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Together in Wellness

by Brendan Wohlers ASEBP | September 3 2020

There’s little doubt that things will not be the same this school year as they were prior to COVID -19. The structure of our lives has shifted—we drive less, are at home more and flock to outdoor recreation, and, with a return to school imminent, there’s more than a little worry in the air. In the news and from our friends we hear worries about how students, teachers, parents and other school staff will react and adjust in the coming months. For many educators, the return to school will be the largest change to your teaching craft in many years. You’ll come as prepared as possible, but know you’ll have to learn and grow as the year unfolds.

It can sometimes feel like things are overwhelming—this September might feel more like a Stress-tember with all the potential changes and challenges! That emotional stress is both natural and normal, and it’s important to recognize that this is new territory for all of us, with upheaval across all aspects of our lives. However, it’s easy to get caught up in the negatives and find yourself stuck in a downward spiral thinking about them. This is called negativity bias.

Negativity bias is a psychological notion where, when we receive lots of information, we tend to notice and focus on the negative more than the positive. You might’ve encountered this idea before—it’s become a very popular topic in many books and magazines. This response can actually aid us by playing an important role in our lives. It helps our brains remember, learn and adapt—like when you stub your toe on your bed frame and need to remember to avoid it next time! It’s our brain’s way of trying to get us to prepare for upcoming challenges. But it can also make our brains highlight things that are negative, like when you read a newspaper and more easily remember certain headlines, then think about them later when it’s not really relevant. Without being properly attentive to it, it can influence how we think about the future—and convince us it’s going to be all doom and gloom. Here are a couple of stories about how to work through this bias.

Stories of Working Through Negativity

Speaking of news headlines, I was at a great mental health presentation in central Alberta in June where a champion teacher was speaking. He took some time to share his personal journey with mental health—it was inspiring to see such honesty and vulnerability. He talked about a feeling of negativity in the world right now and shared some great advice: besides limiting your news consumption, choose positive music, podcasts and media rather than listening to anything and everything. For him, he drew his line in the sand by weighing the necessity of keeping up with recent events against the effect it would have on his mood and life.

Here’s another story, this one for the history buffs. Many years ago, in 1940, the city of London braced for bombers coming their way. The eventual impact was huge and certainly resulted in a substantial amount of grief and loss. Prior to the bombing, however, while they were planning their recovery efforts, both political leaders and the media expected panic and pandemonium to erupt—an example of the negativity bias at work. Instead, as one doctor reported, while going out to treat the wounded afterwards, people carried on as usual, or even more kindly than usual. Children played in the streets, shoppers kept shopping and neighbours helped each other. Another observer, an American journalist visiting after the bombing, noted that “the courage, humor and kindliness of ordinary people continue to astonish under conditions that possess many of the features of a nightmare.” In that exceptional time, people continued to take care of those in their community—perhaps even more than before.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic is very different than wartime in 1940, but the capacity of people to step forward and help each other remains the same. In recent years, we’ve done a great job of building a strong education community here in Alberta. Though we might not be able to hug anymore or give a high five, we’re all still here for each other in the ways that matter! After all, we know that caring people and caring school communities can be found throughout Alberta.

What Can You Do for Yourself?

  • Try to be mindful of when you find yourself gravitating towards consistently negative conversation topics—even self-talk. Flip that into positive talk to work around negativity bias.
  • Try to think about positives and real challenges. Talk positively to yourself, with your colleagues and students—and when thinking about the future! Try to reframe your thinking to win-win situations.
  • Limit your media consumption to only what you need. It can become a harmful habit to be consistently looking at news headlines—instead, dedicate that time to other activities, like exercise or recreation. Encourage time for yourself. Schedule walks or other physical activity during your day, perhaps an active commute or even time for reflective journaling.

How Can You Continue to Be a Health and Wellness Champion in the Workplace?

  • Keep going with your workplace wellness efforts! Regular human needs haven’t changed despite the new stresses. Physical, social-emotional and mental well-being remain important to protect, perhaps more than ever.
  • Be consistent and succinct with your workplace communication. As stated so wisely in this pandemic mental health guide, “Clarity is Compassion.”
  • Be aware of what the trends and needs are in your school and division. Check out the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s infographic about the latest research into educator well-being here in Alberta or check out this recent Sandblog.
  • It’s easy to get a bit of tunnel vision, especially when we’re super busy and working under stress. Take some time and reflect with your team on the people and things in your workplace that you usually don’t interact with and ask your team how you can support inclusively.
  • Plan for early and regular check-ins with colleagues. Ready yourself to give and ask for trust, empathy, mutual understanding and vulnerability. These times aren’t normal, so expectations may need to be adjusted.
  • Promote Homewood Health, and contact them if you need it. Whether you’re leading adults or children, they have many, many supports available to help.
  • Get copies of ASEBP’s Health Planner for your team and staff, a resource free for all ASEBP covered members. To place a bulk order for your school or division, simply email wellness@asebp.ca. Like this blog, this year’s is aptly titled “Together in Wellness,” and filled with loads of good reading and activities for workplace wellness. New this year, we’ll also be posting companion pieces right here on The Sandbox, based on each of the Planner’s monthly themes—so check back each month for the latest!

September will be stressful. But, just like last September and the September before that, it’s also a time of bringing together a community of people to learn and look toward the future. One day, we’ll look back and ask each other what we were doing during the pandemic. Wouldn’t it be nice to say we were together in wellness?

Brendan Wohlers

An ASEBP workplace wellness consultant with a Master of Science in School Health Promotion, Brendan’s a wellness enthusiast who brings extensive experience in health promotion to his work. And while he may be woefully out of touch with pop culture references generally (the names of famous actors being a particular problem), he more than makes up for that by being able to not just ride his bike but actually turn it—without holding the handlebars! That’s pretty cool, Brendan.