Protecting educators' mental health during the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on everyone, but has proven especially stressful for educators. They're putting their own health on the line while also overseeing the educational and emotional well-being of their students.

It's easy to get burned out with so much at stake, especially with uncertainty over the safety of in-person teaching and constant changes to routine.

That's why it's important for school administrators to provide tools to support efforts to address any COVID-19-related mental health issues among their staff members.

Burnout and fatigue are problems that cannot be ignored. A survey of kindergarten through 12th grade teachers found that 81% feel uncertain about the future, 77% feel stressed and 74% feel overwhelmed.

We spoke with experts Chris Janowicz, Pinnacol Assurance senior claims representative, and Liliana Tenney, director, Health Links, Colorado School of Public Health, to get insights on how to help educators in the current environment.

According to Janowicz, some of the problems exacerbating the current pandemic stress include inconsistent school district rules and frequent changes that impact employees in different ways.

"Some teachers are wondering, 'Am I even helping the students and their development right now?'" Janowicz said. "They are thankful to work, but many of the benefits they once found in teaching have been lost."

Mental health support: How employers can help

Here are some ways principals and school district can help support teachers’ mental health.   

1.   Show grace to teachers

Students aren't the only ones dealing with trauma from the pandemic. Just as teachers are encouraged to show grace to their students when they fall behind on assignments, employers should in turn demonstrate that same grace to teachers.

Tenney notes, "Teachers' mental well-being should come first so that they can then care for students. Administrators and parents should recognize the toll the pandemic is taking on teachers and provide them with appreciation and empathy in all they do."

Watch for
signs of burnout, such as fatigue, irritability, missed deadlines, extra absences, lack of concentration, or frequent expressions of negativity or cynicism.


2.   Provide physical and mental health resources

Teachers may not avail themselves of mental health assistance if they're working from a remote classroom. Encourage them to take  time off for doctor's appointments, mental health days and COVID-19 vaccinations.

Does your school focus on teachers' mental and physical well-being? Employee assistance programs can also provide valuable mental health resources.

"Teachers could be getting stuck in a rut working remotely," Janowicz said. "They're likely stuck at home, maybe alone."

Pinnacol Assurance has seen an increase in ergonomic injuries since the pandemic started, according to Janowicz.

"They might be using a cardboard box to put the computer in the right spot," Janowicz said. "They're often craning and hunched over. They're spending a lot of time on screen."

School districts should ensure teachers have not only the right technology but also the best ergonomic resources. Tenney says remote work is an opportunity to remember how important health and safety are regardless of where we work. "Providing resources is good, but finding ways to engage workers to use them is even better."


3.   Take proactive steps to minimize stress

To help reduce stress on teachers, flexibility is key.

Districts may want to consider changes such as scheduling classes for only four days a week so teachers can use the fifth for planning, allowing for asynchronous learning, and designating some teachers for only virtual learning and others for only in-person classes.

Schools might need to hire more educators, classroom aides or tech support workers to reduce the workload. The Missouri Board of Education passed an emergency pandemic rule making it easier to become a substitute teacher, while Iowa relaxed substitute requirements.


4.   Demonstrate that safety is a top priority

Communicate regularly about health and safety concerns. An NPR/Ipsos poll found that 77% of teachers were worried about risking their health when returning to the classroom.

Make it a priority to ensure that teachers have all the safety equipment they need and to provide online trauma training, among other guidance.

Hold daily briefings with administrators and teachers to create a safe spot for people to share concerns.

Can you reduce classroom sizes to allow for social distancing? Are the classrooms well ventilated? Are you providing personal protective equipment for teachers?


5.   Check in regularly

During your usual conversations, check in on the teachers you're managing. Ask them questions that will help draw out how they're feeling, such as  "How is work going?" or "How are you managing the current environment?"

Some are so overwhelmed that they're pulling 13-hour days or more. "We're overall seeing people take less paid time off," Janowicz said. “Remote work may impact the balance between work and life."

Encourage teachers to take time off and maintain a work-life balance. By checking in with teachers, you can help create an empathetic school culture. Look for leaders in your administration who embody this mindset and ask them to act as one-on-one mentors.


6.   Follow up on teachers' suggestions

Ask for teachers' input and take their concerns seriously.

This can include using anonymous questionnaires to ensure you're getting honest assessments of the workload and mental health of your staff. Demonstrate that you are taking concrete steps based on their responses.

Teachers who are afraid to speak out about their stress are more likely to get burned out and possibly quit.


Advice for teachers

When the administration is looking out for its teachers, then teachers can better look out for themselves. Here are some tips teachers can use to reduce burnout.


1.   Give yourself grace

If you're feeling down, it's perfectly natural. If you're too run down to get everything done, that's OK. If you feel like your teaching is a little off one day, that's OK.

COVID-19 fatigue is a legitimate feeling, so give yourself grace. Remember that you're making a real and lasting difference in your students' lives.


2.   Make a change

Sometimes the key to avoiding burnout is making a change.

Maybe it's time to teach a different grade, change subjects or even switch to a different school. Or you could qualify for a sabbatical or even consider going back to school.


3.   Practice self-care

Teachers who are tasked with taking care of students need to take care of themselves first.

Self-care might be as simple as setting a routine to eat healthier meals, exercising regularly, going for a short walk or talking with a friend.
Maybe it's a hobby outside of work, such as virtual yoga classes, brewing beer, going for a drive or gardening.
Admitting you need help is sometimes the strongest thing you can do. Getting mental health support is not a sign of weakness.

Peer-to-peer collaboration can be a huge help too. Look for online resources to help with virtual education or dealing with student trauma.

Teachers aren't the only employees in need of help

Teachers aren't the only employees at risk in schools right now. Janowicz said that many people with positions that aren't remote also feel the impact, including custodial employees, bus drivers, maintenance staff, mechanics, facilities managers and even nutritional services providers.

"Janitors and bus drivers get overlooked even without the COVID-19 situation — they are often getting hurt the most," Janowicz said. "Some of them might not have a job to return to. There's no certainty."

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