Home | Opinion | Self-care: the critical reason why school staff and leaders must prioritise their own wellbeing without feeling guilty

Self-care: the critical reason why school staff and leaders must prioritise their own wellbeing without feeling guilty

The reality of schools (for as many years as I have worked in education) is that teachers, Principals, and school staff more broadly run the gauntlet each term at frenetic pace, often collapsing physically and emotionally at the finish line. For many, holidays are spent recovering from exhaustion, sickness, with a short window to reenergise the batteries, and quickly, before doing it all over again next term. Historically, this was a seemingly more manageable task than it is now in 2018. However, the speed and volume at which staff move in contemporary schools is mindboggling, and it is fast becoming obvious that this is no longer a reliable or healthy way to approach the school year.

Considerations and approaches to staff mental health and wellbeing fundamentally need to be considered, fit for the context of schools, and planned for (both personally and across the school organisation). This must be an architected space rather than an accidental haphazard occurrence. It also needs to be strengthened from a prevention base as opposed to mere intervention. The foundations of good self-care and wellbeing in an organisation means healthy management and support where professionals thrive while maintaining a reasonable baseline of wellbeing and health versus waiting for cumulative harm in workforces and only tackling it from a deficit model, which seems to be mere damage control. Sadly, in my experiences and in my conversations with educators there is a significant amount of guilt attached to self-care, and while there is great rhetoric about the necessity of it, very few school organisations have found ways to deeply embed it in their culture void of individual value judgement. The perception is that it's “fluff”, or that privileging time for self-care is a luxury and means less time to do the 'actual' work.

On the contrary its fast becoming a moral, economic and high performance imperative for organisations who see significant (and quick) changes to team performance and baseline results when applying self-care and staff wellbeing thinking and strategies to their Monday to Friday existence. It is now undeniable that staff wellbeing and mental health will, over the next five years, become a significant priority and expectation for school leaders and staff. Maybe this endorsing culture will very quickly challenge the notion of “guilt”, “fluff”, and “luxury”. Hopefully the mental health approaches catch up to our absolute acceptance of the importance of physical health.

Another outdated and perhaps antiquated view is that resilience (in Australia) means weathering and standing in a stoic fashion while suffering through stressful or distressing periods and coming out rock solid on the other side. We are now realising that resilience must be a more fluid concept: when experiencing stress or distress, moving with that situation or emotion experiencing the distress, allowing yourself to be vulnerable if needed, and finding strength in how you regulated your way through the event.

Why is self-care the new thing?
For a long time looking after yourself (as an educator) was an afterthought. We would only consider self-care when we are already well down the track of exhaustion and accumulated stress. It was driven by deficits and we waited until breaking point to intervene rather than from a prevention perspective. By definition self-care is understanding your own personal health and wellbeing and having knowledge of, and access to, a variety of strategies that not only prevent poor health but we can call upon to stop a situation of poor health worsening. This includes learning to identify activities and practices that support wellbeing as a professional and help to sustain positive self-care in the long-term.

A great analogy when thinking about self-care is the 'oxygen mask'. Everyone has boarded a plane and heard the mandatory airline safety briefing. In it, the oxygen mask is to be placed on 'you' first before assisting anyone else. Teachers and school leaders often feel guilty about looking after themselves and prioritising activities that will maintain or build their own good mental health. However, using the oxygen mask analogy shows the reason that school staff must find time to ensure that they take care of themselves first. After all, a healthy, energised, and engaged teacher makes for a healthy, energised and engaged classroom.

A great way to reframe how school staff feel about mental health, wellbeing, and self-care is to apply the same thinking they have towards physical health to mental health. Many school staff prioritise time and money maintaining physical health through paying for gym memberships, purchasing matching active wear and sneakers, or finding a few hours a week to get out and be active. What if school staff were encouraged to do the same for their mental health?

Finding time and prioritising mental health is just as important, if not more so. Another thing for school staff to consider is how early they seek help when they are feeling wobbly or like they are not travelling okay in the world. We often tell people around us about physical ailments, discuss them, and seek professional help within days or a week of noticing the problem. Imagine if we applied the same rationale to our early mental health concerns. Evidence shows that the earlier school staff are encouraged to seek help for a mental health issue or concern the better the likely outcome overall.

Self-care for the holidays
At headspace, we are very aware that looking after our mental health is crucial in enabling us to live our lives in positive and meaningful ways, and to cope with life’s changes and challenges.
For school staff, recharging their batteries and getting back some balance is one of the most important things to start the year (2019) fresh and rejuvenated.

Some of these recharging activities might include:

  • Sleep is the key: Sleep is one of the most central elements to good or poor mental health. Good sleep hygiene can make a world of difference to an individual’s functioning. Find a consistent and healthy sleep pattern. Reduce light stimulus, reduce screen time and stimulus an hour before bed. Have a cool sleeping room temperature.
  • Get into nature: Oxygen, moving, fresh air and activity are all perfect ways to regain your balance and improve your mood. Being in nature and outdoors doing activities can release serotonin and dopamine.
  • Connect: Being with other people, being a part of a club, or connecting with others just to check in improves our sense of belonging and connectedness and can help maintain positive moods or help shift lower or flat moods. Often when we are feeling “not great” interactions with others is the first to suffer.
  • Consider what goes in your mouth: Sometimes when we have a flat mood we can make less healthy choices about what we consume. Getting a balanced diet and having an alcohol free day here and there can help with finding balance over the Christmas and New Year festive period.
  • Switch off: The holidays are a great time to get away from screens, emails, social media and switch off all devices. Be conscious of how much time you are using on your devices and take a break to enjoy other things in life. Find ways to clear your head of busy-ness, head noise, ruminating thoughts, and be conscious of being present and having a clear mind. This can reduce feelings of anxiety or depressive moods when you have a lowered threshold. Mindfulness and meditation are a perfect 3-5 minute recharge and don’t underestimate what a battery boost and balance it will give you.

Another great tip we use at headspace is the “NIP - it in the bud process”. It’s a simple process to check in with ourselves, or someone else, if we are noticing things aren’t okay.

We have found it useful to focus on three simple steps: NIP = Notice, Inquire, Plan

Notice: What have you noticed about how you are feeling, thinking and acting. You may feel relieved, excited or happy about the year just gone. You may also notice that you have recently had difficulty sleeping, been choosing less healthy eating or drinking habits, you are easily irritated for no particular reason, or been feeling unusually stressed or worried.

Other things you (or others) may notice about you include:

  • a noticeable change in how you are feeling and thinking
  • feeling things have changed or aren’t quite right
  • changes in the way that you carry out your day-to-day life
  • not enjoying, or not wanting to be involved in, things that you would normally enjoy
  • changes in appetite or sleeping patterns
  • being easily irritated or having problems with friends and family for no reason
  • a reduced tolerance and coping threshold
  • finding your performance at work is not as good as it used to be
  • increased consumption of alcohol/smoking as a maladaptive coping mechanism
  • feeling sad or ‘down’ or crying for no apparent reason
  • having trouble concentrating or remembering things
  • having negative head noise, ruminating, or distressing thoughts
  • feeling unusually stressed, distressed, anxious, or worried.

Inquire: You might ask yourself/or someone else, what do you think is causing these changes. In fact someone else may notice them in you and raise it with you. It’s also important to stop and reflect on how long you have been feeling like this: should I talk this through with someone, and can I articulate what exactly it is that I’m experiencing or feeling. A really great tip is the “out of 10 scale”. For example; asking if 10 represents amazing functioning, happy, healthy, calm, and operating at full resilience – and 1 represents the complete antithesis of these things, breaking point, and the highest distress or the poorest health … then where does your wellbeing rate on that scale right now. Why do you think you are at that rating? How long have you been at that rating? What could improve your rating in the short term/long term?

Plan: Now is a great time to plan to address some of the stressors and imbalances you have. Both over the Christmas break and well into 2019. Even though most of us are aware of the many positive things we can do to promote our health and wellbeing – for example get more sleep, exercise more, set aside time to do things you enjoy, quarantine some quiet time for meditation or relaxation away from emails, social media or binge watching, etc – it is often hard to do these things in the lead up to the holiday season. Nevertheless, how can you build these strategies into your plans for next year?

The holiday period might also be a good time to think about whether you could do with some professional support in exploring issues that weighed you down during 2018. Sometimes friends and family can be good for exploring and addressing concerns. Often we also like an independent ear too, someone who is able to listen objectively and help you consider strategies from new perspectives. This is not a sign of weakness, rather of strength and resourcefulness. This may include your GP, a counsellor, or another related professional.

Above all, as you approach the end of this year, be kind to yourself – reflect on what you have achieved and how you have managed from a strengths perspective. Also, never underestimate the influence your behaviour and attitude to mental health and wellbeing can make a difference to those children, young people, and even adults around you.

headspace would like to thank all of the Australian teachers, school leaders, and staff for your hard work in 2018. Thank you for everything you do to take care of the children and young people that you educate and please don’t forget it’s just as important to take care of you.

Kristen Douglas is the Head of headspace in Schools, the National Youth Mental Health Foundation.

For counselling or crisis support over the school holidays contact:

beyondblue 1300 22 46 36

Lifeline 13 11 14

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One comment

  1. Thankyou for this article. I am taking a year of personal leave in 2019 because ultimately after 32 years of educatiin I wish someone some mentor or leader would have said self care is important. There is so much beyond the job of teaching. I consider my current principsl a leader in valuing self care and supporter of my year off. I will be sharing this article with my colleagues. Thankyou

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