On My Mind: Shifting the Culture of Overwork to Self-Care

Fall 2020

By Donna Orem

on-my-mind-(1).JPGThe past several months have tested our endurance physically and emotionally. Crises take their toll on the human spirit. And the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice are greatly affecting our communities.

In mid-April, Gallup released data about how Americans were faring and found a precipitous drop in well-being, which they assess through five interrelated elements: sense of purpose, social relationships, financial security, relationship to community, and physical health. The research identifies some alarming numbers: Stress, a number that usually stays constant over time, had risen 14 percentage points since July 2019, and worry increased 21 points. The percentage of Americans experiencing significant daily enjoyment had also dropped 20 points.
According to Gallup, “In practical terms, about 53 million more adults were suffering from significant worry on any given day in late March/early April 2020 than were experiencing the same emotion back in July and August last year.” And for Black Americans, the stress is even higher than the national average, as they disproportionately lose family members to COVID-19 and endure the effects of systemic racism.

Where School Communities Are

Diane Meyers and Leonard Zunin, medical experts in trauma and loss, developed a conceptual framework of disaster response and recovery that is widely used, including by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in its Training Manual for Mental Health and Human Service Workers in Major Disasters. The framework describes the six emotional stages people experience in a crisis and their various impacts.
  1. In the Pre-disaster phase, people experience fear and uncertainty. Disasters with no warning cause feelings of vulnerability and lack of security, while disasters with warning cause guilt or self-blame for failure to heed the warnings.
  2. In the Impact phase, people experience a range of intense emotional reactions. The specific reactions depend on the type of disaster that is occurring, with slow, low-threat disasters having psychological effects that are different from those of rapid, dangerous disasters.
  3. In the Heroic phase, there is a high level of activity with a low level of productivity. During this phase, there is a sense of altruism, and many community members exhibit adrenaline-induced rescue behavior, resulting in a risk assessment that may be impaired.
  4. In the Honeymoon phase, there is a dramatic shift in emotion. Community bonding occurs and optimism exists that everything will return to normal quickly.
  5. In the Disillusionment phase, communities and individuals realize the limits of disaster assistance. As optimism turns to discouragement and stress continues to take a toll, negative reactions, such as physical exhaustion or substance use, may begin to surface. The increasing gap between need and assistance leads to feelings of abandonment.
  6. In the Reconstruction phase, people begin to experience an overall feeling of recovery. Individuals and communities begin to assume responsibility for rebuilding their lives, and people adjust to a new “normal” while continuing to grieve losses.
As the fall begins, we are squarely in phase 5—disillusionment. School communities are feeling depleted and uncertain about the future. Schools are relied upon to be places of support and stability for children and families, even—perhaps, especially—during a pandemic, and the individuals who fuel these schools are feeling burnt out and vulnerable. Teachers are exhausted by the sudden transition to online learning and by the ever-growing needs of the students for whom they care deeply; many are also worried about their own economic prospects and health. Heads and other school leaders have been working around the clock to support teams and make difficult decisions with incomplete information. Parents are anxious about finances, health, and their children’s safety and educational outcomes. We know from the “NAIS Parent COVID-19 Survey” that 33% of responding parents report they or their spouse or partner’s salary has been reduced, and 37% report that their retirement funds or savings have been negatively affected.

Where We Need to Go and How to Get There

In addition to concern about students and their families, the well-being of staff and faculty members and heads—who are under enormous pressure—is of paramount concern.
Research has long shown the high levels of depression and trauma in helping professions like education and health care. In “Understanding the Burnout Experience,” a 2016 article in World Psychiatry, researchers Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter identified that “the therapeutic or instructional services provided by such professionals necessitate the maintenance of interpersonal relationships with recipients, which are characterized by intensive levels of emotional contact. Although such relationships can be rewarding and engaging, they can also be quite strenuous. Within such occupations, the prevailing norms are to be selfless and put the needs of others first; to work long hours and do whatever it takes to help a client, patient, or student; to go the extra mile and to give one’s all.”
In their 2016 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “Updating the Nonprofit Work Ethic,” Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman write, “Those of us who work in the nonprofit sector often distort our view of what ‘good work’ means because we think the nature of our work is about sacrifice. The fact that nonprofits are often financially strained and under constant constraint to do more with less amplifies this phenomenon. As a result, we push through our to-do lists at the expense of taking care of ourselves. Our organizational leaders, boards, and fellow workers reinforce the idea that everything about our work is important—everything is a level 10. And together, we create a culture of overwork and overwhelm.”
I believe a goal for all independent schools should be to ensure that our school communities are designed foundationally around student and adult well-being. An interesting new study, The Wellbeing Project, sheds some light on how we could begin to achieve that more fully. The project founders sought to understand the drivers of anxiety in the social sector and built the project on the premise that a healthy relationship with self is imperative for sustaining relationships with others and that it also affects the way we connect with our work.
The Wellbeing Project identified that changing cultures of overwork often seems impossible, particularly for leaders who say that it is hard for them to model healthy self-care because the success and failure of the organization rests on their shoulders. Also, for people who work in helping occupations, the research found that their identities are very tied to their roles. However, if schools are to create healthier cultures, it starts with self-care. As the study findings suggest, we each must work on our own well-being first if we are to create healthier organizations. This includes being kinder to yourself, rejecting the hero model at work, redefining what success means, and recognizing the need to take care of ourselves before taking care of others. After self-care, schools need to focus on creating cultures of collaboration in which diverse perspectives are sought and welcomed. From the Wellbeing Project’s research, a new definition of well-being emerges, which includes “the experience of wholeness and interconnectedness,” and recognizes “well-being not as a mere point of entry on a checklist but as a lifelong journey of inner work and conscious and intentional choices.”
Let’s begin this new school year by practicing self-care. For school heads, that starts with letting go and truly creating a distributed leadership model, being realistic about what is possible, and taking time for self as a priority. We also need to use our missions as a touchpoint to identify which work must be a level 10 and which can be a lower priority. Let’s make a pledge that independent schools will emerge from this pandemic in a healthier and more just place. Self-sacrifice is not a sustainable business model.


Parental Anxiety

We know that parents are more stressed and anxious than ever. Navigating the new dimensions of that anxiety makes the job of school leaders that much harder. But we know, from research NAIS conducted using the Jobs-to-Be-Done methodology, that parents hire schools to do certain jobs. And by focusing on and addressing the job that parents hired the school to do, school leaders can alleviate parent anxiety. For example, Job 1 parents hire schools to ensure that their children thrive when other school environments have failed them. To ensure these parents remain satisfied, school leaders should:

  • Provide opportunities for individual check-in time for students or parents. Highlight aspects of the school’s education program that are personalized even as educational elements move online.
  • Connect school counselors with students to offer emotional and academic support in dealing with the fallout of COVID-19. This focus is especially important for children of color who may be experiencing higher levels of anxiety.
  • Ensure that the school’s online program is flexible for students of varying proficiencies across subject areas and that this is communicated to families. This may include implementing a pass/fail approach to grading.
  • Ensure that there are opportunities to socialize within and across classes, and that there are procedures in place to make all students feel included in these events. Be sure your school is staying vigilant to prevent cyberbullying and preserve a safe online environment for students.
For a complete look at parent Jobs, visit nais.org/jtbd
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.