Balancing our Work and Life while Staying Well – Five Essential Tools

By Françoise Mathieu

This post was initially published on the Oregon OEA Choice Trust website: http://oeachoice.com/5-essential-tools-for-balancing-your-work-and-life-while-staying-well/

I grew up in a family of educators. My parents moved from Montreal to the high arctic in the early 1960s and worked in a variety of schools in very remote Inuit communities for the following decades. Over the years, my father was a teacher and then became school principal, then superintendent and eventually director general of an entire region. He travelled extensively for work, visiting numerous villages for a third of each year, dealing with labour disputes, financial cutbacks and the complex societal challenges facing First Nations communities. My mother co-developed one of the very first teacher training program for Inuit women in Canada.

Needless to say, my parents were very dedicated and hard-working. Education reform and the challenges of the work was daily conversation in our household. Working as educators in small communities presented many challenges and rewards: our house was often the informal hotel, food bank and shelter, and villagers would frequently knock on our door for advice or support.

Are you living in the community that you serve?

If you live and work in the same community, you may have experienced something similar: you go to the grocery store on a Saturday in your sweatpants, and a parent accosts you for advice on their child’s problematic learning difficulties. You go to a party and are immediately grilled on your thoughts about educational policies or the best ways to beat the SATS.

How do you find balance between work and your private life?

I would say, in hindsight, that my parents were frequently completely exhausted at night, and did not know a thing about work-life balance. Being from the War Generation, born in the 1940s, their cohort had not learned about the importance of balance and self-care. For them, you worked until you fell down, and then you got up again and worked some more. They had very little time for themselves. This was the norm among the educators that I knew.

Burnout Research

So how can we find balance working in the education field? How do we learn to set limits so that we can bring our best selves to work and yet not burn out? How do we juggle the competing demands of our home lives and careers?

Notions of self-care are fairly new to the education field. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1980s that researchers started investigating the concept of work-related burnout among mental health professionals and nurses.  Compassion fatigue, the emotional and physical exhaustion that can lead to a shift in our ability to experience empathy for others is a concept that emerged in the 1990s and lead to the growth of an entirely new field exploring provider wellness.

Here’s what we now know: we cannot expect to work in highly demanding and frequently under-resourced environments without taking some active steps to maintain our emotional and physical health. Some workplaces have implemented some very successful workplace wellness initiatives and we have featured them in our article “Beyond Kale and pedicures” (https://www.tendacademy.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/BEYOND-KALE-AND-PEDICURES-Article.pdf)

The good news is that we now have over 25 years of research that map out what works and steps that we can each take to stay well. I have written extensively on this topic in my book The Compassion Fatigue Workbook and related articles.

Here are my top five favourites:

What works? 5 Key steps

Step one: Take stock

Cheryl Richardson wrote an outstanding book called Take Time for your Life in 1990 which provides a great self-assessment checklist called “What’s draining you?”. Richardson invites readers to identify the main drains on their energy: relationships, environment, body mind and spirit, work and money. Completing this checklist allows you to decide where to begin. Which of these areas is causing you the most stress at the moment? Which area shows the most possibility of improvement?

Step two: Identify your warning signs

How do you know you’re headed for trouble? What are your most recurrent physical warning signs? What about emotional reactions? Have you noticed some predictable behavioural patterns that show up when you’re overloaded? Learning to recognise your top three warning signs can help you catch things early before you become too depleted.

Step three: Pick your battles at work

The field of education is complex, and frequently under-resourced. Some of us deal with these realities more successfully than others. If you work with a colleague or a team that is frequently negative or engage in constant office gossip or naysaying, consider making more strategic alliances in the workplace. Venting once in a while is fine, daily gripe sessions bring nothing constructive to the workplace.

Step four: develop a community of support

Research has shown that social support is one of the best strategies to address compassion fatigue and burnout. Who are your accountability partners? Who do you spend time with at work and at home? Can they be there to help you stay on target with your self-care goals?

Step five: Reassess where you are at regularly

I recently wrote a new year’s resolution blog post on my website: www.tendacademy.ca where I discuss my lack of enthusiasm for new year’s resolutions. Rather than making big commitments once a year, I prefer to have weekly tweaks and adjustments. On Sundays, each week, I take gentle stock: how am I doing? What needs more attention? What needs tweaking?

Conclusion

My parents excelled in their careers, but it took a significant toll on their health and their personal lives. I look back on their work with admiration but also see a cautionary tale of working without balance. We know better now. Where will you start?

A Comprehensive Approach to Workplace Stress & Trauma in Fire-Fighting

An academic article by our very own Pat Fisher.

Do you have any firefighters in your lives that you know could use this information? Please share.

Excerpt: “Firefighters are exposed to a wide range of workplace stresses resulting in a wide range of negative physical, psychological, interpersonal and organizational consequences. This paper presents a comprehensive approach to workplace stress in fire-fighting. The Complex Stress Model encompasses the full set of workplace systemic and traumatic stresses encountered by firefighters. The risk/resilience factors, effects and outcomes of systemic and traumatic stress are reviewed, followed by a discussion of the challenges these pose to fire-fighting organizations. Within this framework, effective workplace wellness and organizational health initiatives need to incorporate three strategic elements: building capacity, increasing resiliency, and supporting positive culture change.”

Read the full article here.

New Course this fall – WTF: Essential Grounding and Debriefing Tools for Front Line Workers

Become more centered among the chaos

In the course of their work, many helping professionals are regularly exposed to difficult and sometimes traumatic material: anyone working in the criminal justice system, victim services, front line workers, those who work with forensic evidence and child exploitation, first responders, mental health crisis teams, homeless shelter staff and many others.

When there is a lot of exposure the risk for secondary trauma and compassion fatigue are high. How do we remain healthy and balanced while doing this challenging work? We need tools in our toolbox, skills that we can use before, during and after the difficult event has taken place. New research on grounding techniques and trauma reduction skills are showing promising results in helping to reduce secondary traumatic stress in trauma-exposed professionals.

This fall, we are delighted to begin bringing to you a brand new workshop designed by our very own Diana Tikasz, MSW, RSW. Diana has worked for many years in high stress, high trauma-exposed work settings and brings to this training her vast experience as a front line worker and supervisor, as well as the newest findings on the neuroscience of trauma exposure management.

WTF isn’t a swear word! It refers to the Window of Tolerance Framework. The WTF is our optimal zone – the place where we do our best work, when we are feeling calm yet energized, healthy and creative. Stressors and triggers can bring us out of that zone into high stress and reactivity, or into numbness and avoidance.

The techniques offered in this workshop will encompass the whole self as we can often retreat and get stuck in our heads. An emphasis will be on learning and incorporating strategies that change the way we work as opposed to using all our personal time to replenish what our work takes out of us.

This session will provide skills to help move yourself out of states of reactivity or avoidance and into the place of possibility to become more centered among the chaos. This is a crucial skill for front-line workers and others working with forensic evidence, investigations, court, witnesses and victims, and those working with individuals who have experienced difficult and traumatic experiences.

Those who would benefit are any folks in a helping profession that feel they are often overly stressed or hijacked by emotion, or those who are no longer enjoying their work and wondering whether they need to make a career change. Helpers who wish to learn specific skills that they can utilize to protect themselves in difficult situations whether it is working with those challenging clients, sitting in a difficult team meeting or interacting with a colleague who pushes your buttons. It is also for those who find that at times their personal lives are creating the WTF moments, which makes it extremely difficult to be present at work.

Diana: “I often say that helping work is even more difficult when the professional is going through their own personal stresses. We will focus on providing a framework and resources to help us navigate the storm. This workshop is especially for those who are feeling completely detached from what they are doing, feeling as though they are just “going through the motions” or counting down the days to retirement.”

 

 

 

 

A short video: The good and bad news about Resilience

 

I am a huge fan of the Headington Institute, which is a US-based charitable organization whose aim is to provide education, consulting and counselling to humanitarian aid workers and organizations around the globe. Their inspiring and moving vision statement is: “One day, all humanitarian workers will have the personal skills, social support, organizational resources, and public interest needed to maintain their wellbeing and thrive in their work.” Who can argue with that beautiful goal? The Headington Institute provides a wealth of free online training materials. Go check it out by clicking here.

Today, I wanted to share a quick 5 minute video by Clinical Director Dr Don Bosch on “The good and bad news about resilience”.

So, go make yourself a nice cup of tea, and come back to enjoy this important reminder of what it is we need to do to stay afloat.

Namaste!