your alarm when off the first time, but by now is ice cold, or worse, burnt. As you watch the mug spinning slowly in the microwave, you begin to think about the day ahead. Everything seems overwhelming and you lack the energy you used to have. Everything seems so much heavier now, including the extra 20lbs hugging your midsection that seem to have appeared overnight. With no time left to shower, you pull your hair quickly into a messy bun, and brush your teeth quickly between caffeinated sips. The commute to work seems far too short, and before you know it, you are at school, using all your strength to match the energy of the sweet smiling faces who can’t wait for you to get through the door before throwing themselves at your legs.

You think, ‘What in the world happened to me? Six months ago I couldn’t wait to see these kids, to do the important things with them that have lifelong implications, and now I don’t know if I can make it to lunchtime!’

Burnout is a type of psychological stress that creates an invisible battle that doesn't fight fair. You may not even realize you are on your way to getting burned out, so self awareness checks and an increase in your level of self care is imperative for longevity in the education field.

Common sense tells us that educators who are in good mental, physical and emotional health have a greater capacity to work with the children in their classroom and are better able to perform their duties at a higher level of care. But working with children is not always glitter rainbows and unicorns. We are dealing with real families who are dealing with real-life situations and sometimes trauma. That trauma not only affects the children in our care, but can have a direct affect on us as well. Multiply that trauma times the number of children we deal with on a daily basis and things can get overwhelming.

Without proper self-care, this continuous exposure to the trauma of others can lead educators to experience symptoms of the individuals they serve. Individuals in professions that help others, like ours, are likely to develop compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, or even experience traumatic symptoms themselves. Burning out can lead to lead to exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm, feelings of ineffectiveness, and frustration, and as a result, the qualified dedicated educators our children desperately need are burning out, ultimately leaving gaps in care where more children in need are experiencing inconsistent or sporadic care.

Burnout is not a sign of weakness. It is evidence of the cost of working with children who have experienced trauma or abuse and taking the time to show empathic engagement with those affected. We are Caregivers, but we re also responsible for caring for ourselves, so that we can pour back into the lives of those who need us. We cannot meet the needs of children without ever tending to our own needs. Eventually, the well runs dry.

These are some practical and basic ways to practice self care and battle burnout.

Take it Back to Basics – Fuel, Hydrate, Sleep, Move, & Do You

We eat badly when we are stressed, so try to choose healthy food, unprocessed fruits, vegetables, and protein will give you the energy you need, and might even stop you from needing that 3pm latte every day. It sounds so simple, but when we make poor food choices, we don’t have the fuel we need.

Drink ALL the water. Every single day we need to drink half your body weight in water. When we are stressed we forget to drink enough, but everything works better when we are hydrated, our mind, our body, all of it. Staying hydrated will lead to fewer headaches, and better digestion.

Go to sleep at a normal time. Netflix will be there tomorrow, you don’t have to finish that episode. Sleep helps us mentally and physically. If you struggle sleeping because you are worried, a routine can help. Do your best to go to bed at the same time every single night. Create a schedule that allows you to relax before bed. Breathing and mindfulness activities help greatly. Consider Take leaving your electronic devices even phones and iPads out of the bedroom. High quality uninterrupted sleep will help you be ready for the challenges of the next day.

Don’t forget to move. I’m not talking about an expensive personal trainer or membership, start with stretching, 10 minutes a day, then add in a walk in the fresh air. Or if you can’t manage that, do whatever it takes to incorporate movement into your time with in class. Dance parties, obstacle courses, nature walks, it all helps.

Go outside into the fresh air, play. Take a moment to remember why you got into this field. See the sun, close your eyes and feel the warmth on your face. Find a place where you feel safe and nurtured and spend some time there. Take your shoes off and feel the grass or sand under your feet. Stick your toes in the water.

Finally, find an outlet. Figure out something you enjoy, even if you are terrible at it, and do it consistently. Sing loudly, paint wildly, or even just sit somewhere and people watch. Do you. Go to lunch outside the building. Use your paid time off. At work, there is always someone who needs us, another boo-boo to be kissed, a nose to be wiped, and it can be hard to make time for you.Stop worrying, self-care is not selfish. You are simply refilling your own cup all the way back up, so that you are able to pour into all the little cups that need you the most.

Recommended Resources

Newell, J. M., & MacNeil, G. A. (2010). Professional burnout, vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue. Best Practices in Mental Health, 6(2), 57-68.

Peck, N. F., Maude, S. P., & Brotherson, M. J. (2015). Understanding preschool teachers’ perspectives on empathy: A qualitative inquiry. Early Childhood Education Journal, 43(3), 169-179.

Skovholt, T. M., & Trotter-Mathison, M. (2016). The resilient practitioner: Burnout and compassion fatigue prevention and self-care strategies for the helping professions. Routledge.

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