Teaching has always been a demanding profession associated with high levels of stress, but two years into the pandemic and the pressure on teachers has compounded, and then some. Teachers continue to be pushed to their mental and emotional limits, evidenced in recent reports that more than 10,000 teachers left the profession in 2021.
While most teachers say they find education highly rewarding, they nevertheless continue to manage a range of expectations beyond those experienced in the usual workplace. A heavy workload, time-pressures, workplace relationships, organisational culture, and decision-making are all common workplace demands, but coupled with the added pressure of classroom management, educational reform, COVID-19 disruption, extension to syllabus, pressure from parents, and a high administrative responsibility, it’s not hard to understand why teachers are feeling overwhelmed, stressed and potentially at breaking point in the current environment.
In moderate circumstances, short bursts of stress can sharpen how we react, make us highly alert and drive productivity in the face of pressure. In its most beneficial form, stress can result in us working harder and doing more to find a resolution to a challenge or problem. When stress intersects with overwhelm; however, we can begin to feel less motivated and unable to tackle a growing number of challenges.
Those working in the school environment are frequently managing unpredictable situations that are often outside a teacher’s control but quickly become a duty of theirs to supervise. These situations, if not managed appropriately, can lead to further negative stress, further damaging to job performance, increasing the risk of burnout and adversely impacting overall mental health.
Against a growing mountain of stress and overwhelm there are a few simple practices that could be introduced to help manage ongoing stress. Not only are these practices proven to aid in safeguarding against stress, but they can also promote the ability to switch off at the end of the working day. Alone, each element can take just a few minuntes to enact, but combined into a daily routine they create a strong foundation for positive mental health and a toolkit for handling both sustained or momentary stressful situations.
Below are a few basic practices that can help relieve the impacts of negative stress and overwhelm:
Short mental breaks
A beneficial break need only be a few minutes long, and can take place, for example, once students have been dismissed for recess or even during a quiet reading session. Short mental breaks can reduce mental fatigue, boost brain function, promote calm, and reduce frustration.
Focused breathing can also be used in the short time between starting and concluding different tasks, releasing stress and creating clarity before moving into a new activity. Focused breathing can reset how we hold stress in our bodies, creating calm rather than eliciting a stress response.
Catch, check, change
Another valuable tool is the ‘catch, check, change’ strategy. When you encounter a negative thought, pause to catch it, then check it to determine whether it is true, valid or helpful. If not, change it to be more realistic and positive. This is a highly effective strategy and safeguards against the common negative thinking traps that lead to unhelpful responses and emotional spill over. Learn your personal emotional cues to identify negative behaviours and shift your attitude into a more constructive and beneficial response.
But the best stress management practices are those enacted as a preventative measure, and can be more easily done at home. Carving out a daily practice routine is in your best interest—it can add structure to your day, support your overall well-being and help pave the way for growing resilience.
Good sleep habits
A structured sleep habit aims for 7 to 8 hours a night with a regular bedtime and wake up time – even on the weekend. Leave devices outside the bedroom and wind down with a mentally and physically calming activity like reading or a hot bath. A good sleep practice can be a welcome boost to those who continually function at a fast pace in a high stress environment.
Aim to make time for regular physical exercise. Being active every day can work wonders for the brain, increasing mental clarity and long-term resilience, not to mention the mood boost provided by post-exercise endorphins. This could be as simple as a 10-minute walk or a disciplined 30-minutes of jogging a day.
Despite the pressures of work – or perhaps because of them – it’s also vitally important to maintain healthy and emotionally supportive relationships outside of the school campus. Having strong, positive relationships with family and friends is vital for maintaining mental well-being and can help protect mental health when stressful circumstances arise.
Celebrate the wins
At the end of each day make a list of the positive things that happened, even if it was just a quick laugh shared with a colleague. Focusing attention on things that did go well, or the simple pleaaures experienced in a day makes it easier to leave work stress at work, and to switch off.