Monday, June 6, 2022

A Bit More on Burnout

I was listening to last week (Wednesdays at 8:45 am), and they recommended Lynn Thomas's post on resilience and burnout summarized from a talk by Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe. I agree with much of what she writes, particularly about the number of teachers hitting a wall (70% of teachers are concerned with their own mental health), that too much changed too fact (creating anomic stress), and that the public's negative perception of teachers doesn't help. 

I looked up the speaker, and a blurb that's following Hanley-Dafoe says our "modern conception of resiliency as 'fighting' or being 'tougher' is misguided."  Absolutely. I like Dr. Alok Kanojia's reminder that the opposite of sensitive isn't strong, but INsensitive. Yup. 

But, I have some stoppers with all the resiliencey-speak and with a primary solution geared towards reducing the workload-to-time ratio. I wrote about my concerns with resilience being a scapegoat last January:

"If we train students on resilience-speak, then it makes everything they experience a 'them' problem. They just don't have enough resilience to weather the storm, and they should be working to improve that. . . . . Make no mistake, 'resilience' is the new and improved version of 'grit.' Paul Gorski once referred to grit and growth mindset rhetoric as a 'long line of ways to avoid confronting inequity--desperate attempt to locate the 'problem' in kids, not injustice.' He says that telling people they just need a different mindset or more grit or resilience to do better in school denies, in the most condescending way, the reality that people who are marginalized are often models of resilience and grit. . . . We could pull our bootstraps up to our necks and still be struggling with it all"

I stand by that here despite Hanley-Dafoe's insistence that it's not about being strong because she still focuses primarily on changing our own perceptions in order to cope with a shitty situation. It's a stoic solution that has merit when there are no other options, but it's vital that we also fight to change the situation rather than just the people adversely affected by it. It also sets up the potential for an unspoken corollary that anyone who isn't successful deserves what they have because they didn't work hard enough at coping with adversity. Yikes. 

We can see the problem with calling for resilience with healthcare workers. Not only are they working ridiculous hours, many online say the worst of it is the disconnect with trying to save the lives of Covid patients all day and night, then be unable to find a grocery store where everyone wears a mask. It shouldn't be more dangerous to get food on the way home from working with infected patients because of the lack of ventilation and masks in every store. It makes an enormous difference to work to exhaustion when you see everyone pitching in compared to virtually nobody. One makes you part of a team; the other makes you a chump. Advocating that they take a better perspective on the situation is almost cruel.

A few months earlier I wrote about burnout and quoted Kanojia again, the first half of which is similar to  Hanley-Dafoe's stance but he adds an important element: burnout tends to happen when,

"people who want to do a good job are placed in situations in which doing a good job is very, very difficult. . . . As long as this is going on, we can have as many meditation apps as we want. . . . Until employers start to accept responsibility . . . this problem is going to continue to get worse." 

Burnout isn't typically just because we have too much work to do, but because people who are trying to do their best work keep running into barriers in their way. We can cope with difficult work and lots of it, but not with busy-work, work that doesn't make sense to us, or work that we're not suited for. Thomas included a chart running from 'boredom' to 'burnout' with 'challenging' in the middle. I agree that not enough of a challenge can lead to boredom, but I disagree that it's too much challenge that leads to burnout. It's a very specific and insidious type of work atmosphere that does us in. I'm sure we can all think of times we worked all night or several 16-hour days in a row in a way that felt fulfilling and exhilarating and did not lead to burnout! 

Dr. Kanojia looks at a pivotal study by Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter, but he takes it further to look at, not just the problems with the work, but the problems within the individual somewhat predisposed to burnout. Some people are immune to it and others more affected, which means our internal voice and attitude does add to the fray. I think this acknowledgement of what both sides bring to the table is key to finding solutions that are able to be individually tailored. 

First, to paraphrase Kanojia's video, burnout and depression can look very similar, so one way to separate the two is by considering one big marker of depression: anhedonia - an inability to experience pleasure. If you're struggling to get to work and dragging yourself through the day with no compassion left for anyone and get no enjoyment from the tasks, but are able to look forward to and get joy from a bike ride on the weekend, then that's more likely burnout than depression. 

Symptoms of burnout typically include a general lack of energy or bandwidth despite the ability to keep doing the work; a lack of empathy or caring that manifests as cynicism or hopeless fatalism expecting things to go poorly; a lack of enjoyment or fulfillment with any part of the work, and a short fuse where any little thing could be the last straw. Many teachers hate marking but love having discussions with the kids. For me, I'd gladly pay someone to chase after missing work, something admin and guidance used to do as part of their job. But when you start dreading seeing the kids, then it's time to get help! I think many of us have seen all of these signs in some teachers who kept it up working for the summers, or who learned to just care less about the job and kids instead of finding more authentic and mutually beneficial solutions. I chose to walk away from it all a few months shy of my actual retirement date. 

Kanojia looks at the discrepancy between workplace and worker in each of Maslach & Leiter's six categories. Hanley-Dafoe's list of factors is pretty comparable: belonging (community), perspective (values), acceptance (control), hope and humour (attitude, which is scattered throughout). But, again, she pins it on the worker to sort themselves out in order to be more successful at work, to find ways to cope with a bad situation through periods of recovery, instead of looking at the interaction of the factors and aiming for system changes and/or advising heading for the closest exit if possible. Kanojia seems to take it just one more step further in breadth and depth. (And this is all only a concern for people with enough privilege to even consider if their workplace is causing them mental health trauma. We don't see a lot of migrant workers claiming burnout! And many in healthcare are staying on out of social necessity. Apologies for this narrow focus, and mental health shouldn't just be for the privileged!)

Here are the six that Kanojia furthers, with the ideal version followed by the problems brought from the workplace and from the worker. The work is definitely part of the problem (one of six) but not the whole problem, and the solution isn't time to rest but the will to do significant internal work. I outline them here with respect to teaching, followed by my own burnout issues:

  1. workload: We need work that matches our capacity with opportunities to grow. --> Some jobs pile on too much work, and teaching can definitely be never-ending if we let it, but some people take on way too much with a doormat acceptance of all requests and/or an internal perfectionism that provokes an inordinate amount of work. We have to develop firm boundaries in an environment that honours them, and we have to craft 'good enough' lessons instead of the best lessons ever. The same happens with marking with such perfection that it takes days instead of hours. Clear and timely feedback is important, but nobody's going to read a paragraph of responses. And that brilliant lesson you stayed up all night crafting might be largely ignored in favour of the latest TikTok. People want to work and make an impact at work and will work hard to get that sense of fulfillment, but it has to be a proportionate amount of the right kind of work. 
  2. control: We need autonomy with access to necessary resources and a say in decisions that impact us. --> Being micromanaged is brutal particularly when the rules don't make sense and directly affect us. But some people are more affected by this if they hope to follow every rule to perfection, and that can be even worse for them if they start to police their colleagues too, with no slight too small to address. We have to look for that gap between how much control we want and how much we can have, and how much of it is because we micromanaged and how much because we're control freaks, expecting to be able to make all decisions affecting them in a way that might not consider the needs of the workplace as a whole. We can sometimes miss the forest for the trees. 
  3. reward: We need rewards that match our effort and time enough that it feels like an adequate payoff. --> We don't necessarily need daily thanks for work that's expected of us, but we do need to be feel that we're seen as competent by our admin, colleagues, and students. Burnout is often due to a huge gap between effort and reward. Some companies undervalue a personalize thank-you for work completed, not realizing that a generic group 'thank-you' doesn't cut it. To get a sense of efficacy at work, we need to feel seen, and a paycheque doesn't do that. Finland is often lauded as a model of successful schools, and teachers are paid significantly less but are positively affected by the esteem they carry in the community. The more teachers deal with disgruntled parents or complaining students who all expect 95% in each course, the more admin and colleagues (and the public if that isn't a pipedream) need to notice the efforts we make. But we have to temper how much we expect that by relishing our own accomplishments as well. 
  4. community: We need supportive and trustworthy colleagues, clients, and administrators. --> We need like-minded support systems at work. But we also can't expect them to fix our problems or always agree with us. Some companies promote employees as family in a manipulation tactic to get them to do more work after hours, which leaves us feeling used instead of connected. And sometimes it's a luck of the draw to end up in a department with people we enjoy or despise. I know several teachers who have changed schools because of colleagues. It can be hard to get along with people we've been forced with beyond our control, but isolation leads to burnout. Some people feel isolated, but then avoid work events, which Kanojia puts on them as having created their own problem. But I look to Hannah Arendt on this, who says,
    "loneliness shows itself most sharply in company with others . . . the lonely man finds himself surrounded by others with whom he cannot establish contact or to whose hostility he is exposed. . . . Solitude can become loneliness; this happens when all by myself I am deserted by my own self. . . . there is always the chance that a lonely man finds himself and starts the thinking dialogue of solitude."

    It's not necessarily a lack of desire for people that's a problem, but an unfortunate dearth of people who think in a similar manner. Sometimes avoiding isolation means avoiding people.

  5. fairness: We need to be acknowledged for contributions and able to access rewards as well as anyone else. --> Workplaces should treat people fairly, but we do have a natural tendency to overestimate our own contributions and underestimate others' contributions. If something feels unfair it can create burnout even if it really isn't unfair. Kanojia believes this is the biggest factor in burnout, bigger than workload: feeling taken for granted while people who play politics get all the accolades. We care most about our compensation relative to others, which means we sometimes look for a reward that isn't appropriate to the work we've done since we seemed to be wired to really notice when we do something extra, but we're often completely unaware how much extra others have done in comparison. That's easy to see with kids complaining about how much housework they have to do because they don't notice everything their siblings have done. BUT, sometimes rewards really are unfairly distributed. How fair the rewards are is something that needs to be figured out as objectively as possible. This ties in with boundaries again as we have to make sure we don't take on more than is reasonable - unless we want to, and then be honest with ourselves about that. 
  6. values: We need to have similar core values to coworkers and the company in general. --> A good school culture will have a similar pedagogy and want to ensure the best for kids. Teachers notice immediately when a policy favours admin or the board office or the ministry at the expense of learning. A discrepancy in values can create huge burnout issues. Kanojia's example features doctors who care about patients within a hospital that cares about billing. Teachers care about students, but some admin care about getting to the board office and create rules that don't support teachers work with their kids. They might promote random innovations to set themselves apart that just end up adding more on the plate of teachers, or they placate parents in such a way as it harms learning and forces teachers to re-mark or create an entirely new assignment for a negligent student, inadvertently rewarding poor work habits.

The trick is that we have to deal with ALL SIX at once! Burnout isn't binary, solved by adjusting the level of workload, but a condition that is propagated, like thirst, from these component being in short supply. We need to recognize all contributors and be specific about the problem experienced by each individual. It can't be fixed with a medical intervention (like Cipralex, which my doctor claims to prescribe to teachers every day!), or by calling in a speaker that just focuses on treating one of the issues or one of the sides to a few issues. It's notoriously hard to treat, and lip service does us no favours. 

I was solid for decades, and ready to go at least another 3 years, maybe 5, but then...

workload - When Covid first started and we all had to shift to online over March break, I thought, "Challenge accepted!" I made docs and linked a discussion forum (meets weren't yet allowed) and made videos for each lesson right to the end of the year, completely ready to be there for the kids within a week. I love a good challenge! I'm a wiz at time management and organization, so workload was never an issue. But then we tried quadmesters the following September, and by chance I ended up with my two prep periods bookending the year, leaving me to teach 5 4U classes from October to May without built-in time to prep or mark. I worked almost every waking moment to keep up, making sure to give feedback from the day's work before the next morning, which typically meant I was up between 4 and 5am accommodating students who wanted their work due after 10pm, and my prep time in June was useless. I had nothing to work on, but I wasn't so much as allowed to go for a bike ride. I just sat waiting for the day to end. I'm happy to work hard, but then, for the love of god, let us rest during our prep when our work is done!

control - I once followed the mantra of smile and nod at the crazy rules, then close your door and do your own thing. I think many teachers relish the autonomy this job has to offer. But with Covid, I was the control-freak addressing Doug Ford's stickers filling our suddenly uni-directional stairs that ensured twice as many people crowding stairwells as otherwise since we all had to go in at the same time and then leave at the same time but access only half the stairwells each time. I pointed out the mistaken logic of the decision, but it fell on deaf ears. Then walking breaks had the school waking in both directions along a 3' wide path, and, after being run over by kids taking a short corner towards me, I suggested that movement should be in one direction, and got admonished for getting too big for my britches thinking I could actually make decisions affecting my life. With Covid, the rules seeped into my classroom and became life threatening as we were barred from enforcing masks in class. Even moving an immunocompromised kid's seat further away from someone choosing not to wear a mask was seen as discrimination. The worst was not being allowed to tell a compromised student that the person beside them had Covid and were likely still contagious. I'm not sure what drove me to follow the rules that could bring harm to kids for fear of losing my job, especially since it cost me my job anyway, on top of my mental health that jumped ship with my sense of integrity

reward - The big thing for me, though, was the number of irate parents out of control. It's one thing to be rarely thanked or acknowledged; it's quite another to end the day being berated. Parents angry at the lockdown or angry at their kids home half the time or angry that there are no sports, I can deal with. I completely understand how frustrating this all is, and I'm happy to commiserate. But some took it to the next level with threats and language I've never experienced in any facet of my life. And I used to bartend! I keep old thank-you's from students and parents to lift me back up if I'm ever bombarded by haters, but the balance tipped this year to be far more complaints than I could manage with mementoes. That could be on me. I feel like I'm doing the same quality of work as always, but maybe my exhaustion with it all is seeping through. I tried to hide my disdain for the system that has so suddenly beaten me down, but kids can spot it a mile away. While I'm always up for a rousing argument about issues and ideas, I'm also extremely sensitive to being yelled at; it leaves me literally shaking for days. It's the difference between "I disagree with x" and "HOW DARE YOU DO X" with threats of elusive lawsuits or board action mainly because of a lower than desired project assessment. Being told not to let it bother me is fruitless advice. The other option that we seem to be adopting is 90s for the lot of them!! That's a solution I avoided from a sense of fairness and a belief that kids need to know how close they are to a standard in order to improve, but, in hindsight, I'm not sure it was worth the cost.

community - When I started teaching, I taught a dog's breakfast of courses so didn't fit with any one department. There was a desk for me in a room of extra people -- we called ourselves the Island of Misfits, and made a cosy home for ourselves, ignoring the "no couch in the workplace" rule. I understand the efficiency of assigning workspace by department so we can discuss our courses while we eat, but it can sometimes override connectedness. It's like assigning groupwork but at lunch. With Covid, it's hard when social events are maskless, and masks often come off when people walk into department offices, which sent me onto the steps of a fire exit over the lunch break to avoid a building unmasked at once (since I don't bring a car to work). Pictures of recent student events show them all squished together indoors, no mask in sight. I'm an absolute alien in this environment. I was asked today if I'm going to my retirement send-off, indoors, with food. That's a big Nope! But many would see that as my issue rather than a system issue. I still don't buy it! Our wastewater numbers show seven times the level of Covid in the area as last year at this time. It ain't over, folks! 

fairness -- When I started teaching online, my room was relegated to an isolation room for sick kids, which I think was never used, yet had to sit empty just in case. Ever the survivalist, I managed to build a desk with scrap wood propped precariously on a radiator in a corner of, basically, a storage closet that people wandered in and out of, interrupting my lessons to get that one pen they needed right that minute (scroll down here for pics). I might have been fine with that, making do and taking one for the team, BUT, an LTO was offered an empty portable for herself for the term. I felt like having thirty years seniority should count for something, yet I was relegated to the worst place possible. I felt absolutely shit on and dismissed, tossed aside in a corner to teach with toilets flushing on the other side of the wall. 

values - Our pedagogy has shifted to such levels of absurd boundary-less trauma-informed compassion that it feels as if we're required to have no limits on student behaviour. I've been told I have to let them eat during class despite being unable to work with a desk full of food, let them play games while I talk because it really helps them cope, accept work months late and after it was taken up to appease parents, and may not insist on assigned seating if they'd be more comfortable moving. I've had to excuse a student for a unit of class without penalty who wasn't comfortable hearing my negative comments about Hitler

Once I started feeling testy with the kids, and then nervous to pick up the phone or even answer a knock on the door, I knew it was time to go. I used to be 'up' for shenanigans, then I stared hearing myself get exasperated!! I'm just very lucky to have been close enough to retirement that it's survivable to leave.

I hope the system changes to end the rules that lean towards protecting the board from litigation and creating an atmosphere of normalcy over the healthy future of the kids, putting the onus on individual choice and not allowing Corsi-Rosenthal boxes that aren't board purchased or open windows because temporary comfort trumps longterm safety. And I really hope schools begin to recognize the monster they create when limits on behaviours aren't permitted. It's not compassionate to let kids operate without any boundaries imposed on them in a quest to please a few parents who may be misguided in their attempts to help their kids manage by paving the way for them, running over teachers in the process. And we really need a better Minister of Health and of Education to guide us through this competently, but that's another four years away. It would be ideal to unmesh marks from economic success, which, I believe, is what provokes parents to a survival-fueled rage in an attempt to boost already artificially inflated marks even higher. But giving up the fight to change the system by recognizing what I can't control just feels like giving up. I'm not there yet.


Anonymous said...

Marie, How can you absorb so much info then post a very long informative piece on your blog, yet go to work to teach a gaggle of high school students after doing class prep?
You have an admirable ability for work that you love and believe in. DJF

Marie Snyder said...

Thanks! It helps that I'm off on medical leave until retirement officially kicks in. Although I'm still prepping and marking from home since my LTO doesn't have a background in my subject area. That's a boundary issue on my part!!