Nurturing Resilience: Tips for School Leaders to Prevent or Treat Burnout
written by Tiffany Creager
Working closely with students who have endured trauma can have a profound impact on the mental and physical health of educators. This type of work can lead to secondary traumatic stress, empathic distress, and even burnout. Recognizing and addressing this impact while integrating supportive strategies into the workplace is not only crucial for the well-being of these dedicated professionals but also for boosting morale, increasing job satisfaction, and ultimately enhancing productivity. Keep reading to learn how to recognize burnout, create a supportive work environment, and get tips for prioritizing self-care!
What is Burnout?
Burnout is increasingly more prevalent in school settings and the impact spreads far beyond the walls of the school, but what does it look like? Burnout impacts both the mind and the body. Signs of burnout include:
- Exhaustion (physical, emotional, and mental)
- Reduced sense of personal accomplishment or meaning in work
Reaching a point of emotional exhaustion that limits teachers capacity for connection and meaning making is detrimental to the educator, students, and communities. As leaders, it’s important to stay connected to staff and observe changes in behavior with compassion. While the above listed signs of burnout are evident upon self-reflection, what might it look like to an observer? Watch for changes in behavior that include:
- Increased irritability/emotional response
- Emotional numbing
- Feeling “shut down”
- Loss of enjoyment
- Lack of energy
- A sense of cynicism or pessimism
- Increased illness or fatigue
- Aches and pains
- Increased absenteeism
- Greater problems with boundaries
- Difficulty making decisions or making poor decisions
In considering how to address feelings of overwhelm and burnout, it is important to understand how the work environment might be affecting the individual. We recognize that bearing witness to students and families in distress can create emotional exhaustion, but, have you checked with staff to see if the overall culture of the work environment is supportive or harmful? When addressing prevention and/or treatment of burnout, it is imperative to provide support to both the collective and the individual.
Build a Supportive Work Environment
One of the best things leaders can do is to create a work culture where staff feel supported and valued. Foster open communication, active listening, and regular check-ins to ensure that everyone’s concerns and needs are addressed. There is tremendous power in simply listening. Be honest about what you can and can’t do to provide support and stay consistent in your connection. Set realistic expectations for yourself and guide your staff and students to do the same. Acknowledge that setbacks are part of the process and give yourself grace.
Encourage peer support and mentorship programs within your organization to help staff cope with the challenges they face. This can be as simple as integrating guided questions into monthly team meetings. Give space and time to reflect on questions such as:
- What has been your biggest challenge this week?
- What has been your biggest win this week?
Sharing challenges and wins in community allows staff to connect in a way that can remove an overwhelming feeling of isolation that is common in emotional exhaustion and burnout. Share your stories, practice a self-care strategy together like deep breathing, exercising, or journaling and you’ll begin to notice some of the stress leaving the body!
Offer Opportunities for Growth and Recognition
Invest in the growth and development of your staff. Offering ongoing training and professional development opportunities can help educators stay engaged and motivated. It also equips them with the skills and knowledge needed to excel in their roles, reducing the likelihood of burnout. I know there can be an overwhelming feeling of initiative fatigue in schools these days. Let your staff tell you what they need! Ask them what areas they’d like to grow in. Get their feedback and collaborate with them to find learning opportunities that they’ll be excited about!
Recognize and celebrate the achievements of staff regularly. Acknowledgment and appreciation can boost morale and motivation, reducing feelings of burnout. Encourage peer recognition as well, as it creates a sense of belonging and support within the organization. In fact, peer recognition can feel more meaningful to recipients than acknowledgment from supervisors. Create a fun way for them to brag about their colleagues!
While we recognize the role the work environment plays in overall wellness, prioritizing self-care is also crucial to preventing and treating burnout. Help educators strike a healthy balance between their work and personal lives. Encourage them to set boundaries when it comes to after-hours work and to establish self-care routines that include regular exercise, meditation, quality sleep, and time for hobbies and relaxation. By modeling self-care, leaders can inspire their teams to do the same. Here are some quick tips for prioritizing self-care.
- Focus on Mindset. The brain is wired to seek threats as a protective measure. Change that negative bias to a positive one with simply starting and ending your day with these quick evidence based strategies! (Remind and support staff by checking in and modeling these strategies!)
- Express your emotions! The greatest way to work through all the emotions is to allow ourselves to name them, feel them and work through them. Journal, cry, talk, draw, meditate, exercise – find a healthy release and practice it without judgment.
- Connect! Intentionally plan touchpoints throughout the day and week so that you and your colleagues might be present for one another. Bonus points if laughter is involved!
- Show yourself compassion. Try this self-compassion meditation to get started!
Teachers and educators are essential pillars in shaping the future, but their roles can be emotionally and mentally taxing. By prioritizing self-care, creating a supportive work environment, and offering opportunities for growth and recognition, leaders can prevent and treat burnout effectively. Nurturing their resilience ensures they can continue to inspire and guide the youth they serve with passion and dedication.
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