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5 Ways to Reduce Stress and Feel Like Yourself Again

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Feeling Crispy...It Might Be Burnout! 

In March 2020, most K-12 schools in the U.S. closed their doors one day and started remote instruction for their students the following day! An impossible task given that the majority of teachers had never taught remotely before. Teachers rallied and embraced the task of learning new technology while adapting their lesson plans to this new reality. For example, teaching to rows of blacked-out squares or in some cases, to the ceilings of their students’ homes. I’m sure a few teachers led entire lessons muted without realizing that their students could not hear a thing. Looking back, there were definitely some funny moments but it was also extremely stressful for everyone involved. Not only were you learning to teach in a completely new way, you were also figuring out how to adjust to a new way of living -- in a pandemic, while also worrying about your personal safety. Nevertheless, teachers across the country kicked into high gear and did what was required. After all, this was only going to be a few weeks and then school would go back to “normal.”   

Little did we know that one year later the “normal” would be more elusive than we could have ever imagined. During the 2020-21 school year, schools have had to navigate closing and opening/re-opening multiple times while also navigating a student body through different modes of instruction (i.e., remote, in-person and hybrid). In addition to the dramatic change in the work context, data from the Center for State and Local Government Excellence (SLGE; 2021) found that 60% of teachers surveyed were also parenting school-aged children. For those teacher-parents, that meant supporting their children’s remote/hybrid learning in the midst of their own teaching. Without a doubt, any one of these situations would be challenging, but taken together and within the pandemic crisis, teachers were stretched and stressed.   

Feeling stressed? You are not alone! Feeling Burnout or compassion fatigue? Other teachers do too!  

When we are experiencing a crisis (i.e., a significant, sometimes life-threatening event that requires us to respond with resources that we may not have easy access to), our brain sends signals to the rest of our body to prepare for survival mode. As a result, our bodies release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to help us get ready for a potentially dangerous situation. Once the crisis is over, the hormones dissipate from the body and we return to a baseline level of functioning. However, with an ongoing pandemic, many people have experienced prolonged or chronic stress -- meaning the body has remained in that heightened survival mode for months. In fact, the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America: January 2021 Stress Snapshot highlighted that stress levels had reached an unprecedented level with 84% of people reporting emotions related to stress, with anxiety (47%) being the highest (APA, 2021). A survey conducted with K-12 employees also found that 47% of those who participated in the poll reported anxiety due to the pandemic (SLGE, 2021). Similarly, 63% of K-12 employees surveyed by SLGE (2021) reported feeling stressed due to the pandemic. In my own consulting practice where I lead workshops on employee wellness in different sectors including public and independent schools, the top three words that people use to describe their emotions are “overwhelmed, anxious, and stressed.” If you are feeling stressed, you are not alone. Many people, including teachers, are feeling stressed too! 

Navigating the dual crises of COVID-19 and racial violence have contributed to elevated and ongoing levels of stress for teachers. In addition, teachers have faced monumental feats: adjusting to teaching remotely, learning new software and tech, adapting curriculum to an online classroom, and creating engaging lessons while maintaining the necessary level of rigor.  Teachers also found themselves providing emotional support to students with family members who were ill or those who lost parents or caregivers due to COVID-19. While schools have given attention to the mental health needs of students, many teachers have felt that their school and district leaders are out of touch with the emotional challenges of educators teaching in remote and hybrid modes. Additionally, from March 2020 to October 2020, K-12 employees' satisfaction with their employers dropped from 69% to 44%.   

What is burnout and compassion fatigue? 

Burnout is a reaction to extreme or chronic stress that, according to Dr. Christina Maslach, is characterized by a sense of  “overwhelming exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment” (Clay, 2018). People who experience burnout may feel physically and mentally drained, disengaged from work, family, and other responsibilities, and exhibit low productivity. People who hold responsibilities that require them to care for others may experience burnout in the form of compassion fatigue. Teachers, due to their responsibilities of caring for students, may also experience compassion fatigue. In fact, 54% of K-12 employees reported elevated levels of burnout/fatigue due to the pandemic (SLGE, 2021). The SLGE survey found that 38% of K-12 employees say that working during the pandemic has made them consider changing jobs, compared to 25% of other government employees. 

3 Common signs that you may be experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue: 

  1. Exhaustion: Feeling mentally and physically drained or fatigued is characteristic of burnout. You may notice yourself using the words “tired” or “overwhelmed” when people ask how you are doing. For teachers, managing the demands of the pandemic impacted their ability to tolerate stress and to function within their window of tolerance.   
  2. Disengagement: People experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue often report feeling numb, apathetic and withdrawn from their responsibilities. They may also hold negative emotions about their workplace, co-workers, or managers. At the extreme, the detachment from work can lead people to search for new jobs or careers. In addition, burned out educators are at-risk for making decisions that could harm students and/or co-workers. For example, school counselors who underestimate a student’s suicide risk, a teacher who makes an inappropriate statement to students, or administrators whose poor judgment impacts the school community are examples of ways that the disengagement from burnout can cause serious harm. 
  3. Decreased Productivity: One key factor connected to burnout is the decrease in productivity and work performance. People experiencing burnout are often slowed down and it may take them longer to complete tasks. Ironically, burnout sufferers will often spend more hours at work or more time on tasks in order to meet their responsibilities. While they may be working more hours, the quality of their work is also likely to suffer and they are more prone to making errors. The SLGE survey shows that 41% of K-12 employees reported that they are working more hours (either officially or unofficially) in October 2020. However, this extra time usually does not pay off with better quality work or improved productivity.   

Determining if it is burnout or depression 

Assessing whether your symptoms are due to burnout or depression is critical as they require different interventions.  Depression and burnout can look identical as they share many symptoms. For example, people with depression and burnout feel fatigue, have trouble concentrating, and will notice changes in their mood, behavior, and sleep. However, with burnout, these symptoms will go away easily when people take a break or vacation or when they are not at work. However, symptoms of depression will not go away just by taking a break. Additionally, people who experience burnout at work, will often feel happy in other aspects of their life. As a teacher, if you notice your negative emotions only center around your teaching or work responsibilities, this may be an indication that you are experiencing burnout. If your symptoms raise concerns about depression, it is important that you meet with your doctor or a mental health professional to assess your symptoms. 

5 Strategies to recover from burnout and feel like yourself again:   

  1. Assess Your Stress: Before you can do anything to address your stress, you must first be able to assess your stress. Examining whether your symptoms are typical or atypical responses to stress will help you determine how to intervene. You can use screening tools for anxiety, depression, and parenting stress found on the Mental Health America website. You can also do a daily self-check to monitor your stress level. For example, using a scale from 1 (low) to 10 (high) to rate your level of stress is a helpful strategy for monitoring your stress overtime. You can use a daily mood tracker to monitor your feelings over the course of a week or a month. Bringing this information to a therapist can help in determining whether you are experiencing burnout or a mental health condition. Using mental health apps such as MyLife, Woebot, and Wysa provide easily accessible strategies that you can use to reduce your stress. 
  2. Incorporate mindfulness strategies into your daily routine: Mindfulness strategies are excellent for reducing stress. Being present-focused, practicing self-compassion, and using breathing are essential components of mindfulness. Practicing gratitude is a great way to shift your negative thoughts and to help you to re-focus on the positive aspects of your life. Using mindfulness apps such as Liberate and Shine, are great ways to start and continue a mindfulness practice. 
  3. Take a break: Even though taking a break such as using paid time off or using a sick day may not seem logical to the burned out brain, stepping back can actually quickly decrease burnout symptoms. Using this time to fully unplug and engage in activities that bring you joy or simply resting and reading a great book can help you to re-prioritize your self-care plan and to reset your work routine.   
  4. Engage in body work: When we are experiencing emotional stress, it will show up in our bodies first. Engaging in practices that help to release tension and stress from our bodies are healthy ways of addressing burnout. For example, walking (e.g., mindful walks), stretching, yoga, chair yoga and exercise are great ways to engage the body and to reduce stress. Find something that you enjoy and do it regularly. Consistency is key!  
  5. Meet with a therapist: Engaging in therapy is a healthy way to address your symptoms of burnout. Having someone to talk to about your stress and finding tools to relieve your symptoms can be helpful for your job, career, and family life. First, your therapist will want to identify whether your symptoms are consistent with burnout or are related to a mental health condition. A therapist can work with you to assess your stress and to teach you strategies to relieve your symptoms of burnout. Using your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is also a great way to obtain referrals or searching online for specialized therapists directories such as InnoPsych can make the search process easier and faster. 

Teaching during a pandemic has undoubtedly been stressful, and it has left many teachers feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious. For many teachers, these feelings have led to burnout and compassion fatigue, and for others the significant demands of this new reality have caused depression. If you are experiencing burnout, adjust your routine and make a self-care plan that allows for more downtime. You can explore the numerous mental health apps to find one that works for you. On the other hand, if your symptoms are more consistent with depression, do not hesitate, schedule an appointment with your primary care physician and contact your EAP for help in finding a therapist. Remember, your students benefit the most when you are performing at your best. So, take care of you! 


American Psychological Association. (2021). Stress in America: January 2021 Stress Snapshot. 

Center for Local State and Government Excellence. (2021). K-12 Employee Job Satisfaction Plummets as Stress and Worries Increase Regarding COVID-19 Safety and Personal Finances. 

Clay, R. A. (2018). Are you burned out? Here are signs and what to do about them.

Dr. Charmain Jackman

Dr. Charmain Jackman Harvard-trained licensed Psychologist

Dr. Jackman is a Harvard-trained licensed Psychologist with over 23 years of experience in the mental health field. She is a national spokesperson on BIPOC mental health and advocates for emotional wellness for all. Dr. Jackman has worked in schools for over 17 years and is Dean of Health & Wellness at Boston Arts Academy. Dr. Jackman consults to schools and organizations on topics including employee wellness, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and mental health. She is the founder and CEO of InnoPsych, Inc. an organization on a mission to disrupt racial inequities in mental health. Learn more at: Connect on LinkedIn: Instagram at: @InnoPsych and Facebook: @InnoPsychMA.

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