Earlier this spring, I chuckled while listening to an Alberta educator tell a group of colleagues during a presentation that the term “self-care” can feel like a curse word, especially if it’s used too much. She then showed us a comic of an educator struggling to swim (I interpreted this as drowning in work) while onlookers shouted from the shoreline, “Remember to practice self-care!” I was one of many small faces on the virtual meeting screen smiling and nodding because, as a collective, we understood exactly what she was getting at.
Of course, this educator wasn’t trying to discredit taking time to take care of ourselves. She went on to share an excellent presentation on workplace wellness that covered a range of considerations but the point she was making by sharing the comic was that when people are in a state of substantial burnout, it’s already too late for the quick and easy self-care.
Being told to simply make room for self-care can make people feel their hard work is unrecognized and physical and emotional exhaustion overlooked. For those who are already feeling down, framing self-care as a “quick-and-easy” solution may inadvertently make people feel like they are at fault for not bouncing back after what was truly a tough year. And it was a phenomenally difficult year.
Sometimes, it can be helpful to identify and name how you’re doing, as part of a self-check-in. If you’re fluctuating between emotional exhaustion, a lack of joy and satisfaction at work, and feelings of day-to-day inefficiency (or all the above), then you might be experiencing burnout. If you feel like this, simple self-care is not the cure—it’s the equivalent of using a teaspoon to dig out of a giant emotional hole when you really need a shovel or someone to help you dig. Small actions just aren’t enough to help you feel well.
I invite you to take a moment here and reflect on how you’re feeling as you read this. Does consistent emotional exhaustion, lack of joy or happiness at work, and reduced motivation to work sound familiar?
Many people might broadly identify this as stress or chronic stress. Appropriately matching work demands with feelings of stress can help us for short periods, like when you focus on a particular task to meet a deadline. It’s called a flow state. But working at our peak like this for too long can lead to burnout.
Now reflect on your own experiences or what you’ve seen in others over the past 10 months. Is what you see sustainable in the long-term?
Despite everything I’ve just said, the concept of self-care is actually pretty good, when it’s not oversimplified as a buzzword. It really means being intentional about taking time to do things that you enjoy. If you are feeling low, this can be difficult to do especially if all you want is to sleep or walk away from situations that feel hard to deal with right now. The key here is doing activities that you find enjoyable, without feeling like someone else is making you do it.
A helpful approach is to schedule activities in your not-too-distant future that you can look forward to. For example, you might write down an activity that you want to do this week. While this may seem trivial, it’s a technique used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Our days, and our emotions, often feel lighter and more manageable when we create intentional plans with healthy and enjoyable activities in the immediate future. If you’re interested to know more about CBT, there are online CBT courses available (such as the one for ASEBP covered members here) and CBT is often offered as a style of counselling.
To get started, make a list of things that fill your cup and recharge your batteries. Maybe it’s a long walk while listening to a podcast, spending joy-filled time with your kids, or maybe it’s a made-up errand in another town that creates a good excuse to go for a drive alone. Think about things in the past that have given you a little boost. Or take some time to experiment with a new idea if you’re feeling up to it.
The comic I mentioned at the beginning of this blog reminds me of the cartoons my university instructors and professors would share while I completed my Bachelor of Education degree. These comics often depicted a newly minted educator struggling to keep her head above water, while towing a raft filled with weighty jobs such as lesson planning, creating, and marking assessments, finishing progress reports, and managing student behaviours. In the background, there were a group of well-meaning and supportive colleagues, usually standing on a dock or a boat, ready to offer a helping hand.
I like to think that this scene captures what we’ve all seen across this school year. Without a doubt, we’ve all struggled here and there and yet we’ve made it to the end of the year together, perhaps with renewed appreciation for our relationships and certainly with new skills. And now, a well-earned summer break is fast approaching.
So, here’s my last bit of advice, take it or leave it... Share a smile with a friend, schedule something you enjoy, and put your feet up! You deserve it! Until next year!
Ackerman, C. (2021). 25 CBT Techniques and Worksheets for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
Homewood Health. (2020). Get to Know your EFAP.
Kendrick, et al. (2021). Compassion Fatigue, Emotional Labour and Educator Burnout: Research Study.