How To Look After Yourself. 4 Tips For Better Teacher Well-being


Key Takeaways

  1. The Danger of Just Doing More – Burnout is real.
  2. Healthy Non-negotiables – What should be on your list?
  3. Work Smarter – Being busy is not enough.
  4. The Power of Pragmatism – Sometimes near enough is good enough.



The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged all human endeavours; education is no exception. However, as the northern hemisphere negotiates their return to school, and the southern hemisphere looks to navigate through one last term before the summer break, have we prioritised teacher well-being in the same way we prioritised student well-being?

You are not on your own if you’re feeling a bit tired and stressed. Whether it is lying awake at night, struggling for the energy you once had, feeling like the boundaries between work and home have been completely blurred or just feeling that this isn’t what you signed up for, many of us are feeling the pinch.

So, what can we do to look after ourselves? Dr Bill Mitchell is a UK based clinical psychologist who specialises in treating anxiety, work-related psychological difficulties, burnout and depression. His book Time to Breathe: Navigating Life and Work for Energy, Success and Happiness provides research-based practical solutions to help you to protect your energy and prioritise what is most important to you.

The Danger of Just Doing More – Burnout is Real

It starts with those emails you need to catch up on, and then you can get up early and finish off that marking, or you work later to do those phone calls home to parents. Then, you find yourself skipping social occasions or missing your ‘you time’. You say to yourself, it’s not forever; you’re just busy at the moment. Then you can start to feel a bit anxious – you’ve done more, but your to-do list at the end of the week is longer than it was at the start. If your fix at this point is teacher equivalent of Boxer’s motto from Animal Farm, ‘I will work harder’, then you could be in danger of burnout.

We are currently living through the third industrial revolution. Continuous access to the internet, limitless information and other digital-based products means that all traditional restraints on work have been removed. Whilst these changes have brought benefits; these benefits have a shadow. It’s easier to punt work to Sunday afternoon when that doesn’t mean physically going to school and it’s now possible to wake at at 3 am and begin checking emails, just in case something has come through. This type of work pressure is unhealthy and unsustainable. This is not to say the work pressure is entirely bad, we need some of it to reach our ‘Optimal zone’ of performance, but there is a sweet spot to this.  

For short periods we can all sustain pressure that drifts into the ‘strain’ area.  However, if this is normalised, we fall into danger of burnout. This means we lose energy and psychological well-being as we juggle competing priorities which overwhelm our mental health. Indeed, Mitchell quips that “burnout is the body’s revenge for neglect and poor choices”.

How do we know if we’re burning out? Mitchell provides six red flags to keep an eye out for:

From Time to Breathe:

“1. I am sleeping less well; I am waking more often, and it takes longer to get back to sleep; my head is busy when I wake in the night; it is taking longer to get off to sleep; I am waking earlier than I usually do.

2. I have become irritable, less patient, less tolerant; I am more easily frustrated than I usually do.

3. I have become withdrawn; I am less approachable; I am less engaged with others. I don’t have the energy to see people.

 4. I feel generally more anxious, more worried that something will go wrong.

5. I am finding it harder to enjoy the sort of things I used to get a lot of pleasure from – work, family, friends, my free time. I feel I am getting less from it.

6. I feel more tired than usual; tired when I get up in the morning. Too tired to do much in the evening


If you are ticking one or more of these boxes, you could be putting yourself at risk of burnout.

Healthy Non-negotiables – What should be on your list?

So, burnout isn’t fun. How can we avoid it? Mitchell suggests that we maintain a focus on keeping our energy up.

From Time to Breathe:

“Energy underpins every aspect of our work performance, our creativity, our ability to problem-solve, and it is critical for sustaining good relationships for a satisfying family life, for having fun. It is crucial for our health, both physically and mentally; for our resilience, which protects us from stress; for the psychological qualities that enable us to deal with change and disruption. If your energy goes, all these are undermined.”


To keep our energy up and keep our stress hormones (such as cortisol) to manageable levels, Mitchell argues that we should all have a number of non-negotiables. Whilst these will be individualised for each person, strong consideration should be given to 5 key stabilisers:

Sleep

Sleep is simply central to our well-being, and adults need at least seven hours of sleep per night for good physical health and psychological functioning. Less than six hours of sleep can destabilise cortisol functioning in the same way as long-term stress. Practising good sleep hygiene is important. This includes no screens before bed, maintaining a sleep routine like always  reading before bed, as well as ensuring you have a work cut-off time that allows wind-down time before you try to fall asleep.

Diet

What we eat impacts our mood and energy levels. It also stabilises our concentration, problem-solving ability, and how we respond to unexpected challenges.  Mitchell has a long list of specific food the have a large range of health benefits. His advice is essentially to maintain a varied but predominantly plant-based diet, high in vegetables with a supporting range of fruits, protein (meat or plant-based), nuts, legumes and whole grains. Effectively, you are what you eat, so don’t eat rubbish processed foods which are especially high in sugar, salt and unhealthy fats. Also, be watchful of stress-induced poor eating habits.

Exercise

Exercise is good for you. There are a whole range of neuro-chemicals and positive body functions triggered by exercise over both the short, medium and long term. You are more likely to be energetic, happy, and successful if you lock exercise in as a non-negotiable. This doesn’t mean that you have to sign up for the marathon; yoga, walking the dog, hitting the gym all count as exercise. The recommendation is a minimum of 30 minutes three times a week.

Breathing

Yes, you are doing this one right now without too much effort. However, Mitchell is advocating for learning diaphragmatic breathing. That is learning to focus on breathing from the diaphragm and slow it to approximately a breath every 8 to 10 seconds. This process can reduce physiological over-arousal and help you to create a sense of calm and control. Some people link this to a specific time of day, e.g. before bed, whilst others may use this as a technique if they become anxious or stressed.

Connection to Nature

This one might make you reconsider your gym membership. Being outdoors in nature has additional benefits in addition to any excise you may be completing. Although Mitchell highly recommends walking in nature, any activity away from an urban environment is simply good for you. From the vitamin D your body is absorbing from the sunlight to the research that suggests being out in nature reduces our likelihood of ruminating on unproductive feelings and thoughts, being outside is important. This nature doesn’t have to be hiking to the top of a mountain; urban city gardens have a positive benefit. Mitchell is also highly recommend gardening as part of this outdoor time.

The important thing with these non-negotiables is that they are not an added extra but a core part of your daily and weekly routine that you prioritise with time and generally stick to the plan.

Work Smarter – Being busy isn’t enough.

Non-negotiables sound excellent, right? But where are you going to find the time? The simple answer is it’s probably not more time you need; instead, you need to be more effective with your current work hours.

Working smarter is not harder is not new ground for this blog; our previous post, ‘How to get important things done’ draws on the work of Cal Newport and explores how to prioritise your most important work whilst minimising distractions and ‘busy work’. Bill Mitchell is a fan of Newport’s work and has some additional suggestions:

Accept that you will never get to the bottom of the to-do list

Teaching is a profession in which most things we do will positively impact our colleagues or our students, which sounds great. The downside to this is there are endless possibilities about how you could improve your practice and your students’ learning. So, the to-do list will never end. Therefore, ensure you focus on the highest-priority tasks and block in quality time to achieve them.

Consider how you manage your emails

Although we touch on this during that Cal Newport post, it is worth repeating; emails are generally somebody else’s to-do list. Close your email client when you are completing work on your high priority tasks. If you are on duty or need to be interrupted, ensure that someone calls you or walks into your office but don’t check your emails. Have set, designated times that you check through and respond to emails, e.g. before school, once or twice during the day and then before you go home. If an email will take a long time to respond to, block it into your calendar as an important task.

Resist interrupting yourself

More than half of all work interruptions are self-created. Think about it, whether it is social media, a newsfeed or finding a colleague for a chat – you probably know what your go-to self-interruptions. So, use them as a reward. Set yourself a timer of between 30 minutes to an hour where you resist the habit of self-interrupting and give yourself a brain break reward at the end.

Negotiate

Of course, some school deadlines must be met. However, if you have a busy few weeks or some family concerns, many of the deadlines to be met in a school can be somewhat flexible. The fact that you are reading this blog post in your spare time means you are conscientious. If something is due Friday but your ticking a lot of burnout boxes, explain your circumstances to your school leadership team. You will be surprised how good leaders are willing to find the time or extend deadlines to help conscientious staff maintain their well-being. But if you don’t tell them, they don’t know.

Have a positive and flexible mindset 

You’ve got to change the way you think before you can change the way you behave.

From Time to Breathe:

…this is a challenge, and that by making the right choices, you will stay on top of it. Some people with too much to do are waiting for their manager to give them less. They have turned themselves into victims; they feel helpless in the face of all the things they have been given to do…Any changes require two things: first, a realisation that our current behaviours aren’t working, and we need to do something differently, the second, a change in mindset. Our attitude needs to change to unlock the flexibility to allow that change in our behaviour to happen.


The Power of Pragmatism – sometimes near enough is good enough.

Finally, how we think about the work we do can influence our well-being. Are you a bit of a perfectionist? Do you walk out of each lesson thinking I could have done better? Whilst self-reflection and striving for ongoing improvement is often an asset, when we aim perfect every time we place ourselves into the burnout zone. Perfect is the enemy of good.

From Time to Breathe:

“Perfectionism is a well-protected mindset. The idea of dialling it down equates negatively with lowering standards and embracing mediocrity. Perfectionism can be turned into a virtue and then you’re in trouble. Perfectionism is no virtue. It is a real handicap to a good life, to a successful life, to a happy, healthy life.”


Mitchell suggests that perfectionists are poor leaders, parents and colleagues, who are more likely to be less productive and at risk of mental health concerns. So, what is the alternative? Mitchell recommends being pragmatic and working in the zone of flexible thinking.

From From Time to Breathe:

“Pragmatists are more focused on what really matters, they know what doesn’t need their time, they get more done, they make faster decisions, they are more agile in the face of an unexpected demand, and they are better adapted to the fast-moving culture of life today…It boils down to being kind to ourselves. Realising no matter how much we would like to do everything perfectly – at work, as parents – we just can’t. Some things will go wrong, but life goes on. We might learn something from it, and while sometimes we don’t, we are no less of a person for this having happened. The core of who we are – hardworking, reliable, likeable, bright – is still there.”


Being pragmatic gives you the licence to make mistakes and go ‘off-piste’. Certainly, we should learn from these mistakes, seek feedback, self-reflect, and strive to be better, but do so with warmth and humour.

Be kind to yourself. Maintaining a happy, healthy and positive outlook means being pragmatic and taking the time to ensure your well-being. Don’t be a martyr; being burnt-out is not your interest or that of your students.  

If you want to hear more from Bill Mitchell (including his lovely Scottish accent), have a listen to this interview


Key Takeaways

  1. The Danger of Just Doing More – Burnout is real.
  2. Healthy Non-negotiables – What should be on your list?
  3. Work Smarter – Being busy is not enough.
  4. The Power of Pragmatism – Sometimes near enough is good enough.